Loving and Hating the White Whale

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Loving and Hating the White Whale

Laine Edwards

All emotions, whether love, hate, joy or sadness, are characterized by the existence of their opposite. To know love is also to know hate, and to feel joy is to also feel sadness. In my opinion, emotions are defined by their opposites, as it is impossible to feel one without having knowledge of the other. As applied to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the existence of opposite emotions is best embodied in the character of Captain Ahab. Aboard the Pequod, Ahab is consumed with his hatred for the white whale and his animosity towards the animal drives him to the point of destruction. Ahab's hatred is so intense that it destroys his ability to feel anything but anger. This hatred, however, must be countered by the love Ahab must have once felt towards someone, or something. His ability to express wrath and loathing confirms that he at one point in his life could also express respect and admiration. In order to hate Moby Dick with such conviction, Ahab must also loved Moby Dick with such conviction. The relationship between the two embodies the quintessential love/hate relationship. Ahab cannot live with the white whale, and he cannot live without him. Although throughout the entirety of the novel Ahab vehemently denounces Moby Dick as a hellish creature, I believe there are moments when Ahab shows love towards the white whale, if only we can look beyond his pasteboard mask.

As Ishmael describes in the chapter entitled "The Honour and Glory of Whaling" there is a long and illustrious history of the sport of whaling. He believes there to be a fraternity of whalers that includes "heroes, saints, demigods, and prophets" (315). All the men in this fraternity have participated in the adventures that ensue from hunting whales and the excitement that resonates in their tales is mirrored in the tone of awe with which Ishmael speaks of whaling. Captain Ahab also belongs to this fraternity and therefore it can be assumed, that like many of the young men who came before him, he was attracted to the whaling ships because of the thrills they promised. His hatred of Moby Dick was not created the day he first stepped upon the deck of a whaling ship, but was instead born out of the loss of his leg at the jaws of Moby Dick.

During his speech to the crew in which he rallies them to his cause, Ahab uses the metaphor of the "pasteboard mask" in response to Starbuck's assertion that Ahab's obsession with revenge on Moby Dick is foolish. Ahab responds, "All visible objects [...] are as pasteboard masks [...] If man will strike, strike through the mask!" (143). Ahab's reasons for seeking revenge on Moby Dick are not as transparent as Starbuck alleges. His crew assumes that Ahab's hunt for the white whale stems from the loss of his leg alone. As Ahab asserts through the metaphor of the pasteboard mask, however, the truth of his emotions can only be realized by striking through the mask and seeing what is behind it. Ahab's mask exists in the form of his ivory leg. The leg is a visible object that, to most, represents his reason for hunting Moby Dick. Yet, as Ahab tries to explain to his crew, the emotion driving his revenge is far more complex than the simple philosophy of "an eye for an eye". The love and admiration for whales Ahab developed as a young man was scorned by the most magnificent whale of all. Moby Dick rejected Ahab's offer of mutual respect and crippled him at a time when he was most vulnerable. The resulting behavior of Ahab is that of a lover scorned. He sulks at the loss of his love and gradually replaces one emotion for its opposite.

In the chapter entitled "Sunset", directly following Ahab's "pasteboard mask" speech, Ahab sits alone in his cabin contemplating the arduous mission that he has undertaken to hunt and kill Moby Dick. As he watches the sunset from his window Ahab laments

"Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne'er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise! Good-night -- good-night!" (147).

Ahab is no longer the irate ship captain rallying his crew to his cause. When he is alone his hatred of Moby Dick is tainted by the love that he has lost. Gone forever is the time when Ahab can enjoy the beautiful scenery of being on a whaling ship. The admiration that he once had for whales has been replaced by depression and anger towards the beast that betrayed him. Ahab feels betrayed by Moby Dick, betrayed by his love of an animal that cannot or will not return his feelings. Following Ahab's own advice and striking through his pasteboard mask, it seems that his hatred of the whale is so deep and painful to him because of the deep emotions of respect and love that he had for Moby Dick. In this chapter, just as in the rest of the novel, Ahab begins his tirades by expressing more melancholy than anger. As it progresses, however, his sorrow mutates into blind and unbridled anger finally culminating in destruction.

The hatred that Ahab feels towards Moby Dick is characterized and qualified by the love that he once held for the animal. He believes that he is bound to the whale by an unbreakable bond forged when the two previously battled and Ahab lost his leg. Ahab hates the white whale because he loves him and loves the white whale because he hates him. One emotion is impossible without the other and it is because of this that his emotions are so intense. Ahab cannot control the intensity of the emotions he feels towards Moby Dick due to the constant back and forth between love and hate that he experiences. His hatred is tainted by the fact that it is a constant reminder of the love and admiration he once felt for Moby Dick. He cannot experience the true hatred that he desires because he has already experienced a feeling of love for the whale that cannot be ignored. Ahab performs his hatred of Moby Dick in a way that makes it appear as if he is willing to go to the depths of hell to hunt the whale. When he is alone, however, Ahab acts much differently and shows that his hatred is the result of its contrasting emotion. The space that his respect for the whale once filled must now be occupied with an emotion that is similar in intensity, but opposite in feeling.

The passion behind Ahab's emotions ultimately leads to his destruction with Moby Dick. The force of his hatred combined with the lingering feeling of love and admiration that Ahab once felt for the white whale have pushed him to the edge. He is so consumed with his emotions that he is blind to the voice of reason and equates himself with God, saying "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod" (410). Ahab is so conflicted within himself that he assumes a position of authority that is not rightfully his. He consistently refers to the fires of hell and seems to believe that he has come to inhabit such a space. Moby Dick is his torturer and he will not rest until the white what is dead.

The intensity of Ahab's hatred must be characterized by the intensity of his opposite emotion. It is impossible for Ahab to experience such loathing if he has not also experienced the contrasting emotion of love. Ahab began his career as a whaler belonging to the fraternity of which Ishmael is so enamored, however, through his experiences with Moby Dick he is transformed into a man of a completely different caliber than those who belong to the fraternity. Gone is the Ahab who enjoys the adventure and thrill of whaling. That Ahab has been replaced by an overzealous captain who will stop at no cost, both in terms of himself and his crew, to achieve his goal. Ahab is aware of this transformation in himself, however, and expresses it when he describes the metaphor of the pasteboard mask. In that passage I believe Ahab is offering the best explanation he can give as to why his hunt for the whale is so consuming. As readers of Moby Dick it is the responsibility of the reader to follow the instructions of the characters, and when Ahab asks us to strike beyond his mask to see the truth behind it, I believe that we will find love of the whale, not hate.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. London: Aldine Press, 1975.

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