Cleveland Lawrence III
May 2, 1997
American Literary Traditions
Captain Ahab and Moby Dick: A Study in the Self and the Other
Literary critics point to a variety of themes and juxtapositions when analyzing Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Some mention man versus nature or good versus evil. Others see the land opposed to the sea or Fate opposed to free will. A perspective that seems to be overlooked at times is the interesting dichotomy of the self and the other. There are many such relationships throughout the book, such as that of Ishmael and Queequeg, along with Christians and pagans and Ahab and Starbuck, but this paper will focus on the central relationship, namely, Ahab and Moby-Dick.
What is the relationship of the self and the other? Why is it applicable to Melville's classic? Tzvetan Todorov provides an answer in the book, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. On page 3 the reader is told: "We can discover the other in ourselves, realize we are not a homogenous substance, radically alien to whatever is not us . . . This group [the other] in turn can be interior to society or it can be exterior to society." It seems, then, that the other does not have to be very foreign. Arguably, the other cannot be very foreign, as the other is "in ourselves". More appropriately, the other can only be as foreign as we are foreign. The other resides within the self.
Julia Kristeva, in Strangers to Ourselves, elaborates on this point. On page one she writes: "The foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself . . . The foreigner comes in when the conscious of my difference arises, and he disappears when all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners." Captain Ahab struggled to see Moby-Dick within himself. Herein began the book's main problem of the self and the other.
The early chapters of the book refer to Ahab having lost his leg to Moby-Dick. If any character development had taken place, it would suggest that Ahab was the victim of an attack by a vicious animal. By the time the reader gets to "Chapter 36 The Quarter Deck", however, Ahab is being established as a man obsessed--obsessed with destroying Moby-Dick. By "Chapter 37 Sunset", it is clear that Ahab is mad. In "Chapter 44 The Chart", the reader is made aware of Ahab's "monomaniac thought of his soul." He was so consumed by Moby-Dick that he could not sleep.
What about Moby-Dick? Ahab seems to have some cause for his feelings toward the whale. It seems plausible that he and most other sailors had been exposed to the story of Jonah, which may have, for them, established man and whale as enemies. Edward F. Edinger, in Melville's Moby-Dick: A Jungian Commentary, says that "Moby-Dick is described as the incarnation of evil . . . hence, Moby-Dick is called Ethe gliding great demon of the seas of life' (Chapter 41), and it is remarked that Ethough in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright' (Chapter 42)" (p. 84). Melville tells the reader in "Chapter 54 The Town-Ho's Story" of another account of Moby-Dick's capabilities. In this story, Moby-Dick snatches Radney from his ship and takes him below the ocean surface. Interestingly, Ahab does not hear this story. Melville may want to show that the whale can be violent, but does not want to allow Ahab to have such information as an excuse for his monomania. By telling only the reader of the Town Ho's story, both Ahab and Moby-Dick are developed further. The whale is set up as a force to be reckoned with, and Ahab is set up as a crazed man, who, despite extensive knowledge of the whale's actions, fills in the blanks, so to speak. In essence, Ahab makes Moby-Dick what he is.
After these chapters, many chapters of the book go by with little mention of either Ahab or Moby-Dick. Then, in "Chapter 99 The Doubloon", Ahab's monomania is revisited. He still has not had an opportunity to destroy the whale, and offers the expensive coin--worth nine hundred and sixty cigars-- to any of his crew who can. In the next chapter, Ahab is confronted with Enderby, the symbol for rationality, but he refuses to listen. Again, Melville shows that Ahab is totally consumed, but that Moby-Dick is also a ruthless beast, as Enderby lost an arm to him. Enderby does not feel the same rage that Ahab does. Enderby has comes to terms with Moby-Dick and his experience with him. He did not fill in the blanks, as Ahab had done.
Kenneth J. Atchity, in Masterplots, noted that Moby-Dick did symbolize evil, but that Ahab's obsession to kill Moby-Dick was evil as well (pgs. 3994-3996). This harkens back to the words of Todorov and Kristeva, who both say that there is very little distance between the self and the other. Again, it seems evident that the other resides within the self. The evil that Moby-Dick appears to have is the evil within Captain Ahab. Ahab projects his own feelings and instincts onto Moby-Dick, as it is too difficult for him to accept himself as he is.
To that extent, the stigma of Moby-Dick was created, to some degree, by Captain Ahab. Rene Girard said that "despite what is said around us, persecutors are never obsessed with difference but rather by its unutterable contrary, the lack of difference" (The Scapegoat, p. 22). This lack of difference is dominant in Ahab's relationship to the whale. While Ahab may try to establish himself as a hero, he too, deep down, is evil. It is this sameness that is problematic. When it becomes too obvious that the other is no different from the self, the other becomes a scapegoat of sorts. For example, the Nazis were unhappy with a variety of things relating to their quality of life. The Jews engaged in numerous religious practices that were thought to be very different. The Jews were hated for this "difference". It soon became evident, though, that the Jews, as people were no different than the Nazis. Therefore, projections and creation were needed. The Germans were reminded that the Jews were often somewhat ridiculously blamed for the Black Death, and it was even asserted that the Jews were an inferior race of people that would destroy humanity if they were allowed to reproduce, especially with non-Jews. The solution--the Jews would have to be exterminated, just like any other germ or virus. Thus, the Jews were made into a scapegoat for much greater fears, concerns, and insecurities.
The Edinger speaks to this point, saying: "Resentment accumulates which must have some object. In such a case, a scapegoat mechanism is likely to take over. Thus it was with Ahab" (p. 86). Ahab created "Moby-Dick" as the object toward which to direct his hate. Some might say that the whale serves as a fetish object. Sigmund Freud introduced the notion of fetish objects. He said that people who have undergone traumatic experiences often use fetish objects to function normally. Fetishes usually are manifested sexually, as people have trouble expressing their sexuality and need the fetish object to substitute for them. The fetish keeps their sexuality alive. Of course, in Ahab's case, there was no sexual fetish object. Moby-Dick did, however, serve as an object of self-preservation. Ahab's identity as Moby-Dick's enemy was kept intact. Ahab needed to create Moby-Dick for his own sake.
Ahab had to "create" Moby-Dick in order to justify his own hatred and tendency toward evil. Furthermore, Moby-Dick had to be made into a formidable opponent, so as to explain Ahab's failed attempts at destroying it. By creating Moby-Dick in this manner, Ahab created himself. The self and the other are inextricably linked, such as is the case in a master and slave relationship. There can be no slave without a master and there can be no master without a slave. When a master conquers and creates a slave, the master creates a role as "master" for himself or herself as well. In Melville's book, Ahab played the role of hunter and Moby-Dick became the hunted.
The self/other relationship can be far more complicated than what has been presented here. Many racists, sexists and those who cannot tolerate homosexuality do not always abide by the norms of the system. Ahab and Moby-Dick are a special case of the relationship, and they are one that deserve consideration.