I just finished reading Moby Dick, and have to make some sense of my thoughts. So here goes.
Although Ahab is not really the focus of the novel, with many pages passing without any sign of him, the ending of the book features him front and center. The beginning of the book is very much a leading up to him, but after he is introduced he goes back down into his cabin and is a seldom sight for many pages. One exception, his big scene towards the early middle of the novel involves him rallying the crew to the cause of pursuing Moby Dick, and hammering a valuable coin to a mast, to be earned by anyone who first catches sight of Moby Dick. Otherwise he has only occasionally interesting and brief moments lightly scattered across the book.
The trunk of the book is about the Sperm Whale and Sperm Whaling. Why is this? Is it to make the reader feel like they are part of the experience — the long days at sea, discussing all the minutiae of the business, with the captain only a distant background thought? The discussion of whales and whaling is very heady and detailed, while Ahab is seemingly irrational and driven by passion. Blind passion. Ahab knows a great deal of what Ishmael (the narrator — you may be familiar with the first line: “Call me Ishmael.”) knows, and a great deal more. He has the mental side down, but in the end, all that information is mustered to serve not rational decision making, but his passion. But what is his passion? A one word answer of “revenge” for Moby Dick taking his leg simply won’t do.
Many times Ishmael describes Ahab as “monomaniacal.” Mania has to do with enthusiasm, pleasure, excitement, and mono of course is just a word indicating one. So, one overwhelming focus of excitement. Ahab is also described several times as unusually, even frightfully, hot. Like hot-blooded, feverish. How does one become so monomaniacal, and how does one’s focus of monomania become the ostensible revenge killing of a whale?
I would argue, tentatively, that it is his close encounter with death created by the whale that fills him with such a profound experience that he cannot break free from, at a minimum, experiencing it again. What makes the experience so profound? The whale’s unique role in this is crucial — to experience any close encounter with death couldn’t possibly have the same effect. All people face death — there is only one Ahab. The unique things about the whale must be what create the unique death experience.
Ah! I have a new theory already. It is perhaps something of a Christ and Creation story. The whale–and whales generally–is repeatedly called “leviathan,” the great sea beast cited in Job. Here:
Job 41 New International Version (NIV)
41 [a]“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
3 Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words?
4 Will it make an agreement with you
for you to take it as your slave for life?
5 Can you make a pet of it like a bird
or put it on a leash for the young women in your house?
6 Will traders barter for it?
Will they divide it up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill its hide with harpoons
or its head with fishing spears?
8 If you lay a hand on it,
you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
9 Any hope of subduing it is false;
the mere sight of it is overpowering.
10 No one is fierce enough to rouse it.
Who then is able to stand against me?
11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay?
Everything under heaven belongs to me.
The leviathan in Job here is used as an example to overawe the mind in terms of imagining how powerful God is. The leviathan is awesome, God is the creator of it and thus even more awesome. A bit more:
33 Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”
So Moby Dick is a king, being the big leviathan, the king of kings, so to speak, “over all that are proud.” To repeat, not over all, but over all that are proud. Ahab’s namesake, meanwhile, is a wicked king of Israel. We have here a confrontation between kings. Jesus Christ can figure into this, being labelled “king of the Jews” at his crucifixion, a label that he does not deny. Jesus, though, is hardly the king of the proud, and cannot be confused with the leviathan. If anything, he is most immediately the king of the oppressed Jews, and additionally, through and maybe beyond Judaism, the Gentiles. So, if it is between Moby Dick and Ahab, Ahab is the Christ-figure. Indeed, Ahab embraces “Pip” as a sort of confidant and personal ward, the young traumatized black boy on the ship, who himself had faced near death by drowning and was unable to mentally recuperate from the experience. Pip comes to love Ahab, and Ahab loves Pip. Ahab is the king of Pip, i.e. of the meek. Why does the king of the meek have to, and feel impassioned and driven, to die in a battle against the king of the proud?
Ahab’s original encounter with Moby Dick, king of the proud, in which he loses his leg is not described as intended and sought out — it just happened in the course of whaling. Ahab is driven mad by the encounter — he is driven by revenge to hunt Moby Dick thereafter, even if this aching passion will become more complicated over time. Throughout the vengeful hunt, Ahab seems certain both that he will die in the confrontation with Moby Dick, and that Moby Dick will be killed. The reader might reasonably expect, as I did, that perhaps both will somehow die from the wounds they are able to bring about for each other. Instead, Moby Dick seems to win. Ahab is killed, dragged into the sea by a rope around his neck attached to the whale. Moby Dick’s fate is not elaborated on, but he hasn’t died when the book ends. The king of the proud is left on his throne. So what has changed that would validate Ahab’s passion and sacrifice? What is the value of being king of the meek, defeated by the proud? Unlike Christ, there is no account of Ahab’s resurrection. Ahab in a strange sort of way doesn’t seem to need one. The work seems completed with the completion of his passion, even considering the failure of his stated objective. Perhaps a miraculous resurrection would only detract from his passion, and perhaps the blind passion is more the point.
Important to remember as we search for meaning in this ending is that Ahab and all of the other characters, except perhaps Starbuck, the first mate consistently counseling Ahab to give up his quest, view the meaning of life as a mystery. Starbuck views regular life, family life, the peace of home, as preferable to the doomed quest for Moby Dick. Ahab and everyone else is either supportive or deferential to the quest. Why? Well, on the other hand, why not? Ahab states that he is fated into this quest, and as such cannot be deviated from it. Yet, he does not know the quest’s meaning. Why choose war over peace? Why be strong instead of weak? Why lead 30 men to their deaths in the name of a personal passion, when you don’t know the ultimate meaning of it all?
Is the passion to be god-like? Christ is god-like in his self-conception (indeed, he is God in his self-conception) and aspirations. Leviathan — Moby Dick — being a brute, is not. Starbuck points out in the final pages that Moby Dick does not pursue Ahab, but Ahab pursues Moby Dick. Moby Dick lacks aspiration. The proud already believe they are sufficiently superior, but the meek require others and they require some sort of advancement out of their lowly state. Only the self-conceived meek are in a position to desire to be god-like. But what awakens this desire, and turns it into a monomaniacal passion?
Maybe Ahab’s birth name has something to do with what he grew into as an adult. He was named after a king and perhaps came to think of himself as a king, as he rose to become a ship captain. What do kings do? Better: what should they do? They should rule justly and they fight in the name of all that is noble and true. Kings do not yield, lest they cease to be kings. They protect their kingdom. Indeed, they identify with their kingdom, as a ship captain identifies with his ship. If the kingdom goes down, so does the king. If the ship goes down, so does the captain. Maybe Moby Dick is this threat to the kingdom of Nantucket (where most of the American whaling ships are from in the book), a sort of bogey-man that must be vanquished lest fear take hold within the kingdom. Maybe whalers lose their nobility, or at least self-confidence, to the extent that they concede inferiority to their prey, i.e. to any whale. Self-confidence being especially important in a business with a high mortality rate.
Yes, maybe it must be about nobility lost and the prospect of it being regained. Something analogous to paradise lost in Genesis, and regained in the Gospels? Lost by the cunning of the serpent and the weakness of the will, faith, and obedience, regained by the sacrificial piety (sacrificing self and enlisting disciples to sacrifice themselves) of a god-man who would oppose the strongest powers of the earth. But how does Ahab’s passion and death restore paradise? Does it restore nobility? Moby Dick still roams the seas, but now a man has confronted the beast — something significant changed because of it? Ishmael (the narrator, and sole survivor) is able to live and tell the tale, with Ahab perhaps as a spiritual father figure, Ishmael providing Ahab’s spiritual descendants with the inspiring tale of confronting Moby Dick? Old Ahab, it should be noted, has a wife and child at home in Nantucket, according to the narrative, perhaps conjuring the image of Abraham, with his young would-be Isaac at home. Isaac, it appears, is insufficient to the story of this Abraham/Ahab.
If the passion is about descendants and reproduction, that would match up well with the “sperm” that is being pursued in the business of sperm whale fishing (Moby Dick is a sperm whale). Perhaps the symbols of sex and reproduction are clues to what is really driving Ahab, which clearly is not sex for pleasure purposes, and thus not sperm for its own sake (so to speak), but sperm pursued for its power of god-like creation, both material and spiritual. Market-valuable whale sperm was in Ahab’s earlier fishing career his main pursuit, but after becoming himself a father it would seem, that Ahab discovered a desire within himself that exceeded the bounds of biological reproduction, exceeded the bounds of fortune, even exceeded the bounds of personal survival — that of immortal legacy (for men and perhaps for gods), achievable by fulfilling a fateful, epic encounter with the greatest force of the greatest species on the earth.
Does this make sense? If the book is all about Ahab’s immortality, then why title it after the whale? Perhaps it is about immortality seeking generally, with Moby Dick representing that which perhaps must be pursued to achieve immortality. No, not this specific whale himself, but the chase and ultimately fateful confrontation, without knowing what will follow, between the fully ripe human being and that which challenges the extent of that fully ripe human being’s powers. Ahab’s sacrifice says to us, my powers, even my most matured powers, may have insuperable limits in terms of their practical effect, but my will to exercise them is not limited by any subject of their aim, however evidently daunting. My power extends as far as my will, and my will is endless, a testimony to the virtue of my kind in seeking the favor of the divine. I thus give up my life in contest with this beast to redeem and perhaps restore the royal prerogative of the human race. Indeed, Moby Dick does not pursue Ahab, because Moby Dick is too proud to seek redemption.