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Group Psychology and Analysis of the Pequod

Laci Hutto

Our understanding of the behavior of the crew of the Pequod, as they follow their maniacal captain on his suicidal vendetta can be aided by a reading of Sigmund Freud's Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. This work considers the effect that being part of a group has on a person's subjectivity, and ways in which the leader of the group can easily manipulate the group members into acting in ways uncharacteristic of their individual selves. Freud's Group Psychology gives one possible explanation for why the crew of the Pequod would follow Ahab on such an insane quest.

At the beginning of Ahab's introduction to the readers, in chapter 34, we see him at a meal with the the crew, seeming to be a completely separate entity. After having a lot of time to see the crew together at sea, the introduction of Ahab comes at a point in which we realize that although he too is part of the Pequod, he is not a part of the group mind that Freud discusses. What we see in Freud is a lot of what we no know through common sense, about how mob mentality may take over a group and cause them to act in unusual ways. This mind, he says, is produced "under a certain condition," in which an individual "thought, felt, and acted in quite a different way from what would have been expected." (Freud, 6) We could easily read the crew members' time at sea as being enough of the right kind of condition to produce a group mentality among those on the Pequod. Why, then, is Ahab exempt from this binding of minds?

Freud describes a group as "an obedient herd, which could never live without a master." (Freud, 17) It is not enough for group psychology that men will band together in this way when left at sea for long periods of time; there must be a leader to govern this group. Ahab is the obvious choice for a leader in the context of Moby-Dick because of his role as ship's captain. More than this, however, he meets Freud's criteria for who must be the leader of a group. Ahab "possess[es] a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him." (Freud, 17) Ishmael notes, after the crew has agreed to chase the white whale, that Ahab is very conscious of the fact that he must use the men of his ship as the tools by which to accomplish his mission. Ishmael also points out that Ahab recognizes that using money to keep the men in line would be very effective, since without the promise of it, the men will surely mutiny and "cashier Ahab." (Melville, 178) Ishmael's chapter-long discussion of the means by which Ahab will manage to keep the men of the crew under his governance shows Ahab's effectiveness as a Freudian group leader. He knows how to act in such a way to give the men just enough of what they want that they will not turn against him.

We see this kind of effectiveness throughout the book, beginning in chapter 36, when Ahab first convinces the crew to help him in his singular mission. He leads the crew in getting excited about their whaling quest, by becoming so excited himself that "the mariners began to gaze curiously at each other, as if marveling how it was that they themselves became so excited at such seemingly purposeless questions." (Melville, 138) We see from this moment the ways in which Ahab gains control over the crew, even later in this chapter, when he performs a sort of binding ritual, so as to seal the group mentality and thereby his rule over it. From this point on, the crewmen are so hooked into their roles as part of the group led by Ahab, that they would dare not question his authority. He plays into the "sentiment of invincible power" that the group has acquired that stops them from recognizing the inherent dangers of being led on this quest for vengeance by a madman.

The members of the crew, once bound together in this group mind, lose their sense of subjectivity. Freud claims that the member of a group "readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest," and that, furthermore, once in a group mindset, "no personal interest, not even that of self-preservation can make itself felt." (Freud, 10 and 13) If this is so, it is clear why the members of this crew would see no further than the directives handed down from Ahab. They have no personal interest; everything they seek to do is for the good of the group-- or, to put it more accurately than Freud does, for the good of the leader. The group believes the leader is leading them for their own good, and in this case, does not realize that their leader is actually on a completely self-centered mission for revenge, on which they are merely tools. Stubb, for example, decides the best way to deal with the decision to chase the whale is to sing and laugh, and later insists that the crew of the Pequod is in no more danger than any other whaling ship on the sea, despite talk of Ahab's insanity. (Melville, 145 and 385) Ishmael himself points out that "this pertinacious pursuit of one particular whale, continued through day into night, and through night into day, is a thing by no means unprecedented in the South sea fishery." (Melville, 413) Stubb's and Ishmael's claims, rather than proving the point that the Pequod's mission is not that unusual, serve to show that they are under the effect of the group mentality, being convinced by Ahab that it is right to hunt the whale.

One person on the ship who is not part of this collective mentality succumbing to Ahab's governance is Starbuck. Starbuck is under Ahab's influence, but this relationship is different from that of Ahab and the rest of the crew. They are in a two-person group mentality, known in Freudian terms as hypnosis, led by Ahab. The effect of Ahab over Starbuck is the same as his effect over the rest of the crew, but Starbuck is alone in his mental processes, and is not governed by a group mind telling him to forget all thoughts of self-preservation. He protests from the very beginning, claiming that Ahab's plan is insane, and that it is not right to change the intended mission of the whaling ship. His protestations continue right up until the end, when Starbuck begs Ahab to quit, saying "Oh!Ahab... not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist." (Melville, 423) There is a personal bond between these two men, but the overwhelming dynamic still ends with Ahab's control over Starbuck.

Ahab knows how to treat the men of the ship to keep them under his control, but his control over Starbuck is not acted out in the same way. He points a musket at Starbuck and threatens him, a kind of action he would not use so readily on any other member of the crew. Starbuck in return considers killing Ahab with the same musket in his sleep, but cannot. These events separate him distinctly from the other crew members, proving that while he is under Ahab's thrall, he is not part of the group mentality as it applies to the other members of the crew. Ahab's pull over him is personal, magnetic. The pull is so complete that "Starbuck's body and Starbuck's coerced will were Ahab's, so long as Ahab kept his magnet at Starbuck's brain." (Melville, 177) This aligns with Freud's account of the leader's effect over others, so we see that even though Starbuck is not mentally part of the crew in this way, he is in another kind of Freudian group psychology in his relationship to Ahab, and as such is also unable to pull away enough to stop the ship from searching for Moby Dick.

The sad irony of this whole situation is that the poor crewmen who have been deluded into following Ahab, along with Starbuck, who similarly could not go against Ahab, are proven wrong in their trust for their captain. Throughout the voyage they convince themselves that Ahab is not leading them into any excessive danger. They believe that he will look out for them, since he is their leader. In the end, however, Moby Dick turns his rage on Ahab to the ship, killing every trusting man aboard the Pequod just before Ahab himself is taken under the water.

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