In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, readings of Ahab predominantly focus on his exceptionalism, while his crew remains average and quotidian under his shadow. Critics often read Ahab and the crew, though living on the same ship, as diametrically opposed. In some ways, the ‘crew to Ahab’ comparison functions within binary terms, whether Good/Bad, Religious/Ungodly, Strong/Weak, Intelligent/Simple-Minded, or Active/Passive. These readings, however, fail to recognize Ahab’s own place within the collective. Ahab views himself as superior, outside, and in control of his crew, but he does not understand they share a mutual ideology and fate. Ahab’s dismissal of interdependence, in lieu of a romanticized independence, becomes the heart of both his character and his downfall. Based on Melville’s consistent image of rope tying the entire crew together (Ahab included), it becomes difficult to see Ahab as an inherently superior being, capable of subjecting his crew entirely to his will. In a vain search for independence and isolation, he forsakes his crew, assuming that to be independent and separate is to be superior (though he is not), and to be dependent on his crew is to be inferior. By not recognizing his comradery and equality with his crew, Ahab’s attempt to extricate himself from ‘the average” men around him, drags those around him to their deaths.
As critics read Ahab one way, they usually suggest explicitly, or at least imply, that the crew represents the opposite. Maurice Friedman, for example, suggests that Ahab’s “grandeur and nobility,” make him a representation of defiance “to the order of things” (Friedman 81). Ahab’s titanic character makes him comparable to a Modern Prometheus. His crew then become “only a part of his consciousness and purpose,” miniscule and always adhering to his authority (Friedman 96).
In his book, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, F.O. Matthiessen suggests that Ahab, whose “superiorities of mind and will, of courage and conviction” that leave “ordinary men…no match for him,” bastardizes the Emersonian view of individualism and bends the crew to his will (Matthiessen 454). Ahab follows Emerson’s tenants on non-conformity and self-conviction, fighting against a trend of the common man falling to the whims of “a mob,” rather than pursuing his own motivations (Emerson 130). Ahab’s self-conviction causes the independence of others to fold around him and he becomes the “fearful symbol of the self-enclosed individualism that, carried to its furthest extreme, brings disaster both upon itself and upon the group of which it is part” (Matthiessen 459). In Matthiessen’s reading, Ahab becomes individual autonomy, power and dominance, while his crew becomes a manipulated, passive, powerless mass.
Matthiessen does recognize that even if Ahab and his crew oppose each other, their fate remains linked. Emerson’s individual may move “others forward” by his will, but Ahab instead “swept his whole crew to destruction” (Matthiessen 456). Although Matthiessen sees Ahab’s dominance in relation to the crew’s passivity, he understands that their destruction is mutual.
Some critics avoid qualifying Ahab and his crew in opposing terms. John Michael, for example, sees Ahab’s power in a state of flux, noting his dependence upon his crew. In his chapter “Ahab’s Cannibals,” he gives Ahab far less credit for his ability to manipulate the goal of the Pequod and its crew, instead placing a large portion of the burden back on the sailors enabling him. Ahab, though intimidating, powerful and magnetic, still needs his crew to complete his task of slaying Moby Dick. His “self-reliance relies on his crew,” and his success “depends on the willingness of his men to associate with him” (Michael 86). Ahab’s madness results from his “confusion and interdependence” between his individual power and his need of the crew. Ahab struggles to maintain his hold over the men, and his control must constantly be “renegotiated” to the point where he relies on pure intimidation and parlor tricks (Michael 86). In the end, the men stand by him, allowing the collective to meet a tragic end, based on one individual’s desire.
As mentioned, Ahab should not be viewed in binary opposition to his crew. Instead, his attempts to create a binary between himself and the crew, him as master, them as his tool, lead to his downfall. By physically, mentally, and emotionally separating himself, Ahab avoids the obligatory community that the crew accepts. Their teamwork, though placing limits on individuality, allows them to succeed in their task of whale hunting. Once redirected by Ahab, the crew’s connection places all of them, including Ahab, into danger.
Human interaction pervades every aspect of Moby Dick. Throughout the novel, characters other than Ahab try to ignore their reliance on other people. Susan McWilliams, in her article “Ahab, American,” probes the dynamic between isolation and dependence, suggesting that in a society where “solitude is valued, the fact and the idea of human interdependence are concomitantly devalued” (McWilliams 241). According to McWilliams, Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab and the rest of the crew are isolatos, “living on a separate continent of [their] own” (Melville 106). These “individuals… feel cut off from each other” and “tend to understand their options for action solely in terms of violence and domination” (McWilliams 238). The occupation of whaling required both violent action against and domination of the large leviathans. The men aboard the Pequod have a streak of independence, a desire for adventure, and an Emersonian outlook on self-reliance. Ishmael, a man who “knocks people’s hats off,” mistakes his interactions with people as the source of his anger, rather than recognizing his isolation from them as the catalyst of his depression (Melville 1). Ishmael cannot reach out to others without feeling weak, only connecting to the crew when necessity dictates it. Queequeg abandons “his Polynesian ‘happy valley’ for an odyssey of self-reliant adventure among the Christians,” exemplifying his “heroic individuality” (“In Praise of Self-Reliance” 548). Although the crew begin as isolatos, they learn that comradery, the equality that comes with it, and the mutual trust that fosters between them, provides them more value than consistent isolation. McWilliams errs in assuming that the men remain violent and isolated. Instead, the remaining isolato, Ahab, fails to connect and continues his mad hunt for Moby Dick, leading the mass into peril.
Throughout the book, Melville uses rope as a symbol for man’s dependence on each other. Without the crew’s interdependence, they cannot progress or succeed in hunting whales. In “The Mat-Maker,” Ishmael and Queequeg weave a sword mat for their boat. The task cannot be completed without two people, and Ishmael must pass “the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp” (Melville 192). During the task, Ishmael reflects on how the “fixed threads of the warp,” when woven together, become “subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration” (Melville 192). The mat vibrates as a single entity in the same manner that the crew works as a single unit. Ishmael’s reflections establish the warp as “necessity,” his weaving process as “destiny” or “free will,” and Queequeg’s cutting to be “chance,” all of which work together “interweavingly” (Melville 193). For Ishmael, free will can be impacted by both chance and necessity. The whaling industry asks whalers to negotiate between the three forces—they must band together out of necessity, thereby lowering free will, to mediate the dangers of chance.
To keep the individual safe, whalers sacrifice some of their freedom and Melville uses rope to draw a direct connection between order and freedom. The harpooneers carefully wind the harpoon line around the boat, encompassing all the men within it. Both “ends of the line are exposed” so that “an additional line from a neighboring boat” fastens to it, preventing the whale from carrying off “the entire line” (Melville 252). They arrange it in this manner for “common safety’s sake,” keeping the whale from dragging the boat “down after him into the profundity of the sea” (Melville 252-3). By tying the boats together, they become a single entity, better counteracting the dangers they face. Ishmael sees that in exchange for increased safety, the men sacrifice some of their freedom. For him, “all men live enveloped in whale-lines,” and “all are born with halters round their necks” (Melville 254). As humans envelop themselves in a community, they become dependent on the community and would never be as free than if they had not bounded together. But as Moby Dick shows, some men, like Ahab, believe themselves to be outside of the system and ultimately place the whole collective in danger.
The dangers of whaling necessitated cooperation. For example, in order to clean the whale, crew members literally tied their lives to each other. In “The Monkey-Rope,” Ishmael dangles Queequeg over the dead whale by a rope, placing both their lives into Ishmael’s hands. Queequeg remains “on the whale till the whole flensing and stripping operation was concluded” while Ishmael, being his “bowman,” anchors him from above (Melville 286-7). The task requires mutual trust and they work as a singular unit. By fusing their lives together, they become a more powerful tool for completing the job.
At first, Ishmael feels vulnerable and ashamed by his loss of autonomy. He values his independence but sacrifices it by tying himself to Queequeg. McWilliams suggests that this “dependence becomes equivalent to dishonor” for Ishmael but she fails to validate the positive gains this exchange provides him (McWilliams 243). Yes, he admits that “his free will had received a mortal wound,” but he also experiences a cathartic moment with Queequeg, building his sense of comradery (Melville 287). Ishmael and Queequeg become “wedded,” with “Siamese ligature,” and their mutual trust allows their relationship to grow to where they are “inseparable, twin brother[s]” (Melville 287). Their friendship gives Ishmael an unquantifiable satisfaction and although he loses autonomy, he earns mutual trust and respect with Queequeg.
Ishmael recognizes that his place within the group holds more worth to him than a staunch independence. Tying himself to Queequeg gives Ishmael responsibility over him, allowing Ishmael to see his value within the group. If Queequeg fell, “usage and honor demanded” that “instead of cutting the cord, it should drag [him] down in his wake” (Melville 297). Ishmael senses a connection to Queequeg great enough to make cutting the monkey rope a worse option over death. He wants to connect to his shipmates, to be respected by them, to be friends with them, and to be considered an important member of their team. Ishmael fears being ostracized from a group that provides him with confidants, emotional relief, and value. As an isolato, his importance is self-given. Within a group, he receives validation from outside sources that he matters in the scheme of the crew. Ishmael learns to move away from an isolato attitude and enter into the crew in full.
Even though the characters of the novel may not admit it, comradery provides them with great happiness, alleviating the stress and frustration that comes from their isolation. Through Ishmael’s “telling of their [the crew’s] intricately coordinated work, daring, and skill,” the narrative shows how the men contend with the “dangerous business of pursuing, capturing, processing, warehousing, and bringing to market” a whale via a “social and communal labor” (Michael 75). The necessities of the job bring the men together, allowing them to step away from previously held isolato values. When processing the spermaceti of a whale, the crew squeeze the lumps out of it before firing it in the tryworks. During the “sweet and unctuous duty,” Ishmael falls into a trance-like state (Melville 372). He squeezes his “co-laborers’ hands in it,” feeling an “abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling” (Melville 373). Ishmael’s willingness to physically display the affection for his fellows, as well as his outward admission that he needs comradery, not only show how far he has come since the story began, but also create a profound joy and sentimentality in him. During the process, he forgets “all about [his] horrible oath” to kill Moby Dick, because his internal satisfaction satiates his violent motivations (Melville 373). Ahab, of course, never accepts comradery. His motivations stay entirely fixed on killing Moby Dick.
By tying everyone together, the unit avoids dangers they would face as isolatos and find emotional satisfaction that alleviates their violent tendencies. By coming together, however, the entire collective can be harmed by rogue individuals within it. Throughout the novel, Ahab’s actions and inability to recognize his interconnected nature, places the whole lot of them at risk. Ishmael, a positive member of the group, recognizes that even if he had total free will on the vessel, a mistake of another sailor could “plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death” (Melville 287). If Queequeg, for example, acted rashly on the Monkey Rope, he could pull Ishmael into the ocean. Ahab, by hunting down Moby Dick, pulls on the other seamen and drags those connected to him to their doom.
In the “Quarter Deck” chapter, Ahab ties the crew together under a shared purpose—taking revenge on Moby Dick. He uses their isolato culture to find a mutual connection, knowing they tended “either toward a path of inaction…or toward the path of action through deliberative force” (McWilliams 252). All of the isolatos on board the Pequod took up whaling for the latter motivation. The men marvel at how “they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions” and how easily they take up Ahab’s will as their own (Melville 143). Ahab offers them a glory, through violent action, that they already desire. Ahab suggests that “the individual can only have power to the extent that he can…become part of a dominating force” (McWilliams 252). Ahab uses the men’s motivations to bring them together. Ahab “thus has deep resonance with a crew made up of people who, on many levels, see the world in the same terms he does”—with both entities “thinking in terms of a dichotomy between impotence by inaction and domination by force” (McWilliams 255). By connecting the frustrations that isolato culture creates within the crew, Ahab convinces them that they can create a new legacy through Moby Dick.
As mentioned, Ahab’s attitudes do not set him apart from the rest of the Pequod. Ahab’s two main traits, “his isolation and his desire for domination…do not differentiate him from the other characters in the book but rather underscore how much he is like them” (McWilliams 236). The crew members adopt Ahab’s “way of thinking… in large measure [because] it is already their own” (McWilliams 236). Ahab convinces himself that he forced the crew to his will, allowing him to maintain his isolato attitude, when in fact, he needs the crew’s approval to forward any task. Ahab’s “project depends on them,” potentially placing his importance underneath the crew, and this truth constantly threatens Ahab’s superior attitude (Michael 86). Ishmael alludes to such a relationship when he discusses how the “Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle” (Melville 4). Ahab believes that part of his superiority comes from his leadership, his ideas, and his control over the crew. He “thinks he breathes it first” but in reality, “the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it” (Melville 4). As a unit, the crew reaches their full potential. Without all of them working together, they have even less of a chance to successfully hunt. On the boat, the crew becomes “one man, not thirty” and their individualities, “this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties… were welded into oneness” (Melville 492). By coming together, their strengths cover up their weaknesses. On the ship, they become “a single body, an organic totality,” with Ahab as much a part of them as they to him (Michael 82). The men, in agreement with Ahab, direct themselves toward “that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to” (Melville 492). Although Ahab initiates the hunt, the men still have to get him to the end line. By coming together, they increase the group’s slim odds of success.
Yet by refusing to work within the group, Ahab becomes the rash member who places the whole collective into danger. Ahab mistakes his position on the Pequod and his social isolation from the crew as total independence from them. He believes that by distancing himself, he can hold and control the reins that connect his crew together. To some extent he can, but he fails to recognize that his and his shipmates’ fate are inextricably bound together. Due to the fact that he “must depend on the common seaman of his crew, belying the imperious self-hood he proclaims,” Ahab’s attempts to isolate himself are in vain (Michael 73). His constant tugging on the rope, ultimately leads the group he is part of to their deaths.
Ahab isolates himself from the crew both physically, mentally and emotionally, attempting to achieve a self-proclaimed superiority. By keeping himself at a physical distance, he avoids potential friendships and connections with the crew to better control them. The crew never meets Ahab during the preparation of the Pequod and even after they travel for a few days, “nothing above hatches was seen of Captain Ahab” (Melville 107). By physically removing himself, he avoids possible weaknesses that occur in social interactions.
Ahab also performs mental hurdles to validate his self-worth. Throughout Moby Dick, Ahab positions himself as sole authority over the crew. With his authority comes ownership over the Pequod and its goals. Ahab believes that the only “real owner of anything is its commander” placing him at a level above his crew (Melville 423). He likens himself to kings and gods, revealing his narcissism and misdiagnosed superiority. He asks himself “is then the crown too heavy that I wear?,” showing his implicit assumption of his divine right to an imaginary kingship—taking for granted that the consequences of his actions affected him alone (Melville 148). Over the book, he progresses from divine right to divine. When Starbuck pushes against his orders to hunt Moby Dick, Ahab puts him down citing that “there is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over The Pequod” (Melville 423). By creating a superior self-image, Ahab deludes himself into believing that he owns the crew. Ahab “dreams [of] a power that might lift his single person above the mass of men and free him from all constraints” (Michael 85-6). He wants his men tied together, so they can work as an autonomous unit for him, but he does not want to sacrifice his own freedoms to the group. “The herd” for Ahab, “threaten[s] the superior man” (Michael 85-6). By attempting to extricate himself from his crew, by trying to make his actions somehow more important, mythical, or above a normal person’s work on earth, he convinces himself that hunting Moby Dick is a two-party battle, between him and the whale, failing to recognize the collateral damage associated with his hunt.
Ahab distances himself emotionally so that he better directs the crew. Using fear as his main motivator, Ahab believes he cannot be friends with his shipmates. As an isolato, Ahab sees any dependence on his men as weakness, and although very dependent on them, by telling, forcing, and dominating them, he assumes that their subservience to him makes him strong and independent. Ahab thinks that “to be dependent,” places him on the losing end of a world with only two options: “humiliate, or be humiliated” (McWilliams 252). He cannot force their acquiescence if friendships get in the way. At every meal he eats with his mates, he never speaks to them. As the “Coronation banquet at Frankfort, where the German Emperor profoundly dines with the seven Imperial Electors,” the cabin meals carried on “in awful silence” (Melville 132). For Ahab, his silence gives him power. He “forbade not conversation; only he himself was dumb” and the three mates do not dare to break the silence “with the slightest observation, even upon so neutral a topic as the weather” (Melville 132). His silence not only separates him, but intimidates the mates (Melville 132). Their dinners become a tortuous showcase of his distance from them and assumed control over them.
Ahab avoids connection with his crew because it leads him away from his purpose of killing Moby Dick. The closest Ahab comes to giving up his hunt occurs when he opens up emotionally. Right before they spot Moby Dick, Starbuck finds Ahab contemplating his life. Ahab admits to the “desolation of solitude” his life had been up to that point, and talks about his forsaken other life—the one with his family, on land (Melville 479). After Starbuck entreats him to turn around and return to Nantucket, Ahab agrees. Like Ishmael feels squeezing the spermaceti, Ahab forgets, or at least allows himself to let go of his anger and desire for violence against Moby Dick.
Unfortunately, moments later, Ahab falls back into his belief of his god-like importance. His isolato nature wins out over group comradery. He asks himself “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who that lifts this arm?” (Melville 481). He argues that if God operates his body, “if God does that beating, does that thinking, and not I” then his purpose had to be Godly (Melville 481). By reaffirming his importance to himself, Ahab again sees himself as the leader, the hero, of his godly mission.
Although Ahab often appears superior, more intelligent or more awe-inspiring than his men, they are just that—appearances. For example, Ahab “has a name of a biblical king,” (McWilliams 235) but as Captain Peleg reminds Ishmael, “Ahab did not name himself,” (Melville 71). Ahab’s superiority is “a matter of appearance,” and occurs almost “by a kind of accident,” rather than an ordained piece of fate (McWilliams 235).
While Ishmael and other members of the crew recognize that their actions could lead to danger of the collective, Ahab, believing he is outside the collective, does not. Ahab never understands that his actions drag his crew to their demise. His attempts to remove himself from the collective cause the metaphorical rope connecting them to tangle, tighten and not function at full capacity. After a horrible failure on the first day of the hunt, Ahab ignores the crew’s concerns and spurs them to again hunt Moby Dick. During the battle, members of the collective are hurt (with one killed), by the rope that binds their boats together. During the fight, Moby Dick “crossed and recrossed” the boats, “and in a thousand ways entangled the slack of the lines now fast to him,” warping “the devoted boats towards the planted irons in him” (Melville 494). Ahab sees the boats “caught and twisted—corkscrewed in the mazes of the line” and seizes “the boat-knife” (Melville 494). He cuts his boat away from the rest, allowing Moby Dick to “rush among the remaining tangles of the other lines,” dragging “the more involved boats of Stubb and Flask towards his flukes; dash[ing] them together like rolling husks of a surf-beaten beach” (Melville 494). By cutting his own rope, Ahab lowers the total mass holding Moby Dick and the whale smashes Stubb and Flask’s boats together. With regard for his safety alone, Ahab cuts his connection to the other hunting boats, allowing the crew to take the brunt of a physical confrontation he places them in. The crew returns to the Pequod, broken and injured, with Fedallah missing, yet Ahab decides to hunt again the following day despite likely injury and death.
Fedallah, it turns out, dies during that second hunt. On the third day, the crew realizes the tangled ropes lashed the man “round and round…the fish’s back,” but Ahab refuses to accept that his line might have killed Fedallah (Melville 503). Stubb suggests that Fedallah was “among the tangles of your [Ahab’s] line” to which Ahab can only question “My line! my line?” (Melville 496). Ahab’s narcissism embodies his unwillingness to see his culpability in the death of one of his crew. His inability to take the blame for Fedallah’s death, or to see himself as a part of the connecting line, leads him to again put his crew into danger on the third day—the day where the crew, minus Ishmael, perishes. He points to the fact that “Ahab is untouched,” as reason to hunt again, ignoring his crew’s injuries (Melville 495). He taps back into his isolato ideology, taking his survival, not as a warning, but a confirmation of his godly immortality. If no “white whale, nor man, nor fiend can so much graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being” why should he stop his hunt, even if others might get hurt along the way (Melville 495 my emphasis)? Ahab believes in a superiority grounded by his separation from the crew until the very end—an end that sees him hanged by the line connecting all the men together.
Ahab’s refusal to accept his connection to his men, leads to his death and the death of his crew. On the final day, the rope connecting the boats to each other, and to Moby Dick, hangs Ahab, pulling him down into the ocean:
The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths. (Melville 507)
Even while taking Ahab to his death, the rope knocks an oarsman into the ocean, another hint towards how Ahab’s actions hurt the others. Ishmael leaves no question to Ahab’s effect upon the crew. As they are all sucked into the vortex that kills them, “the flag of Ahab” goes “down with his ship, which like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged every living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it” (Melville 508). Ahab never accepts his similarities to other men, giving himself a godly purpose. By the end of Moby Dick, he trades in everyone’s safety in exchange for a chance at individual glory. His monomaniac purpose becomes particularly dangerous when he refuses to negotiate it, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he should. Not understanding his connection to his crew, he drags the living into Hell with him, leaving himself with a legacy helmeted by the jewels of death and destruction he creates along his campaign.
The rope tying the men together kills Ahab. His refusal to connect to them becomes his undoing. While his crew learns to work together and put aside their isolato values, Ahab becomes more extreme in his isolation. Ahab kills himself and the crew because he cannot accept his commonality. Melville, using the image of rope to drive his point home most effectively, finishes his novel by showing of how a common man can delude himself into notions of greatness—how even a common man’s actions can place a large collective into mortal danger.
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