[Kim Seong-kon] Captain Ahab and the white whale

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Jun 4, 2019 - 17:20
  • Updated : Jun 4, 2019 - 17:20

In my class in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine, I had my American students discuss Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” with reference to multicultural issues. Some students read the novel as a story about Ishmael’s initiation from adolescent innocence into adulthood experience. Indeed, through his encounter with Queequeg, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Ishmael learns the importance of embracing others -- such as different races, religions and cultures.

Other students read it as a story about the whale and its symbolism. Initially, literary critics regarded Moby Dick as a symbol of sinister evil in our world. Later, the white whale was interpreted as a symbol of a sacred deity. As time goes on, the mysterious creature began to be seen as some truth or higher meaning we should pursue in our lifetime. Today, Moby Dick is interpreted as a symbol of inscrutable veiled truth, the meaning of which we cannot comprehend easily.

Equally important and valid is to read the novel as a story about Captain Ahab, who is a singularly self-righteous man obsessed with seeking revenge on the gigantic white whale. After losing his leg while fighting the monstrous leviathan, he vows revenge. To Ahab, killing Moby Dick means restoring justice through retribution, which he has made his lifetime task. He projects evil on the great white whale and is determined to kill it at any cost. Ahab has the firm conviction that the white whale is evil.

However, Ahab’s attitude brings forth some serious problems in our world, especially when we consider its disastrous outcome. For example, his personal vendetta is sugarcoated as a “Grand Cause” -- that is, eliminating evil in his society, represented by the sea. But his ultimate goal of chasing the great white whale is, in fact, to take his personal revenge on an enemy that has wounded and crippled him. Another familiar theme for today’s world is that Ahab hopelessly confuses his personal grudge with social justice. Ahab pursues the white whale with blind hate under the name of justice. But what is justice? As Michel Foucault points out, “justice” can be an arbitrary and elusive term because it can also be construed by those who have political power.

Ahab’s firm conviction that he is doing the absolutely right thing is problematic, too. Even the gentle and reasonable First Mate Starbuck cannot stop Ahab from his stubborn, unnegotiable and almost blind pursuit of the white whale. The problem is that Ahab’s obstinacy ultimately causes the death of his whole crew and the destruction of his ship. Only the narrator Ishmael survives and returns to warn us of what he has witnessed.

Ahab’s attempt to pin down and unveil the truth, symbolized by Moby Dick, is dangerous as well. At various points, Melville describes Moby Dick as the riddle of the sphinx, the Cretan labyrinth and more generally as the veiled truth, the meaning of which is hard to understand. You should not unveil truth because sometimes “nothing hurts more than truth,” as the maxim goes. In this sense, it is highly symbolic that Ahab dies, entangled to the white whale with the rope attached to his harpoon that he has cast onto Moby Dick to catch it.

Ahab proves he is not a worthy leader. A great leader would not bring his crew into harm’s way, but Ahab does so without hesitation. Because of his own personal vendetta and obsession, Ahab sails to uncharted seas in order to pursue the white whale and, consequently, lets his ship sink and his crew drown during the final encounter with Moby Dick. In that sense, Ahab is neither a responsible nor a reliable captain; his primary concern is not the safety of his crew or the ship, but his distorted belief and personal vengeance.

In his novel, Melville presents the whaling ship as a microcosm of society. The familiar hierarchy of a society can be found in the novel starting with the captain, then the first mate, second mate, third mate, harpooners, sailors, and so forth. In the novel, Melville also deals with issues of democracy and capitalism. In this literary masterpiece, Melville shows us that a ship is doomed to perish if it is run by a fanatic captain like Ahab.

My insightful and perceptive students at UC Irvine compared Ahab to the political leaders who are seriously jeopardizing and even ruining the future of their countries with fanatic conviction, unnegotiable stubbornness and dogmatic ideology. These political leaders are like the captain of a ship in the sense that they should steer the ship in the right direction, avoiding unknown reefs and hidden rocks in a perilous voyage in the stormy seas, high winds and engulfing waves.

Ahab deserves to die. The problem is that he wrecks his ship and makes other people on board die with him. That is why the importance of having a good captain in times of crisis cannot be overstressed.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.