A Tragic Hero In Moby Dick By Herman Melville

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

The novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville is seen as a classic; some may even say that it is the best piece of American Literature. Despite the slow sales when it was first published, Melville’s famous novel has grown exponentially in popularity. The novel contains a variety of different characters all with unique personalities and character traits, most famously Captain Ahab and his relentless desire to conquer the white whale, Moby Dick, a mystery of the ocean as he swims through the sea undetected only surfacing to wreak havoc among sailors. The captain of the Pequod, Ahab, is perceived as a strong leader. However, he possesses a major flaw that leads to his demise.

As an experienced whaleman, Ahab does not accept opposition that will interfere with his goal to conquer the white whale. Ahab’s inability to fathom the importance of the authoritative forces around him whether crew members, nature, or spiritual figures is what eventually leads to his demise. As a result, he demonstrates the character traits of a tragic hero such as hubris, nemesis, and agnarosis that were once described by the great Aristotle. Hubris is a characteristic of a tragic hero that is defined by excessive pride or self-confidence. Ahab develops excessive pride through his plan to hunt one single whale instead of many.

Even those from his own crew members, Ahab overlooks any ideas that may interfere with his goal of avenging his lost leg by killing Moby Dick, the whale that ate his leg. Starbuck is a trusted member of the Pequod crew that often clashes with Ahab. When Ahab declares to the crew his intent to seek vengeance on Moby Dick, a majority of the crew applauds, raising a glass to their new task except Starbuck. He expresses his concern telling Ahab, “vengeance on a dumb brute!’, cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blind instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous”. Starbuck does not believe in hunting one whale while they could prosper by hunting several. Ahab continues to dismiss Starbuck’s opinion and mocks him in front of the crew as he says to them, “stand up amid the general, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck!”. Ahab has an immense amount of self-confidence in this plan and his defiance towards the conflicting thoughts of crew members ultimately contributes to his downfall.

Nature is a powerful force Ahab neglects proceeding to a punishment the protagonist cannot avoid. Ahab suffers from an inescapable punishment known as nemesis, a trait of a tragic character derived by Aristotle. One of the few punishments Ahab has suffered as a consequence of his fixation with the whale as well as going against a higher authority is the loss of his leg. Ahab reflects on the past saying to his crew, “Aye, aye! It was that accused white whale that razzed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (Melville 138). Ahab is unfazed by the attack of the whale, rather, it provokes his desire to kill, leading him down a predetermined path against mother nature. Clueless to his own fate, Ahab has already been punished by mother nature, yet he continues to be blinded by his monomania. Furthermore, mother nature not only punishes Ahab once, but twice.

A thunderstorm strikes the Pequod symbolizing a potential warning to Ahab and his crew to abandon their quest. However, Ahab once again ignores this mythical sign and continues on, saying “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”. Melville highlights the fact that Ahab has a scar from a previous encountering with clear fire also known as lightning. Ahab has been punished with this deep cutting of the skin placed on his forehead and he is unwilling to back down even to the strongest of powers. Ahab’s resistance to the authoritative forces around him continues to contribute to his tragic flaw, ensuring an inescapable downfall is near.

Ahab demonstrates that he not does not adhere to authoritative forces when he opposes the most powerful of all, god. As a result, Ahab recognizes his fate and its correlation with his ignorance to higher authority; this is once again described by Aristotle as agnarosis. It is a common belief among sailors that the white whale is supernatural, symbolizing a god-like figure due to his majestic white color that glisters in the sunlight. Ahab’s opposition against god is encapsulated by his hammering of a specially forged harpoon, submerging it in the blood of crewmembers, and “baptizing” the weapon in the devil’s name as he recites a parody of the baptismal ceremony, ‘ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!’. In english this simply means, ‘I baptize you, not in the name of the Father, but in the name of the Devil!’.

Ahab has a god-complex as he refers to himself as another spiritual figure, the devil. Rather than succumbing to god’s power he attempts to supercede god’s throne as the most powerful force through the death of the whale. As the quest begins to fade-out, the Pequod spots the whale awarding Ahab with one chance to eliminate the animal once and for all. Ahab’s good fortune eventually runs out as he is caught in the rope of the harpoon, disappearing into the darkness of the ocean. With his last words Ahab says, “towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”.

In an ultimate demonstration of defiance, Ahab uses his last breath to curse the whale and fate. He is, spiritually, already in hell’s heart, and he accepts his own imminent death, surrendering to god’s power. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is an outstanding piece of American Literature that has aged into a true masterpiece. Melville incorporates many characters of which have a deeper meaning, such as Ahab. Ahab is not your ordinary character, he posses a tragic flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall. Due to his fixation of killing the white whale, he neglects powerful forces of higher authority ultimately leading to his demise. As a result of his ignorance, he exhibits several characteristics outlined by Aristotle, identifying himself as an American tragic hero.


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