In the novel Moby-dick by Herman Melville, the characters of Ishmael and Captain Ahab are in stark contrast to each other. While Ishmael is a young lad on his first voyage on a whaling ship, Ahab is an old, battle worn, veteran whaler. At the start of the novel, Ishmael signs up on the whaling ship with the intention to “see the world”. In contrast, Ahab had lived a harsh life and had seen everything that was there to see and learn as a whaler. As the captain of Pequod, he was responsible for the ship and its crew, but he flouts all rules of whaling in his obsession for revenge put the life of the entire crew of his ship at risk. In contrast, Ishmael was totally ignorant about how whales are caught and is surprised by how much danger it involves. He is so scared after Pequod’s first encounter with a whale that he promptly updates his will. Thus, this essay argues that Ahab’s death at the hands of the white whale was an apt end for a whaler who had spent his life killing whales and was now obsessed with one whale while Ishmael being the sole survivor was justified by the fact that he was still young and innocent in the ways of the world and had a lot more to see in his life.
In his novel, Moby-Dick, Herman Melville tries to characterize certain aspects of human nature by showing how people react differently in the face of adverse conditions. While Melville’s characterization is rich and varied, with a range of characters revealing differing responses to the human condition, the characters of Ishmael and Ahab stand out because of the stark contrast between them. While Ishmael is full of life and his main purpose of undertaking the voyage is to see the world, Ahab turns out to be an old cynic whose sole purpose in life is to exact revenge on the sea creature which had handicapped him. As a veteran of the whaling business, Ahab fully knows the dangers of his quest and so, in a way, has willingly signed up for death. On the other hand, for Ishmael, the dangers of whaling come as a shock, but his response to these perils shows his detachment from desire and a lack of strong emotions. Ahab had achieved everything that was there to achieve in his life and the loss of his leg had made revenge the sole purpose of life. A life which is guided by revenge is not much of a life and had he succeeded in killing the whale, he would have had nothing more to live for. Besides, Ahab had also become extremely arrogant to the extent that he no longer had any humility left in him and was even willing to challenge God. So his death in the end was the only fate which would have helped him escape the torturous life he had waiting. While his need for revenge was alienating Ahab from mankind, during the voyage, Ishmael came to better appreciate the beauty of life. Thus, the respective fate of Ahab and Ishmael is justified as Ahab was an old, arrogant man who had nothing more to live for, while Ishmael with his new found love for life should get another chance to appreciate the beauty of this world.
Perhaps nobody deserves to live more than a person who can find something meaningful in life even at the worst of the times. Ishmael was a “broke, angry, depressed young man” (Rogers 34) but he had enough love for life to channel his anger in to something creative. As he tells the readers that he was going through a phase of life which had prompted Cato to throw “himself upon his sword”. But Ishmael had enough respect for life to instead “quietly take to the ship” (Melville 18). His decision to go on a whaling voyage simply because he is filled with curiosity about “such a portentous and mysterious monster”, further shows his lust for life, since a depressed person is unlikely to be curious about the world around him (Melville 22). Any individual that can find an exciting reason to live even at a time when other people would have given up should definitely get a chance to explore the beauty of life.
Another aspect of Ishmael’s character which stands out is his ability to look beyond racial prejudices and accept people for what they are. This is apparent in his befriending Queequeg and accepting him the way he was with all his eccentricities and belief in a pagan God. Although Queequeg was “hideously marred about the face”, Ishmael was able to look beyond his friend’s physical features and see a “simple honest heart” (Melville 55). He soon came to respect Queequeg, even referring to him as the “George Washington of cannibalistic developed”, showing his ability to look beyond outward differences and unwillingness to judge a person based on such shallow differences (Melville 55). This lack of malice toward someone who is obviously so different from himself also reflects Ishmael’s willingness to accept the world the way it is. In the space of just a few nights, he formed a close bond with Queequeg and became really worried when Queequeg did not open the door during Ramadan, further underscoring Ishmael’s ability to form close bonds with total strangers. All this shows that Ishmael is a person of pure heart because only such a person would not prejudge others. In this sense he is almost like a child who also does not judge people based on outward appearances or racial backgrounds. This childlike innocence is rare to find in a world which is full of evil and any person who manages to preserve such innocence, despite facing all the hardships of life, should be cherished.
Ahab’s death, on the other hand, can be justified by the fact that despite being an experienced sailor, he allowed his need for revenge to blind him thus putting his and that of his crew’s life in danger. Ahab was an experienced man of the world who has seen and experienced a great deal in his life. Long before Ahab made his first appearance in the novel, the reader learns that he is a “grand, ungodly, god-like man” (Melville 78). Captain Peleg insists that Ahab is not a bad man, despite having a “wicked name” (Melville 79). Elijah corroborates Peleg’s assessment of Ahab, accepting that “he is a good whale-hunter, and a good captain of the crew” (Melville 87). Later, Stubb states that it would be an honor to be kicked by Ahab. Although he is a strict captain who expects nothing less than total obedience from his crew, it is obvious that Ahab is not a bad man. Yet, despite receiving such glowing reviews from his fellow sailors, he puts the life of his entire crew in danger by taking them around the world with the sole purpose of getting revenge on one white whale, thus acting irresponsibly, not befitting an experienced captain. His actions would have damaged his reputation as a captain and had he survived the whale attack, his life would have become worse than what it was after losing the leg because to live with a bad reputation is even worse than to live without a leg. So death was the only way he could escape this fate.
Another reason why Ishmael deserved to live was because of his broad-minded view of religion. Ishmael was a good Christian as seen in his attending the sermon at the Whaleman’s Chapel. Despite this, he agrees to join Queequeg in idol worship, a practice which went fundamentally against his Presbyterian beliefs. He justified this act of idol worship, arguing that by doing so he is only following the will of God, which is “to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me” (Melville 57). Such a broad-minded and tolerant viewpoint needs to be promoted and had Ishmael died in the whale attack, his tolerance of other religions would have died with him. If good behavior deserves to be rewarded, then it is only befitting that Ishmael was the sole survivor at the end of the novel.
In contrast to Ishmael’s religious nature, Ahab was an arrogant and rebellious person with little regard for God or religion. According to Rogers, the whiteness of the whale is a spiritual token which connects “Moby Dick with gods, both pagan and Christian” (34). If the whale had indeed come to signify God, then we cannot forget that God is supposed to be both loving and vengeful. Ahab had become arrogant and no longer had respect even for God. This was obvious when he told Starbuck that he would “strike the sun if it insulted me” (Chapter 36). If God is indeed vengeful, than He would have seen this as Ahab’s rebellion and taken revenge for his blasphemy through his death. And if the whale was signifying God, then it was only befitting that Ahab met his death at the hands of the whale as a punishment for his blasphemy. On the other hand, Ishmael being the sole survivor is justified because he exhibited a certain detachment that religions often advocate.
Besides Ishmael’s love for life, his fearlessness in face of death is another aspect of his character which needs to be appreciated and hence is a justification for his being the sole survivor. After Pequod’s first encounter with a whale, Ishmael for the first time realized the extreme dangers of whaling and acknowledged that whalers deliberately put themselves in harm’s way to catch a whale and yet may not succeed in every attempt. Ishmael had earlier confessed to being a “romantic, melancholy and absent-minded young man” (Melville 135). However, realizing that, in signing up for this voyage, he was as good as dead, he decided to update his will immediately after this first encounter with the whale. When Ishmael signed up for the whaling voyage, he regarded the business of catching whales with some degree of romanticism. Coming face to face with danger should have reduced some of this romanticism and made him more practical. But, even in the act of updating his will, we see a certain amount of romanticism and perhaps even absurdity, considering that Ishmael did not have any money, his wages from the current voyage being barely sufficient to “pay for the clothing” (Melville 75). Thus, Ishmael remained the eternal romantic; even facing death and knowing that he may not have long to live does not in any way diminish this quality in him. This fearlessness and romanticism makes him stand out from the rest of the crew. For example, when Pip was left alone in the sea, he turned mad as the sea had “drowned the infinite of his soul” (Chapter 93, second last para). But Ishmael’s reaction in face of danger was to embrace it. This kind of courage is rare and deserves to be rewarded. Thus, his surviving in the end was a way for God and nature to reward his courage, fearlessness, love for life and everything else that he stood for.
Ahab’s need for revenge was so great that he was willing to lie, deceive, mislead, tempt or do anything else necessary to ensure that he got his way, something which is obviously not appreciable in anyone, least of all in a person who is responsible for the lives of so many people. As the captain of the ship and a man with only one leg, undertaking the whale hunt could be considered suicidal for Ahab and certain disaster for the ship. If the ship’s owners knew of this fixation, they would not allow Ahab to captain the ship or approve the voyage itself. So, Ahab decided to get his own crew and, in doing so, deceived the ship owners. Also, as Boren points out, “throughout the narrative, numerous events challenge Ahab’s power precisely because they are open to interpretation by the crew. To control these omens, Ahab rhetorically and physically reaches out, grabs them, and conquers them with his own form of significance” (12). Ahab was aware that his desire to seek revenge can never be fulfilled without the total and unquestioning support of his crew, and so he took whatever measures necessary to ensure total support from his crew members. In doing so, he seemed to forget his responsibilities as captain of the ship and placed the crew’s life in danger. He himself was aware of this obsession, as he calls his actions “demoniac” and “madness maddened” (Melville 143). Hence considering the fact that he was deliberately acting irresponsibly, it is only fair that he would be punished for his actions.
Another thing which justifies Ahab’s fate is that he is consumed by his desperate need for revenge, to the exclusion of everything else, so much that he wants to avoid doing anything that cannot in some way help him get his revenge. If it were practically possible, he would hunt for no whale other than the white whale throughout the trip. This single-mindedness is obvious from the fact that he indulged in “gams,” a tradition on the high seas, only when another ship had any information about the white whale. In Husband’s opinion, “In his mad hunt for vengeance on the white whale, Ahab becomes so thoroughly separated from his fellowmen that he can refuse even to join in the search for a missing whale-boat” (197). Ahab’s need for revenge isolated him from his fellow humans. At the end of the first day’s chase, he is so upset at having failed in his quest that he found the company of Stubb and Starbuck unbearable; he ordered them to leave, saying “Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors! Cold, cold—I shiver!” (Melville 413). Such separation from humanity can never be good for any human and can lead to madness. Ahab’s obsession with revenge was bordering madness and he was heading towards a wasteful life, hence his fate.
Even if Ahab had managed to get his revenge, he really had nothing more to live for. His quest for revenge had boiled down to a simple either-or situation. Either he would kill the whale or the whale would kill him. No other outcome was acceptable to him. In this sense, he was already dead. Since his sole purpose in life was revenge, once he succeeded, he would have had nothing more to live for. His dismemberment and old age, coupled with the fact that he has deceived the owners of the ship, meant that it would be impossible for him to captain any future sailing assignments. For a man who had spent his entire life at sea, this would be a sentence worse than death. Hence, his death at the end of the novel is justified, given his obsessive need for revenge and the fact that, if he got his revenge, he would no longer have any reason to live.
Perhaps nothing justifies the respective fates of Ishmael and Ahab than their connection with mankind. During the course of the novel, Ahab loses all connection with mankind, even with his wife and son, and towards the end became so lonely that he is even unable to bear the company of other men. It may be questioned if such a person deserves to live who is so disconnected from fellow humans that he can no longer be implored to attend to basic humanities such as helping save another human life. Hence, in a way, in death Ahab found emancipation.
While Ahab became more isolated from the world, Ishmael was increasingly becoming aware that his fate was linked with others. At the beginning of the novel, Ishmael is seen as the lonely wanderer who takes to sea out of sheer boredom. There is no mention of family or any other bonds to the land. However, as the tale progresses, Ishmael matures from a young boy with nothing to live for into an older, wiser individual who sees the world as a beautiful place where humans help each other. During the voyage, he came to appreciate the better side of mankind, something that he had probably not seen before. Thus, Ishmael is justified in being the sole survivor because with his new perspective of mankind, he deserved another chance to enjoy the beauty of life while Ahab having been alienated from mankind and with his need for revenge as the only driving force, no longer had anything to live for.
Ausband, Stephan C. “The Whale and the Machine: An Approach to Moby-Dick” American Literature 47.2 (1975): 197-211. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 2009.
Boren, Mark Edelman “What’s Eating Ahab? The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick.” Style 34.1 (2000): 1-24. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 2009.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Eds. Herschel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: Norton 2001.
Rogers, Robert. “The Humanism of Moby Dick.” The Humanist 68.6 (2008): 33-37. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 2009.