I was struck with the singular posture he maintained. Upon each side of the Pequod’s quarter deck, and pretty close to the mizzen shrouds, there was an auger hole, bored about half an inch or so, into the plank. His bone leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship’s ever-pitching prow. There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance. Not a word he spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.
The Captain of the Pequod begins his voyage below deck, unseen by any but Bildad and Peleg, who assure the crew that their hidden Captain is simply recovering his health. Neither Ishmael nor most of the other sailors see the ‘Old Mogul’ until they are well away at sea—and he is a sight to behold.
Unlike all others aboard the Pequod, Ahab is profoundly affected by the metaphysical shape of the course he plots—his power waxes and wanes, his interest lies only in the monomaniacal quest of his soul to encounter and kill Moby Dick. Thus every draw of a Chapter card and every sighting of Moby Dick brings Ahab into the crew of the player who sang out for him. Ahab misses nothing of import on this voyage, and though his presence can sometimes be a burden, the loyalty he inspires and the heights of metaphysical strength he can reach make him a constant tidal force of the game as a whole.
On his previous voyage, Ahab’s leg was maliciously taken off by none other than Moby Dick, while the two were locked in deadly battle in seas off Japan. This ‘dismasting’ is argued as the cause of Ahab’s quest—vengeance is a terrific motivator, and in Ahab’s speech in Chapter 36: The Quarter-Deck, Ahab moves the men to pity him, as well as hate the White Whale with the same intensity that he hates. It is that other great motivating factor, though, that leads us down into the ‘little lower layer.’ Ahab’s desire to destroy the White Whale can be seen as a personal journey, but also as a more grandiose metaphor of man’s search for knowledge and control over his surroundings. The very idea of a whale that he cannot kill rankles Ahab—here is a man who does not believe in the limits of his humanity and indeed oversteps these limits in his greatest moments (hence Ahab’s terrific changes in power and ability in The Forge and The Candles).
It is Ahab’s belief that all visible objects are ‘but as pasteboard masks’ over the true reality that lies beneath our perception of the world around us. It is through destruction, ultimately self-destruction, that Ahab finds evidence of this truth, and sees behind the mask: the unknown but knowable machinations of the gods, ‘the treadle of the loom’ on which the fates of men are woven, etc. Chapters that jump out immediately as telling and moving examples of Ahab’s metaphysics are Chapter 37: Sunset, Chapter 38: Dusk, Chapter 70: The Sphynx, and Chapter 116: The Dying Whale.
Original Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.