How did I choose to write my master’s thesis about Moby Dick? Here’s the first part of my thesis introduction.
Since the 1920s, Herman Melville’s great American novel Moby Dick has been the subject of literary, religious, social, and psychological analysis, movies, television mini-series, Far Side cartoons, Internet sites (both serious and humorous) and countless other forms of commentary. In every generation and with each new academic approach, this multi-layered work continues to inspire interpretation in many forms. Though many non-academic people may not have read the novel, who has not at least heard about Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal whaler who chases to the death the white whale who bit off his leg? (At left is a picture of my much-used copy of the book.)
After hearing of Moby Dick all my life, I at last read it for a class in graduate school and was surprised at how complex and, at the same time, how simple the story is. Because I am a romance writer and I am always looking for romantic stories, one minor detail of the epic tale jumped off the page as I read: Captain Ahab had a wife! Who knew? Immediately, I was intrigued. What kind of girl—Ahab calls her his “young girl-wife”—would marry such a crazy old man as Ahab? What made her fall in love with him? What kind of romance did they have? What did she do while he was away at sea? How did she cope with his monomania after he lost his leg?
After perusing hundreds of articles and books on Melville, and on Moby Dick in particular, I was surprised to see that very few commentators make reference to this wife or to the child she bore Ahab. It seems as if Melville, by mentioning her only in passing, is merely using her as a tool to demonstrate that “Ahab has his humanities, as Captain Peleg assures us. This incidental mention by the author rightly concerns feminist readers, who see it as a typical example of nineteenth-century dismissal of the value of women and women’s work to society. But, after all, Moby Dick is first and foremost a book about one man’s attempt to avenge himself against the whale who wounded him. And, of course, Herman Melville did not write about women with any great degree of understanding in any of his books or stories.
Still, I am intrigued by the idea that a young woman would marry this old whaling captain. I am also curious to know why Ahab would marry “past fifty” when he had been content to be a bachelor all his life. On the surface, there is not much to go on. There are only two mentions of this unnamed wife in the entire four-hundred-and-seventy-page Norton Critical Edition of the book. To my feelings of intrigue and curiosity, add the element of challenge. I’m going to find out who these people are, and I’m going to write the story of their romance! But how do I make this character my own?
What do we know about Captain Ahab? All we know of him is related to us by Ishmael, who narrates the novel. But in addition to his own observations, Ishmael gives us the words and viewpoints of others, so we have much scuttlebutt and many opinions about Ahab. To whom should I listen if I am to find out why our young girl, whom I have named Hannah, loves Ahab? I decided that Ishmael’s views of Ahab can be trusted. He writes from the viewpoint of one who loves/admires Ahab but who also sees his flaws. What Ishmael observes can be believed, for only he speaks with affectionate objectively. The ideas of other characters who speak of Ahab must go through a filter to strain out superstition, fear, anger, self-delusion, and self-interest. Thus, if Ishmael is reporting something another character has said about Ahab or his wife, I don’t necessarily have to believe it, for it merely forms a part of the myth of Ahab.
A wise and brilliant captain: From Ishmael, I learn that Ahab’s “firmest fortitude [and] determinate, unsurrendered wilfulness” earn him the respect and awe of his crew. His lance (harpoon) is the “keenest and surest” out of Nantucket. He “lowers”—gets into the whaleboat—along with the rest of the crew in the active pursuit of the whale. He is a wise and brilliant captain, knowing how to rule his tiny shipboard kingdom in order to keep everyone alive at sea for three or four years at a time (89). He can be a harsh taskmaster to his crew, but he is not unjust. He will reward hard work and give incentives to his men at the appropriate time. This is what the real-life whaling captains of American history were like. (The picture above is from Wiki Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42887975.)
Admirable qualities: Adding to the typical attributes of a good captain, Ahab has many other admirable qualities. He is a strong, powerfully built man, resembling Cellini’s cast bronze statue of the Greek hero Perseus. Despite a rod-like scar down one side of his face, he is strikingly handsome in appearance. He has had a long, successful career in whaling to the point that he has become a legend in the industry, especially in his home port of Nantucket. He is a god-like man and far above average. He has visited other cultures and has learned to accept hard-working men of all races without prejudice. He can be tenderhearted, as in the case of poor, mad Pip, his little cabin boy. He dotes on his son, speaks fondly of his wife, and would gladly be back home to sit with her by the fireside if he were not driven by his quest. He has confidence in his wife’s love and devotion, knowing she will tell their son about him every day. (Picture above from Wiki Commons.)
Less admirable qualities: We also learn of Ahab’s less admirable qualities from Ishmael. He acknowledges that there is a God, but he is angry with Him even before his injury, seeing Him as unjust. Ahab has had prophecies made about him ever since the time his “crazy, widowed mother” gave him the name of an evil Biblical king and a Gay Head Indian woman, Tistig, said it “would somehow prove prophetic.” Others have made prophecies about him, as well, usually because of some aberrant behavior on his part. He has had a checkered past, having done numerous rash things in his younger years, such as spitting in a calabash (breaking a heathen taboo) and fighting with a Spaniard in a church (breaking a Christian code of behavior). And he lost his leg according to a prophecy.
Believable reports: In addition to Ishmael, I believe Starbuck’s insights regarding Ahab because the young Quaker is a practical man, courageously but carefully involved in the dangerous pursuit of whales only in order to provide for his family. He is also a man of integrity and spiritual insights. He cannot rebel against or kill Ahab to save himself or the crew because of his religious conviction against murder. Yet he is filled with anger toward Ahab, knowing that his monomania will destroy them all. Therefore, when he looks into Ahab’s eyes and sees that the captain has a moment of sanity, he seizes that opportunity to beg Ahab to forsake his mad quest. As a loving husband and father, Starbuck recognizes another man’s love for his family. I also believe the prophet Elijah and Pip because they both are mad and see with the eyes of mystics.
Less believable reports: On the other hand, comments made by Captain Bildad, Captain Peleg, or any crew members may be filled with rumors and superstition and therefore may not be accurate. For instance, the lightning scar that extends down Ahab’s face and disappears beneath his collar is thought to extend clear to the sole of his foot. But the man who relates that story has never seen that it does and is only passing on what someone else has said. If I doubt an account, I do not have to give it credence.
Putting it together: Using these tools, I began my construction of my own Captain Ahab. I think that, as a man who has proven himself with prodigious success in his own arena, Ahab will be comfortable with himself no matter where he goes, including the upper echelons of the whaling society. Just as he knows how to figure out any problem that arises on his ship in the middle of the ocean, he can also figure out how to navigate social waters. Though not ashamed of his Nantucket heritage, he may forsake his usual Quaker-sounding “thees” and “thous” until he is certain that it will not bring contempt from his listeners. He has learned some hard lessons in life and will avoid unnecessary unpleasantries in social situations, which are, after all, only temporary gams to him.
More rocky parts of Ahab’s history: An important factor in Ahab’s development concerns an incident that happened to him “off Cape Horn…when he lay like dead for three days and nights” some years before he lost his leg. This undetailed report from Elijah provides me with an opportunity for creating a reason for Ahab to take a ship from New Bedford rather than his home port, Nantucket, from whence he has always shipped. If he had an illness while at sea, it may have sobered him from his rash ways. He might have begun to rethink his life and to make a few changes after thirty years of whaling, if only to try shipping out from a different port.
My creative juices start to flow: At this point in Ahab’s life, these events might also prime him for meeting an appealing woman and getting married, though I do not think he would be aware of that aspect of his search for change. Ahab will be surprised by his love for Hannah. From the moment he sees her, he will be thinking “What a woman!” But what kind of woman might Ahab fall in love with? We’ll discuss that next time.