In Herman Melville's Moby Dick, the character of Captain Ahab is repeatedly referred to as a "monomaniac" (Melville Chapter 41). In other words, he is a man obsessively devoted to and possessed by a single idea -- to get revenge upon the white whale, Moby Dick. To some extent, Ahab views his long-sought encounter with the whale as his own personal fate: it is clear from Melville's depiction that no trials or tribulations undergone during the Pequod's journey would be capable of stopping Ahab's strange quest. Yet it is clear from Melville's novel that the hunt for Moby Dick is not something Ahab could undertake on his own -- it requires a whaling-ship and it requires a crew. As a result, Ahab's journey to find the white whale can be viewed as a depiction of society in microcosm -- the difficulties that he faces along the way are not difficulties with the whale, they are difficulties with the crew, who do not have any good reason to hunt Moby Dick. As Ahab's first mate Starbuck states in Chapter 36, when Ahab's plan to find Moby Dick is first revealed, "I came here to hunt whale's, not my commander's vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, Captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market" (Melville Chapter 36). As Royster notes, "Ahab has no respect for the commercial purposes of the Pequod's voyage….Ahab sets up a false opposition -- between his own wild romanticism and the commercial values of Starbuck and the owners" (Royster 322). So what is the purpose of Ahab's quest then? But Melville is careful to depict Ahab's internal journey alongside the straightforward narrative of the Pequod hunting and ultimately encountering Moby Dick. By an examination of pivotal episodes in Ahab's quest, it will be possible to assign some meaning to the Captain's mad quest: it can be understood not as a simple story of revenge, but of an almost religious significance.
It is crucial to the design of Melville's novel that Ahab's desire to hunt and kill Moby Dick is not revealed until fairly late into the novel, in Chapter 36. At this point, Ahab nails a gold doubloon to the Pequod's mast, and promises that the golden prize will go to whichever member of the crew first spots the white whale. The doubloon acquires deeper significance later in the novel, however; by Chapter 99, every member of the crew takes the chance to stare at the reflective gold, and to some degree is able to see only himself in the reflection. This is, to a certain extent, a clue as to how to understand Ahab's relation to the whale -- just as every crew member sees the gold bounty that Ahab has offered for a chance at killing Moby Dick, and only sees himself, we are meant to understand that Ahab's quest for the whale is a quest to encounter some part of himself. This is, of course, literally true: Moby Dick has taken away a part of Ahab, because as Starbuck reveals when Ahab first nails up the doubloon, Moby Dick was responsible for Ahab's lost leg. This implies straightforward revenge, where Ahab simply wants to kill the whale for taking his leg. But the course of the novel makes it clear that we are meant to understand the story as possessing a larger significance. In point of fact, Ahab's first discussion of the whale makes the question of deeper significance the most important fact. When asked to explain his quest for the whale, he describes it in terms of "masks":
"Hark ye yet again -- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event -- in the living act, the undoubted deed -- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it." (Melville Chapter 36)
In other words, Ahab is aware that Moby Dick possesses a symbolic significance. This is made absolutely clear when Starbuck points out that hunting Moby Dick has nothing to do with the Pequod's stated goal, of hunting whales for whale-oil to sell in Nantucket. But the bigger issue, of course, is what the whale actually does represent to Ahab. Randa Dubnick argues that Melville wishes us to understand the struggle between Ahab and the whale in the largest terms possible: "…it is not only the whale that Ahab defies, but God as well, and the forces of nature behind the whale. By refusing to accept his situation, Ahab also defies his maiming and the authority of the unseen power behind that event. In that sense he can be viewed as the tragic hero of antiquity…" (Dubnick 65-6). When Ahab uses the image of the "mask" in Chapter 36, he is already indicating that his quest is about more than Moby Dick: it is about the "unseen power" that lurks behind the whale.
Melville carefully follows the revelation of Ahab's quest in Chapter 36 with a soliloquy by Ahab in Chapter 37, spoken not to the members of the crew but only to himself. In Ahab's soliloquy, it becomes clear that his chief struggle is with mental stability.
What I've dared, I've willed; and what I've willed, I'll do! They think me mad -- Starbuck does; but I'm demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that's only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and -- Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That's more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. (Melville Chapter 37)
It is a valid question to ask whether Melville intends the reader to think of Ahab as being insane. Clearly he shows self-awareness here -- but he also speaks in terms of understanding the quest to find Moby Dick as being somehow supernatural. He believes that he had received a "prophecy" that he should be injured -- his response is to "prophesy" himself that he will find revenge, and in doing so he will be better than the "great gods." It is clear that if Ahab is insane, he is also religiously motivated. This seems to be Leslie Fiedler's interpretation of Ahab's character, when he notes that the symbolism of the whale is significant in the Bible, where it occurs in the image of "Leviathan" in the Book of Job, as well as the story of Jonah being devoured by a whale:
Melville….could not close his ears to the Old Testament challenge: 'Canst thou catch Leviathan with a hook?' And does not the man who tries, does not Ahab become, in his alienation, his sultanism, his pride, blasphemy, and diabolism, finally more monstrous than the beast he hunts? When, on the last day, they confront each other, which is the Monster, Moby Dick in his 'gentle joyousness,' his 'mighty mildness of repose,' or Ahab screaming his mad defiance?...Only Ahab believes that the whale represents evil, and Ahab is both crazy and damned. (Fiedler 385)
Fiedler sees Ahab's quest as one in which the man who thinks he is hunting a monster becomes a greater monster himself. Fiedler is correct that, in Melville's account, the only person who believes Moby Dick represents "inscrutable malice" is Ahab himself. The larger question is whether or not the "malice" that Ahab sees in the whale is something coming from inside himself.
But it becomes clear as the Pequod travels on, under Ahab's command, that Ahab's "monomania" means that his quest to find Moby Dick overcomes all practical concerns. He is willing to risk the lives of the entire crew in order to seek the whale. This fact is set into sharp relief in Chapter 119, where the Pequod sails into a typhoon, and the ship catches on fire. For Ahab, this becomes not a danger, but a revelation of some deep truth about his quest. He stands with his harpoon on fire, giving one of his long monologues:
"Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e'en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of…