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Moby Dick, Order, and Control

Louisa Amsterdam's picture

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is a complicated novel, its central plot only part of a maze that includes history and speculation. Central to Moby Dick’s narrative is Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the sperm whale Moby Dick. This monstrous whale, to him, represents a malicious force in the universe; by destroying this force, he will prove that it exists, and thus prove that the universe has some sort of order. Though certain members of his ship, the Pequod, contemplate mutinying or killing him, the crew follows Ahab on his quest, in the process sacrificing profit and risking (and eventually losing) their lives. Why the crew would take such risks for a madman’s quest may have something to do with their own fears about death. Ahab’s motives, and the crew’s loyalty to him, are displayed in chapters 36 and 135; in the former, Ahab reveals his true purpose, and in the latter, Ahab and the crew engage in the final battle with Moby Dick.


It is in Chapter 36 that Ahab finally reveals the true purpose of the Pequod’s voyage: To kill Moby Dick, the great white sperm whale that caused him to lose his leg (177). On the surface, it seems that this is simply an act of revenge; Starbuck, the first mate, calls the act “madness” to follow “a dumb brute” that harmed him “from blindest instinct” (178). However, Ahab’s soliloquy makes it clear that he sees Moby Dick as much more than a whale, but as the physical representation of a malicious force in the universe, a force at which Ahab wishes to strike a blow. In doing so, he believes, he can prove that the force truly exists; if the force exists, it means that he lost his leg for a reason, and that there is an order in the universe. He compares all objects to “pasteboard masks,” and he wishes to reach out and touch “some unknown but still reasoning thing” which “puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” (178) Abstract forces, such as evil, are real and personified in the world; there is intelligence, and thus an order, behind all things. The possibility of disorder frightens him so much that he cannot bring himself to speak of it: When comparing Moby Dick to a wall that he must break to understand the universe truly, he states, “’Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough.’” (178) He cannot bear to contemplate that idea for even an instant, and continues on his thoughts of revenge.


Throughout the novel, Ahab is shown to be insane, both in his speech and action; the crew knows this, as evidenced by Stubb’s comment to Flask, “’the chick that’s in him pecks the shell. T’will soon be out.” (174) Though some members of the crew consider taking him out of command, most obviously Starbuck, they follow his orders. Eventually, this leads to their deaths. In this, Melville demonstrates an understanding of the way that large groups operate that has also been explored by modern psychology. Most interestingly, the crew’s actions relate to Terror Management Theory. According to this idea, we fear death, and therefore cling to our culture, which acts as a sort of buffer against this fear. Studies on Terror Management Theory have demonstrated that subjects, no matter what their professed political beliefs, will give high approval ratings to their country’s leader when made to think about death. Ahab is an authority, both representing the micro-culture of the ship, as well as the culture of whaling as a whole. Even if he is unbalanced, trusting him shields the crew from living in constant fear, especially in so perilous environment as a whaling ship. Melville’s presentation of the crew’s fatal trust in Ahab perhaps goes beyond culture as the buffer against terror of death; the very idea of giving order to life’s events seems to be in itself a defense against the fear of death. The captain is supposed to give order to a ship’s actions by giving commands, which already invests Ahab with this power. Beyond that, he is confronting death itself. Ahab gives death a name and a shape: Moby Dick the white whale. It can be made into something tangible and describable, and is therefore less frightening to them.


In Chapter 36, “The Quarter-Deck,” Captain Ahab tells the crew that his true intent is to find and kill Moby Dick, and asks them to swear allegiance to follow him in his cause. In the chapter, Ahab admits that satisfaction of his psychological needs will be the main profit gained from killing the whale, but the men agree to follow him anyway. Starbuck alone vocally resists, but will not actually disobey his captain (178-179). Stubb makes a comment which is perhaps most revealing. Ahab strikes his chest, indicating that his own satisfaction is the reward of the hunt for Moby Dick. Stubb states, “’He smites his chest…methinks it rings most vast, but hollow.’” (178) Ahab’s quest is grand, but without substance. The obsessive search for order, though seemingly important, is foolish. By the end of the chapter, he has worked the crew to fervor equal to his, their eyes like those “of the prairie wolves meet[ing] the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison.” (179) They vow to pursue Moby Dick with him. At this moment, the wind picks up and a low laugh is heard, seeming to hint that some resistance still remains in the crowd, and that following Ahab will only lead the crew to their doom (179). However, Ishmael, the novel’s occasional narrator, indicates that what may seem to be an omen is a creation of order by the mind: “Yet not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the foregoing things within. For with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on.” (179) We want to see our own thoughts reflected in the world around us, and thus read meaningless events as if they are signs and omens.


Chapter 135, “The Chase--Third Day” is the ultimate outcome of Ahab’s quest and the crew’s agreement to follow him in it. At this point, Moby Dick has been worked to a violent frenzy after being chased for days, seeming “combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven” (618); it becomes obvious that to continue to chase him will have disastrous consequences; as Starbuck portentously says, “Against the wind he now steers for the open jaw…already my bones feel damp within me, and from the inside wet my flesh.” (614) However, the crew continues to follow Ahab’s orders. Starbuck voices his dissent for the last time, begging Ahab to stop the hunt (616). However, he never rises against Ahab, though he earlier contemplated killing him (559). Ahab is lowered into a boat, and before harpooning Moby Dick Ahab delivers a soliloquy: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconqering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee…sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale!” (623) He believes he has conquered the whale, even if it means that he has destroyed himself in the process; Ahab’s only object is now its death, which does not necessarily include his staying alive. When he throws the harpoon, however, it kills him, missing Moby Dick (623). He, by destroying himself but not the whale, has failed utterly; he now cannot even continue his obsessive chase. Melville closes the scene with the ocean rolling over the wreckage of the ship, “as it rolled five thousand years ago” (624); Ahab’s pursuit of evil, and thus order, is as old as humanity.  

 Melville’s Moby Dick is a highly complex novel, and cannot be said to have one theme, but many. However, a central piece of the main narrative is Ahab’s vain quest for an ordered universe. Whether he knows it or not is unclear, but the absolute obedience he commands from his crew stems from this quest for order. To protect themselves from the overwhelming fear of death, Ahab’s men, paradoxically, will follow Ahab to their deaths.


Anne Dalke's picture

Dissolving the Paradox


You’ve brought together here two shorter, earlier meditations of yours about Moby-Dick: one in which you think about conformity experiments in psychology and one in which you talk about the relation of Terror Management theory to the crew’s “mob-mentality” in the novel.

Juxtaposing these two ideas from psych literature means, first, that you need to cite your outside sources! Secondly, it means that you’ve done something I don’t think you quite realize you’ve accomplished: both constructed and then dissolved a paradox. If I follow the logic of your argument correctly, when people are afraid of death, they look to culture, especially to a cultural leader, for succor. It’s paradoxical if that leader, like Ahab, leads them to death; but the paradox dissolves once you recognize that giving meaning and order to life—even, maybe especially through dying in the pursuit of meaning—assuages the terror of meaninglessness. So when you end your essay by saying that Ahab “has failed utterly,” I find myself in disagreement; he has not failed, not in the terms he himself has set (and you yourself have elucidated): he has found meaning for his life, in his manner of dying—and, along the way, he has provided meaning for his mobbish crew.

My one stylistic suggestion for you would be in line with the argument of this essay: that is, to be more assertive in making your own claims for meaning. Don’t be afraid to state your argument strongly. So rather than observing, obliquely, that “the crew’s risk “may have something to do with their own fears about death,” assert that they take these risks in order to confront their fears directly. Rather than say that their “actions related to Terror Management theory,” argue explicitly that they can be explained in terms of that theory.

If you'd like to think some more about our obsessive attempts to make meaning out of meaninglessness, see Lisa Belkin, "The Odds of That: Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracy,"New York Times Magazine (August 11, 2002). Belkin shows that, especially in age when paranoia runs rampant, we are discomforted by idea of random universe. Finding a reason or pattern where there is none makes it less frightening, because it makes it logical.