The Romantic Struggle in Moby-Dick
In Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, the struggle between the Romantic, religious, and at times over-emotional intent of characters and their reasonable nature creates the complexities faced on the Pequod, the ship captained by Ahab. This competition sharpens with the believed influence of God in the issues of man, shown by the multitude of appeals by characters like Ahab. Romanticism, after all, allows one to ignore the factual reality of events that occur and instead lets one assign one’s own values and meanings to situations.
On the third and last day of the chase for Moby-Dick, Ahab defines the dichotomy found in man while searching for a sight of the whale: “Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that” (419). The repetition of “think” in the monologue emphasizes the distinction from the other repeated word “feel”. Ahab means to clearly demonstrate a duality that exists within a person regarding emotion, or Romanticism, and thought, or reason. Although both halves exist, the only active part of a man should be his feelings, as reason belongs to God. Ahab notes that “to think’s audacity”, calling the utilization of thought blasphemy, as such a power remains God’s “privilege”; this connotes a superiority of reason over emotion. This ranking of the parts creates a greater complexity as Ahab wants men to choose the inferior side, perhaps because he believes that men are not worthy, or not able, to think properly. However, Ahab attempts to be the God of his crew through the utilization of feelings and his absolute will, persuading his men to do exactly as he desires them to. The irony of this situation, as Ahab acknowledges emotion as inferior to reason and yet wills his feelings to subjugate his crew, demonstrates Ahab’s drive to become God of his ship, yet a “God” aware that he’s lower and imperfect. Indeed, he mentions that the calmness required for thought cannot be found in men due to the rapidity and ferocity with which emotions control their weak bodies, through making their “poor hearts throb” and “poor brains beat”. These phrases also link the emotional to the irrational, as shown by the vibrancy of the action fueled by feelings, further showing the Romantic nature of Ahab. This philosophy of Ahab indicates the great disconnect from reality that Ahab expresses in his actions and world view.
Ahab’s Romantic intentions cause him to emphasize the emotional and even the irrational, rejecting reasonable and logical situations. Ahab continues to hunt Moby-Dick, utilizing his fatalist sentiment, that he’s fated to kill the whale, to motivate his urges; indeed, logically thinking about the outcome of fighting Moby-Dick, accounting for past experiences and warnings from others, would lead Ahab to dismiss the chase. Although Ahab’s fatalism drives him to continue searching for Moby-Dick and favor his need for revenge over logical consequences, his Romantic nature starts this negative trend. In order to not dwell on the probable doom from attempting to kill the whale, Ahab inserts a form of optimism by not analyzing the chances of success, but instead only on his feelings for revenge. By not thinking about the risks the journey truly entails, but just the joy he will feel with completing his quest, Ahab demonstrates why he only feels. Indeed, Ahab knows that he must use these feelings to motivate himself, and perhaps even thinks he has to do so, because these emotions of rage will provide a greater chance to continue and succeed in his destiny. Ahab also appeals to God to accomplish this goal, showing a religious devotion that corresponds to his perception of the world. He again demonstrates his God-like reign on the ship, by progressing from how “Ahab never thinks” to calling thinking for any man sinful. In this manner, Ahab uses his feelings, completely subjective opinions, to create his own meaning of events that greatly differs from the realistic nature of the past and present.
Ahab’s tirade against Starbuck’s accusation that he’s putting everyone through arduous work for a whale further invokes the Romanticized nature of Ahab and his view of events: “Take off thine eye! more intolerable than fiends’ glarings is a doltish stare! So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee” (140). Ahab utilizes words such as “reddenest”, “heat”, “melted”, “anger-glow”, “warm words”, and “incense” in a motif of heat through this monologue to emphasize the ferocity of emotion he feels due to what he perceives as Starbuck’s baseless complaint. Ahab construes the meaning of Starbuck’s inquiry as a challenge to his plans instead of a genuine worry from a friend, which demonstrates how a Romantic nature can distract from reasonable thought. Ahab’s Romantic intentions cause him to see himself as the most important character in his narrative and cause him to fit events that occur in the past and present as either in support of or opposed to his destiny. This behavior also makes Ahab regard anything that does not agree with his fatalism as inferior, like Starbuck, whom he notes as having a “doltish stare”, which connotes a complete lack of respect for his first-mate. Indeed, Ahab sees Starbuck’s outburst as worse than a “fiends’ glarings”, which calls upon a Biblical allusion to relate Starbuck, who opposes his plans, to a creature from Hell. In yet another appeal to religion, Ahab demonstrates how strongly he feels that his path is the righteous one and that those who confront him do so from a diabolical or nefarious standpoint.
The Romantic nature of Ahab can also be found in Pip, although in a more perverse way. As the crew rescues Pip from drowning, Ishmael talks of the Romantic change that occurs to Pip in the water. “He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God” (321-2). As Pip is drowning, in a near-death situation, he knows that no logical thinking could save him, leaving him only with the emotion of hope. Thus, he believes that God rescued him from drowning, noted by seeing “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom”; this idea omits the fact that in reality Pip’s crewmates saved him from death, showing why “his shipmates called him mad”. This example shows how one can construe factual reality to assign one’s own meaning and emotions to events. Indeed, the passage talks about how once a man wanders from reason, he “comes at last” to celestial thought; this shows that an appeal to heaven is often man’s last resort, as it was the case of Pip. This absence of will Pip now has directly contrasts with the absolute will Ahab possesses in defining his future, although both arise from abandoning reason in favor of having “heaven’s sense” guide their world view. This faith in a higher power relates to Ahab’s view of God and the general destruction Romanticism causes on logic.
The emotionally fueled Romanticism causes issues with perceiving reality that affect both Ahab and Pip. Yet Ishmael, more reasonable than the other two, sees that an appeal to God appears illogical to the reasonable man, as reason makes God “indifferent” if a man is hurt; this idea draws a sharp contrast with the love of God that an emotional, or “insane”, man has. This appears true in Pip’s case especially, in which not God but Pip’s crewmates saved him from death. Still, Pip turns his trust from his crewmates, who he should depend on for emergencies on the ship, and instead places his fate with God. This view connects to Ahab’s sentiment of fatalism, also fueled by how Ahab emotionally perceives God; however, Pip’s fatalism has no center, but rather just the notion that any direction his destiny goes relies on God. Nonetheless, the emotional connection to God that both feel explains why Ahab gives Pip preferential treatment later, because Ahab notices the God-directed narrative that Pip creates after his near-death encounter. In this manner, both men utilize emotion derived from a Romanticized view of the world to manufacture their own subjective narrative of past events.
The Romanticism of Melville’s characters ultimately warps the reality of events to create personalized narratives. Ahab mentions the necessity of feelings over thoughts in humans and acknowledges human inability to utilize reason; he also places importance on himself, the individual, even when irrational. Pip also reveals that placing faith in God causes a similar focus on Romanticism and a disregard for logical thought, indicating the fatalism both characters possess. The complexities one faces in reconciling Romanticism with logical thought carried on in Transcendentalism. This trend emerged from the qualities of Romanticism coming from Europe to America, showing a continuation of self-importance and emphasis on emotions — an emphasis of the kind that defined the mania of Captain Ahab.
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