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Ahab: An Untraditional Hero

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Xingyu Li

Professor Wang        

WRT 105E

February 17th, 2014

Ahab: an untraditional hero

The 1956 film adaption of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick directed by John Huston brings many characters of the novel to life. Among them are Ahab, captain of the Pequod, and his first mate Starbuck and many other interesting crew members. The crew members are worthy of a deep look, since they represent something more than themselves. However, this paper will mainly focus on Captain Ahab, the somewhat tyrannical captain of the ship who led the entire crew to its doom, save for Ishmael. At first glance, Ahab seems like a mad man who seeks nothing but vengeance, and it was his madness that dragged the crew members to the depth. Nonetheless, his dedication and his focus on his goal, his idea of blasphemy, his courage and fighting spirit, as well as his constant encouragement to the crew members, are all that qualities seem worthy. Is Captain Ahab a hero or an antagonist of Moby Dick? How should people understand him? This paper will use the movie, as well as the screenplay written by Ray Bradbury to illustrate that although famous for his madness and somewhat zealous pursuit of Moby Dick, there are things behind these appearances that make him a hero.

Ahab’s madness was always a focus point in the eyes of the critics. The most obvious scene that showed this characteristic is probably the chartroom scene. The moaning and groaning in his sleep, the elaborately drawn charts, and his familiarity with the charts, all show his undivided attention towards his ultimate goal: hunting down Moby Dick. And of course there was the scene in which Captain Gardner of the Rachel asked for Ahab’s help to find his son and Ahab turned him down after a moment of hesitation. The Christian religion forbids him to turn down requests for help, especially when it comes to other people’s lives, but Ahab broke that rule to pursuit his own goal. It was made clear that he lost his leg to Moby Dick in a previous voyage, and his madness seemed to start with his desire for vendetta, but as things go, there seems to be more than mere personal vengeance. Ahab’s famous line in the movie “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features.” (Moby Dick) indicates that Ahab’s longing to hunt Moby Dick to avenge himself had turned to a desire of breaking the boundaries and to see what‘s beyond it. In other words, it had changed from a contest between a man and a whale to a contest between men and regulations. Whatever these regulations might be-norms, religion, rules, natural laws-they are too strong for one man to bear and to fight. Due to his persistence and his “madness” that followed along, he was entangled on the body of Moby Dick by the ropes of his own harpoon and dragged into the ocean by the whale in the final chase scene. The rest of the crew, except Ishmael, eventually followed Ahab’s fate and died at sea as well. It can’t be denied that Ahab’s madness was one of the main reasons that led to the crews’ fate, which makes him not as righteous as a hero should be. However, it is important to notice that the crew and Ahab of course, didn’t die for nothing. The spirit of Ahab was passed on to the crew members and they chose to fight on to continue Ahab’s legacy. Going through the veils of Ahab’s madness, it can be found out that what he was trying to do was to challenge the force that he assumes, which is holding control over humans and all other things in the universe. The tragedy of the crew shows the world men that are not complacent with how things are.


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