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The book's plot is built on one basic conflict: Ahab vs. the whale. Ahab loses a leg to Moby-Dick; here is the wound that can never be healed. The revenge scenario that follows is worthy of Shakespeare in its reach. Body and soul blend together, are inseparable, in Ahab's mind. Ahab blasts Moby-Dick as incarnation of evil and regards his task as that of a face-to-face encounter with evil. Is such a mission sacrilege? Men such as Starbuck pointedly ask this question in the text itself. Ahab suggests that the world is a fraud, an illusion. Ahab as Prometheus conducts a war with God; he is staking out the limits of human doing and human reach. Have we encountered an overreacher? "Striking through the mask" is Ahab's formulation, and the theatrical metaphor conveys Melville's sense of living among shadows and illusory surfaces. The corollary is that we can know reality only through an act of agency and violence. Melville gaudily decks out Ahab in satanic colors. Melville proposes woe as the eternal core of the soul. We discover madness also, as if the "dig" itself toward the kingdom below were the very pulse of madness. Ahab presents an archaeological depth of character. Melville is at his most theatrical when he suggests that great passion and madness are a form of takeover, that the hostage self is eclipsed. Melville carries this view of madness to its grisly conclusion in a view of marionette-like behavior: the vacated self has no authority left, as it gesticulates and acts in its mania. The final loss of self is shown in the black cabin-boy, Pip, who falls overboard and witnesses the indifferent gods; he is "vacated" by the experience, and the book's most haunting passages are related to his "orphaned" vision. We are made to understand that Pip is precisely Ahab's alter ego, that the monomaniac and the witless idiot are versions of each other. Ahab sees that Pip will be his own undoing. This is a ghostly kind of fraternalism, different than the kind that binds Queequeg and Ishmael.
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