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Any reader of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick who had begun to doubt the morality of Captain Ahab would surely have his or her doubts deepened by Chapter 128. Although it might have been possible earlier to see Ahab as a heroic quester, by the time one reaches Chapter 128, Ahab’s egotism and monomania become highly unattractive in ethical terms. It is in Chapter 128, after all, that Ahab refuses to help another sea captain who is desperate with grief. The captain’s young son has gone missing while his boat was pursuing a whale. The captain begs Ahab to pause briefly from Ahab’s own pursuit of Moby Dick in order to help search for the captain’s son and the other missing sailors:
"My boy, my own boy is among them. For God's sake—I beg, I conjure"—here exclaimed the stranger Captain to Ahab, who thus far had but icily received his petition. "For eight-and-forty hours let me charter your ship—I will gladly pay for it, and roundly pay for it—if there be no other way—for eight-and-forty hours only—only that—you must, oh, you must, and you shall do this thing."
Ahab, however, rejects this emotional appeal:
"Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time. Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I must go."
So intent is Ahab on killing the white whale that he refuses to help the grief-stricken father, even though Ahab is himself the father of a young boy. Ahab claims that he “must” go (thus invoking what John Milton, in Paradise Lost, once memorably called “necessity, the tyrant’s plea”). But of course Ahab is under no necessary compulsion to reject Gardiner’s request. Perhaps nowhere else in the book is Ahab less morally attractive than here. Perhaps nowhere else does he behave with more heartless egotism. Anyone who might have been tempted to sympathize with Ahab’s supposedly heroic quest must surely feel experience serious qualms. Ahab is willing to risk letting a young boy die because he is obsessed with killing Moby Dick.
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