The Psychologist Who Mistook a Book for a Patient: The Use-Value of Psychological Assessment of Literary Characters

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The Psychologist Who Mistook a Book for a Patient: The Use-Value of Psychological Assessment of Literary Characters

Laura Sockol

Diagnostic Assessment:* Captain Ahab

This case was referred to me by several whalers who came in contact with Captain Ahab during his latest voyage on the Pequod. Fearing that the captain's apparent mental instability presented a danger to his vessel and crew, these various individuals came to me to see if I could determine the probable cause of Ahab's behavior and participate in an intervention. Although recent contact with the ship known as the Rachel has confirmed the fears of those who first came to me for assistance, I present the enclosed material in the hopes that it may help prevent such tragedies in the future.

The information contained in this analysis has been collected from various interviews. Much of the information was obtained from an encounter with a man who preferred to be called Ishmael. This individual was the sole survivor of the late Captain Ahab's last voyage on the Pequod. Other interviewees include Captains Bildad and Peleg of Nantucket, Captain Mayhew of the Jeroboam, Captain De Deer of the Virgin, the captain and chief-mate of the Rose Bud, Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, the captain of the Bachelor, the captain of the Delight, and Captain Gardiner of the Rachel.

I present the following evidence of Captain Ahab's underlying psychological instability, prefaced by an account of Ahab's medical condition. I conclude with suggestions for possible measures that could be taken to reduce the likelihood that such events will occur in the future.

Respectfully submitted,

Laura Sockol

Known medical conditions:

During the course of his last whaling mission, Captain Ahab's leg was amputated by what other whalers have referred to as "the monstrousest parmacetty that ever chipped a boat," a whale hereafter referred to as Moby Dick (Melville 72). The injury necessitated the early return of Ahab's ship to Nantucket. Ahab's physical recovery from this injury was problematic (Melville 156). It is probable that Ahab suffered from a severe infection, accompanied by fever-induced delirium and hallucinations, during this time (Melville 78, 157). Although Ahab visibly recovered from the physical trauma of the wound and resulting infection, it is likely that the experience contributes to his current psychological difficulties.

At the time he shipped for his last voyage, Ahab seemed to be in sound physical health. A member of his crew noted that "there seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any" (Melville 108). Although he appeared abnormally thin, aside from the prosthetic leg and scar resulting from his encounter with the whale, Ahab's physical health was satisfactory. Ahab suffered from moderate insomnia during the voyage on the Pequod. He was frequently not in bed during the late hours of the night. It was estimated that he was not in bed "more than three hours out of the twenty-four" (Melville 112). The physical results of this sleep deprivation may have been a mediating factor in the development and intensification of his psychological difficulties.

Psychological symptoms:

Irrational obsessions and dysfunctional cognitions. Ahab's most salient symptom was his obsession with Moby Dick. Ahab expressed a desire to chase and kill the whale at all costs. He expended a great deal of energy, both physical and psychological, in this pursuit. He spent a considerable amount of time predicting the possible locations in which Moby Dick might be located and adjusting the ship's trajectory accordingly (Melville 167). Ahab expressed a willingness to "chase [the whale] round Good Hope ... the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before [he gave] him up" (Melville 139).

Ahab's obsession with the whale was rooted in the irrational belief that Moby Dick was the physical embodiment of an unidentified, malevolent force. Ahab attributed all of his hardships to this particular whale. A crew member noted that Ahab harbored a "wild vindictiveness against the whale" and blamed him for "not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual aspirations" (Melville 156). He believed it was his mission to hunt down and eliminate the whale.

Ahab's cognitive function and ability to make rational decisions seems to have been impaired by his obsession with Moby Dick. He was not open to "reasoning . . . remonstrance [or] entreaty," but only "flat obedience" from his crew (Melville 387). This inability to consider others' perspectives and challenge his own distorted cognitions prohibited Ahab from rationally assessing his own behavior and making sound judgements.

Ahab also expressed marked paranoia toward the latter end of the voyage. He did not trust those standing watch to report sightings of the whale and suspected the crew of disloyalty (Melville 402). These beliefs were not grounded in reality, as the crew participated fully in Ahab's quest for vengeance.

It is interesting to contrast Ahab's beliefs about the whale with those of Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, who had a similar encounter with Moby Dick. Captain Boomer also suffered an amputation and difficult physical recovery. However, Captain Boomer accepted that the loss of his arm was an accident and not the result of malicious intent on the part of the whale (Melville 340). In addition, he expressed no desire to seek revenge or to encounter the whale again (Melville 340). This clearly illustrates that Ahab's response to the loss of his leg was not an inevitable result of his encounter with Moby Dick, but rather the result of pathological cognitive interpretations of the event.

Delusions of grandeur. Ahab expressed an heightened sense of his own importance and purpose. This was frequently evident in his interactions with others. Ahab was heard to say, "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me," which indicates not only a very low threshold for conflict, but an irrational estimation of his own abilities (Melville 140).

Ahab believed that his quest to kill Moby Dick was divine in origin (Melville 143). He believed the whale to be an incarnation of the devil and believed his role was to vanquish the evil force (Melville 156). He expressed the belief that he was "the Fates' lieutenant" and that he acted "under orders" from a divine force (Melville 418). Upon sighting Moby Dick, Ahab expressed the belief that fate ordained that he should be the first to spot him, despite the ostensible simultaneity of Tashtego's sighting (Melville 408).

In addition, Ahab's interpretations of ambiguous stimuli indicate a tendency toward grandiosity. Ahab's description of the image upon an Ecuadorean doubloon, which was to be the reward for the crew member who first sighted Moby Dick, illustrates this propensity. Ahab appeared to express the belief that the images upon the coin portended his ultimate battle with the whale, and that the "mountain-tops and towers" engraved upon its surface represented "Ahab, the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious" (Melville 332). In the absence of professionally-administered diagnostic projection tests, this encounter provides evidence that Ahab's cognitions were greatly shaped by an expanded sense of self and irrational preoccupation with Moby Dick.

Ahab's delusions of grandeur extended to a belief that he was "immortal" and could not be killed by Moby Dick (Melville 377). Ahab seems to have interpreted an ambiguous "prophecy" by a member of his crew to mean that he could not be killed during a confrontation with the whale. This expanded sense of self and irrational belief in his own invincibility probably contributed to Ahab's recklessness in his pursuit of Moby Dick.

Maladaptive emotional responses. Ahab was subject to intense emotional reactions and periods of moodiness. He was noted to swing violently from one mood to another (Melville 78, 158). In addition, his experiences of and expressions of various emotions, particularly violent emotions, seemed to be intensified. Ahab was unable to regulate his emotional responses to anxiety-producing stimuli, particularly those that remind him of the occasion upon which he lost his leg. He was also prone to periods of dysphoria (low-grade depressive symptoms). Particularly toward the end of the voyage, when he became frustrated with the fact that he had yet to encounter Moby Dick, it was noted that Ahab "manifested the gloomiest reserve" (Melville 194).

Anhedonia (loss of pleasure) was also evident in Captain Ahab's behavior. Previously an avid smoker, Ahab noted that smoking was no longer a soothing habit and threw away his smoking paraphernalia (Melville 113). In addition, Ahab refrained from engaging in social contact with other whaling ships. Ahab was not observed engaging in any recreational activities during the voyage.

Impaired social functioning. At the outset of the voyage, Ahab secluded himself from the crew, not emerging until the ship had made significant progress southward (Melville 109). Although this tendency to recluse himself became less apparent over the course of the journey, Ahab remained uncomfortable in his interactions with the other men on his ship. At dinner with the officers, he insisted upon a rigid hierarchy and adherence to a set code of conduct (Melville 128). This avoidance of personal interactions and reliance upon codified standards of behavior suggests an underlying anxiety regarding interpersonal interactions.

Ahab's irrational obsession with Moby Dick reduced his ability to empathize with others. The captain of the Rachel, Captain Gardiner, recounted that, upon entreating Ahab to aid him in the search for his son and other lost members of his crew, Ahab refused because Moby Dick was in the vicinity (Melville 398). Ahab placed his own desire for vengeance above the value he placed on human life. Ahab's quest for Moby Dick also led him to treat members of his crew as tools, rather than individuals. He saw the crew of his boat as "not other men, but [as his] arms and legs" (Melville 423). This disregard for the needs of others would have greatly impeded Ahab's ability to function in social situations.

In addition, Ahab's persistence in his quest for Moby Dick led him to act recklessly and with disregard for the safety of himself and his crew. The captain of the Jeroboam recalls that Ahab, despite being warned of an epidemic aboard the other ship, was willing to risk the health of his men in order to discuss the Jeroboam's encounter with the white whale and gain information about his possible whereabouts.

Impaired ability to function:

Ahab's symptoms interfered with his ability to perform his duties as captain of the Pequod. The primary goal of the voyage was to hunt sperm whales in order to obtain oil for sale. The proceeds from this enterprise were to provide the compensation for the crew, as well as the owners of the ship. Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick hindered his ability to manage the economic needs of his vessel. Although Ahab was aware that he needed to provide food for the crew's "more common, daily appetites" for "cash," it is probable that his actions prohibited the Pequod from realizing its full economic potential (Melville 178). Ahab's determining the Pequod's route based on the probability of finding Moby Dick, rather than where the best whaling was to be had at the time, may have reduced the Pequod's chances of encountering sperm whales. Furthermore, his single-mindedness when interacting with captains of other vessels is likely to have prevented him from obtaining valuable information regarding the latest trends in whaling, which doubtless impeded the Pequod's ability to compete in the global whaling market (Melville 196). In addition, the recklessness engendered by Ahab's madness led him to be extremely vigorous in the pursuit of whales, which often resulted in the destruction of property aboard the ship and the threat of harm to members of his crew (Melville 418).


Based on the above assessment of Captain Ahab's psychological difficulties, I propose that the loss of the Pequod and her crew could have been prevented. The indirect cause of the ship's sinking was her captain's madness. The fact that Ahab's instability was not recognized before he was allowed to leave harbor with the Pequod enabled him to use the vessel in pursuit of his own pathologically-oriented goals. In addition, those on-board the vessel were ill-prepared to deal with the severe psychological disturbance of their captain.

There are several points at which an appropriate intervention could have occurred, which may have prevented the loss of life and property. The best measure that can be implemented to reduce the likelihood that such an event is repeated in the future is to adequately assess the psychological state of all whalers before they depart on long voyages. Given the strenuous nature of whaling voyages, and the psychological stressors associated with long periods of isolation, more rigorous screening of officers and crew is warranted. Screening for captains should be particularly rigorous, as they are responsible for the health and welfare of an entire ship. The best support for this recommendation can be found in the fact that Captains Bildad and Peleg expressed doubts about Captain Ahab's psychological state before the voyage was underway. Had Ahab received professional intervention at this point, it is likely that the tragedy could have been prevented.

In addition, all crew members planning to join whaling expeditions should be educated as to the circumstances in which it is appropriate to disobey one's captain. The rigid power hierarchy that exists on whaling ships likely contributed to the crew's inability to intervene in Ahab's ill-fated quest. The establishment and publication of guidelines for crew members as to the appropriate course of action to follow when one's captain has been incapacitated, whether the captain acknowledges the incapacitation or not, may help facilitate the intercession in such circumstances by those on board who may be more capable of making sound decisions.

Although my own efforts have come too late to save the crew of the Pequod, I hope the information contained herein may be of use to others. It is likely, given the frequency with which whalers are subjected to stressors similar to those faced by Captain Ahab, that such an event may occur not too far in the future. Hopefully the lessons learned from the tragic demise of Captain Ahab and his crew will serve to educate whalers about the potential psychological pitfalls associated with the profession and alert them to situations in which an individual's mental health difficulties may pose a threat to the safety of others.


Some have questioned the value of the above assessment and recommendations. I will admit that, given the decline in the popularity of the whaling professions, my advice may seem irrelevant, or even facetious. However, I disagree with those who suggest that the entire project of assessment is without use value. It is true that, as Captain Ahab is already deceased and, in addition, is a literary figure, the usual goals of assessment do not apply. In clinical psychology, a diagnosis usually serves two functions: prediction and treatment. Diagnoses provide clinicians information about the likely course of a disorder and the interventions that been effective for others with similar problems. Ahab's position as a static character in a work of fiction means that neither prediction nor intervention is relevant. However, although this diagnosis cannot serve its usual functions, I believe that it may still prove valuable to the literary critic.

One of the benefits of using the language of psychology is the specifity it lends to certain terms. In the humanities, the debate regarding whether or not Captain Ahab is insane is truly a debate over the definition of sanity. While I do not claim that psychology has elucidated the "true" meaning of sanity, the psychological community provides an agreed-upon definition of psychopathology which is useful when one wishes to distinguish between the normal and the abnormal. By using the language of psychology, readers can debate a common question: does Captain Ahab meet any accepted criteria for psychopathology? This is useful if one's goal is to move beyond the question of "is Ahab insane?" and develop a reading instead based on a concept of Ahab's sanity, or lack thereof.

I have attempted to use accepted psychological criteria for determining the presence of psychopathology in Captain Ahab. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, considered the standard for psychological assessment in the United States, individuals do not qualify for a diagnosis unless their symptoms meet one of two necessary criteria: either the symptoms must prevent the individual from functioning, or the symptoms cause considerable distress to the individual. Developmental psychopathologists, who study abnormal psychology in the context of normative development, have provided a slightly more sophisticated conception of pathology. Jerome Wakefield defines disorder as "harmful dysfunction:" symptoms cause harm (usually by impairing function) and result from the failure of an innate mechanism to perform its natural function (1). I have attempted to use these two frameworks to assess Captain Ahab's behaviors. If insanity is defined by these criteria (inability to function, distress and the failure of a natural mechanism), I believe that Captain Ahab is clearly insane.

However, this project also elucidates the limitations of the psychological approach to psychopathology. The definitions provided by psychology are only useful if one accepts them without question. The validity of the diagnoses are separated from the act of diagnosis. In order to have a workable definition of pathology, one needs to suspend disbelief and challenges and work with the definitions already in use. However, this may stifle debate regarding the usefulness and validity of the constructs psychologists have come to rely on. There is a heated debate, particularly in the subfield of developmental psychopathology, over whether the ways in which psychologists characterize disorder are useful. In particular, some challenge the idea that disorders are categorical as opposed to continuous spectra of characteristics. This debate is frequently silenced by the pragmatic need for psychologists to work with a common tongue when working with real patients. When clinicians are faced with a patient whose life is clearly adversely affected by their psychological impairments, the question of the validity of the theoretical framework upon which the definition is based is rendered secondary to the real benefits of working with a clear definition with implications for prediction and intervention.

It is perhaps here that the tables can be turned, and the value of literature to psychologists be elucidated. For in the context of a literary character, the clinician is freed from the demand to make an improvement in a person's life. There are no real consequences of misdiagnosis. However, there may be knowledge to be gained. The fantasy world of literature allows the psychologist a space in which to play with the meanings of sanity and insanity. However, the psychologist may do so in a different manner than that usually utilized by students of the humanities. The psychologist, like the English student, recognizes the power of words.

Given that psychology provides a useful framework with which to determine whether or not Ahab is sane, the question remains whether there is any use value in doing so. If the Pequod is sunk, what is the value of assessing its captain? My answer to that is this: the words on the page may not change, but we may read them any way we choose. The work of the literary critic is to create a reading of a text. An assessment and diagnosis of Ahab's pathology provides a valuable grounding for such a reading.

Works Cited

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Washington, DC: Author, 2000.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Wakefield, Jerome. "When is Development Disordered? Developmental Psychopathology and the Harmful Dysfunction Analysis of Mental Disorder." Development and Psychopathology 9 (1997): 269-290.

*DISCLAIMER: I have no clinical training and have never conducted a diagnostic interview. What follows is my own interpretation of how a diagnostic assessment of Captain Ahab might be conducted and presented given our current understanding of psychopathology.

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