How is the theme of misanthropy relevant to Melville's Moby-Dick?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Misanthropy – the hatred of other people – is a major theme in Melville’s Moby-Dick and seems particularly associated with Captain Ahab and his dark, shadowy harpooners. The theme is even touched on in the opening paragraph of the novel, although here the treatment of it is mainly comic. Thus, Ishmael describes some of his motives for heading to sea:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

The reference to “methodically knocking people's hats off” suggests that Ishmael does have a temper, but it also implies his ability to make fun of himself, and therefore it implies the humility and good humor that are so much in evidence in so much of the rest of the presentation of his character. One of the most lovable things about Ishmael is that he never takes himself too seriously, and, because he doesn’t, he is incapable of the kind of misanthropy that afflicts Captain Ahab.

Ahab’s coldness, his sternness, his willingness to risk the lives of his crew in the pursuit of his obsession, all suggest that he is misanthropic to a significant degree.  He is brimming with pride, the root of all other sins, and pride by definition raises the possibility of misanthropy. Yet it is not so much other people whom Ahab hates as it is Moby Dick, and it is not so much Moby Dick whom he hates as it is what Moby Dick represents: fate, bad fortune, an indifferent or malevolent universe, and/or even an unloving God.

Throughout the novel, Melville juxtaposes the misanthropy of Ahab with the benevolence and charity of such characters as Ishmael and Queequeg. Ironically (or perhaps not so ironically), Ahab’s hatred leads to his self-destruction. By the end of the novel, his bitterness and anger lead not only to the loss of his life but even, to some extent, to the loss of his soul. In pursuing his effort to destroy Moby Dick, he ultimately destroys himself (and, unfortunately, also most of his crew).