Larger Than Life: The Influential Power of Reputation in 'Moby Dick'

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Larger Than Life: The Influential Power of Reputation in 'Moby Dick'

Lauren Sweeney

All you people can't you see, can't you see
How your love's affecting our reality
Everytime we're down
You can make it right
And that makes you larger than life.
-The Backstreet Boys

It may seem strange to compare apply the words of a late 20th century boy band to one of the most illustrious of the 'Great American Classics,' but there is an undeniable connection between the Backstreet Boys' meditation on celebrity and the reputation of Herman Melville's Ahab. Indeed, the mad captain of the Pequod has become one of the successful celebrities of the literary tradition. The carefully constructed image he projects and chooses to maintain throughout the novel helped to make him a legend among his peers. His appearance, actions, passion and obsession are the subject of his fellow characters' fascination, and Ahab himself has come to serve as an archetypical figure of the insanity of vengeful ambition. His quest for transcendence through the act of killing Moby Dick creates a persona that his bigger than the bodily manifestation of his presence and the attractiveness of his pure charisma and energy are the elements that entice the crew to follow him to the bitter end.

The character of Ahab is slowly revealed through the text like an oncoming vessel emerging slowly from a veil of fog. His name is first mentioned by Captain Peleg, one of the two retired sailors and chief Nantucket shareholders of the Pequod. When Ishmael agrees to join the crew, he requests to meet the ship's captain, but receives an ambiguous response from Peleg:

"Anyhow young man, he won't always see me, so I don't suppose he will see thee. He's a queer man, Captain Ahab—so some think—but a good one. Oh, thou'lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; he don't speak much; but, when he does speak, you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the keenest and surest that, out of all out isle. Oh! he ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old thou knowest, was a crowned king!...I know Ahab well; I've sailed with him as mate years ago; I know what he is—a good man—not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man—something like me—only there's a good deal more of him. Aye, aye, I know that he was never very jolly; and I know that on the passage home he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about as any one might see. I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he's been a kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it's better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one. So good-bye to thee—and wrong not Captain Ahab because he happens to have a wicked name. Besides my boy, he has a wife—not three voyages wedded—a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man has a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted if he be, Ahab has his humanities!" (Melville, 77.)

Peleg describes Ahab with a distinct kind of reverence and respect, mentioning the mysterious elements of his character, but glossing them over and placing emphasis on his achievements rather than his eccentricities. Peleg speaks energetically about the absent captain; he attempts to justify his faults by assuring Ishmael of Ahab's ultimate, overriding goodness. Peleg acknowledges that some people think Ahab is "a queer man" but he is still "a good man." He calls him "an ungodly, god-like man", "a swearing good man", and "stricken, blasted though he be, Ahab has his humanities." Peleg praises Ahab's knowledge and the variety of his experiences, from college to cannibals, as well as his hunting skill. When he tells Ishmael that Ahab has not only seen, but has grown accustomed to "wonders deeper than the waves" and faced enemies "mightier, stranger than whales" Ishmael is meant to interpret this as a mark of true experience. From the very beginning of the book there is discussion of the absolute power and mystery of the ocean. If there is something is deeper, mightier and stranger than this element of nature, then it is beyond the realm of Ishmael's comprehension. In Ahab, Peleg paints a portrait of a man who has seen all and who knows all. He makes him out to be more than a mere man. He is "a crowned king!"

From the moment of this introduction onward, Melville creates an interesting and powerful dichotomy between the danger of Ahab's obsessive madness and its strange attractiveness. Immediately following this exchange with Peleg, Ishmael confesses to the reader that he feels the magnetic pull of Ahab's presence:

"As I walked away, I was full of thoughtfulness; what had been incidentally revealed to me of Captain Ahab, filled me with a certain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning him. And somehow, at the time, I felt a sympathy and a sorrow for him, but for I don't know what, unless it was the cruel loss of his leg. And yet I also felt a strange awe of him; but what sort of awe, which I can not at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then"(Melville, 77.)

Ishmael acutely describes his sense of anticipation and recognizes the intriguing nature of the mystery of Captain Ahab due to the little information with which Peleg supplies him. This sense of mystery and anticipation is further increased when he is offered another perspective on the captain.

The prophetic (or perhaps senile) old sailor Elijah accosts Ishmael in the street and offers a somewhat more ominous description of the captain. When Elijah asks Ishmael what he knows about the captain, he replies that he doesn't know much, only that Ahab is a good hunter and treats his crew well.

"That's true, that's true—yes, both true enough. But you must also jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go—that's the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off of Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights, nothing about that deadly skrimage with the Spaniard afore the alter in Santa?—heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy? Didn't hear a word about them matters and something more, eh? No, I don't think ye did; how could ye? Who knows it? Not all Nantucket, I guess. But hows'ever, mayhap, ye've heard tell about the leg, and how he lost it; aye, ye have heard of that I dare say. Oh yes, that every one knows a'most—I mean they know he's only one leg; and that a parmacetti tool the other off"(87.)

This description creates a bit of confusion for Ishmael because it does not conflict with anything that Peleg says. Though Ishmael longs to know more about Captain Ahab, the information he receives from Elijah only confuses him further, intensifying the mystery.
Upon close reading, one comes to realize that Elijah does not disagree with Peleg, but dwells on the darker points of Ahab's character and reputation. The old man gives the narrator the impression that there is some vital information about Captain Ahab that Peleg intentionally withheld from him. Elijah references legendary tales about Ahab's past with something like a mystical air; the fact that he lay as though he were dead for three days then came back to life in Christ-like fashion; the incident which resulted in the loss of his leg as the fulfillment of a prophecy. Without directly saying it, he encourages Ishmael to question his decision to board the Pequod and fills his head with confusion and doubt, which only makes him more curious to see the captain and to decide for himself whether or not he is crazy, trustworthy, or both.

In most stories, characters are introduced with one description by the author or narrator, but in this tale, Melville uses conflicting reports, stories and rumors about Ahab to increase the "hype" surrounding his appearance and to allow the reader's experience of simulated anticipation to mirror Ishmael's. Because both Peleg and Elijah speak with authority on the subject of Ahab's character, Ishmael is conflicted about whom he should believe. Might Peleg try to sell the captain's strengths, for the sake of his own gain? Should he believe the man who has a financial interest in the ship and wishes to secure a crew, or the stranger in the street who appears mad, but has nothing to gain by providing him with information?

Both Peleg and Elijah give Ishmael the sense that there is something strange and indescribable about Captain Ahab. Both men agree that there is something very mysterious about him but Peleg's attitude was one of awe and respect, whereas Elijah's is rather ominous and fills Ishmael with doubt. While pondering these two descriptions, Ishmael's confusion about the captain increases. He describes his growing apprehension in the days preceding the voyage:

"During these days of preparation, Queequeg and I often visited the craft, and as often as I asked about Captain Ahab, and how he was, and when he was going to board his ship. To these questions they would answer that he was getting better every day; meantime, the two Captains, Peleg and Bildad, could attend to everything necessary to fit the vessel for the voyage. If I had been downright honest with myself, I would have seen plainly in my heart that I did but half fancy being committed to this way so long to voyage, without once laying my eyes on the man who was supposed to be the absolute dictator of it., so soon the ship sailed out upon the open sea. But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself. And much this way it was with me. I said nothing, and tried to think nothing"(90)

Ishmael attempts to control his anxiety by putting all thoughts of Ahab from his mind until he can meet the man face-to-face make his own assessment of Ahab's character.

When Ahab finally enters the text, several days after the Pequod leaves Nantucket, he surprises the crew by entering silently. Ishmael describes a premonitory chill just before laying eyes on the figure of the captain standing on the quarter-deck.

"There seemed no sign of bodily illness about him, nor of recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole thigh, broad form, seemed made of sold bronze and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was he scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say. By some tacit consent, throughout the voyage little or no allusion was made to it, especially by the mates. But once, Tashtego's senior, an old Gay-Head Indian among the crew, superstitiously asserted that not till he was full forty years old did Ahab become that way branded, and then it came upon him, not in the fury of any mortal fray, but in an elemental strife at sea. Yet, this wild hint seemed inferentially navigated, by what a grey Manxman insinuated, an old sepulchral man, who, having never before sailed out of Nantucket, had never laid eye upon wild Ahab. Nevertheless, the old sea-traditions, the immemorial credulities, popularly invested this old Manxman with preternatural powers of discernment. So that no white sailor seriously contradicted him when he said that if ever Captain Ahab should be tranquilly laid out—which might hardly come to pass, so he muttered—then, whoever should do that last office for the dead would find a birth-mark on him from crown to sole." (110)

Contrary to Ishmael's previous belief, the appearance of Ahab only confound him further. The mark on his face only leads to more confusion, discussion, rumor, and mystery.
Ahab's power over his crew comes from the fact that he embraces the mysterious parts of his personality that lend themselves to superstition and legend. He uses the crew's awe and respect to his advantage and acts slowly and carefully so as not to break the illusion of him that they create for themselves in their own minds. Ahab is nothing without the crew. He knows that he needs them to complete his quest successfully, and he understands that the only way to be an absolute dictator is to allow his followers to believe that he is greater than them, that he is more of a man then they are. There is an element of theatricality to all of Ahab's public appearances; he performs the character of "Captain Ahab" that he knows the crew expects to see. It is only by becoming larger than life and by banking on his own celebrity that Ahab is able to successfully monopolize the Pequod.

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