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In Chapter 119 of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab defies the powers of a terrible storm, declaring his determination to continue his pursuit of the white whale even though Starbuck questions the wisdom of this plan. The final paragraphs of this chapter are revealing and suggestive in a number of different ways, including the following:
- Ahab reveals that the scar he bears was caused by having been struck by lightning. Twice, then, Ahab has been severely injured by aspects of nature (lightning and the white whale), and twice his response is defiance. Instead of learning humility from his injuries, he instead feels confirmed in his pride. Ahab’s egotism is especially suggested when he proclaims,
while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights.
- The complexity of Ahab’s personality is suggested, however when he next proclaims that if the forces of the universe come to him in their “lowest form of love, . . . I will kneel and kiss thee,” but that he will defy any awesome power they display. In expressing both of these attitudes – love of the gentle aspects of nature, but defiance of nature’s power – Ahab is a true Romantic, a true child of the first half of the nineteenth century.
- Midway through his speech, Ahab seems to be defying not merely nature but God himself. This speech is typical of the book’s larger preoccupation with theological concerns. Some critics see Ahab as a kind of Satanic figure; others are more sympathetic and see him as a quester and questioner – someone willing to challenge the status quo, especially if he considers it unjust. Other people (Starbuck, for instance) would consider Ahab’s speech here nearly blasphemous, while still others would see Ahab as the kind of man who stands up for the dignity of humanity. Even others, however, would clearly see Ahab as an egotist. Notice that in these speeches he rarely refers to the interests of his crew. His chief preoccupation is entirely with himself. Some readers would consider speeches such as this to be among the most powerful in the book; others would consider them melodramatic and overblown.
- Starbuck, ironically, defies Ahab much as Ahab defies nature and God, but Ahab will not tolerate Starbuck’s defiance. He prides himself on being defiant, but he cannot abide defiance from anyone else.
- All in all, these paragraphs reveal the paradoxical qualities of Ahab’s character: heroic but self-destructive, obsessed with justice but treating others unjustly, assertive himself but intolerant of self-assertiveness in anyone else.
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