Back To CourseMoby-Dick Study Guide
10 chapters | 96 lessons
Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.
Why do we consider Ahab the antagonist, or villain, of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick? He is an old, abrasive, strict sea captain. He explains to his crew that he wants ''to chase that white whale on both sides of land…till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.'' He is honest and upfront about his goals. Yet this battle between man and whale transcends a simple whaling expedition. It becomes a contest between man and Nature -- at times perhaps even man versus God. Because of this, Ahab's death takes on more meaning than the passing of the novel's antagonist.
For three days, Ahab attacks Moby Dick. He is defeated on each of the three days, and on the third day he meets his end. The captain's harpoon finds its intended target, but ''the stricken whale (flies) forward.'' Disaster strikes as Ahab's line becomes caught. When he stoops ''to clear it…the flying turn (catches) him round the neck,'' and he is pulled after the whale. Ahab disappears, ''smiting the sea, disappear(ing) in its depths.'' The battle between Moby Dick and Ahab is over. Ahab's death fulfills a prophecy told to him by the Parsee, Fedallah.
Dreams have long been believed to be a portent of the future. Ahab dreams of coffins. These coffins, however, are his and are part of the prophecy that ''two hearses must verily be seen by (Ahab) on the sea.'' Though Ahab doubts such a strange occurrence as the sight of hearses and coffins on the sea, he does see them; both Moby Dick and the Pequod become coffins, of a kind, for his men. Fedallah further prophesizes that he will precede Ahab into death and serve as his guide to the underworld. Just before Ahab is swept out to sea, he sees Fedallah ''lashed round and round to the fish's back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him.'' With these elements of the prophecy fulfilled, there is one final piece.
Only one thing, says Fedallah, can kill Ahab. He finds this somewhat amusing, believing that this means he is ''Immortal then, on land and sea.'' But Ahab has misinterpreted the warning. The one thing that can kill Ahab is hemp, which is the material from which the harpoon lines are made. The Parsee's prophecy is related to the idea of fate, or the development of life events beyond a person's control. Fate figures into Ahab's reasoning for chasing Moby Dick.
Ahab comments shortly after being told about the prophecy that ''some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.'' He is playing out the game, but believes he will be victorious. Regardless, events have been written, and there is nothing for Ahab to do but play his role. His death follows the precepts of the prophecy, which further supports the argument that Ahab's death happens as it was foretold. Our actions and decisions cannot save us from our fates.
Ahab's death is also a reminder of what happens when one turns away from God. This goes back to Father Mapple's sermon about Jonah. He explains that Jonah ''fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God.'' He then reminds his congregation that ''God came upon (Jonah) in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom.'' Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick bears a strong resemblance to this biblical tale. But where is Ahab's disobedience?
His disobedience comes to light during a conversation with Starbuck. Starbuck implores ''no more! It is done! We head for Nantucket!'' But Ahab looks away from him. He will not abandon his pursuit of the white whale. He tells Starbuck a ''cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing.'' Ahab is impelled to act accordingly, regardless of the consequences. He knows that, as Starbuck tells him, ''God is against thee, old man.'' Yet Ahab continues his pursuit, and just as with Jonah, a whale becomes the agent for punishment.
Nature is a dominant force, yet man continually thinks that he can conquer, or at least tame it. Ahab is no exception. He believes he will kill Moby Dick (a representation of Nature), and that he wields more power than the storms. Starbuck notes that ''the sea will have its way.'' But Ahab persists, and will not turn the ship away from the storm. He believes it does nothing more than 'lights the way to the White Whale!' He places his ship and everyone on board in jeopardy to prove his superiority.
All Ahab accomplishes by doing this is to make his crew more afraid of him than the storm. To think that he has power over Moby Dick, much less a storm, shows Ahab's arrogance. He believes that his mission is more important than anything else. When Ahab goes up against Moby Dick, the whale takes Ahab's best shot, then sends all the men to the bottom of the ocean. Ahab's arrogance means nothing to Nature. After the confrontation between the captain and the whale, ''the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.'' The sea has already forgotten him -- a powerful reminder of man's place in the natural order of things.
Ahab's death in Melville's Moby-Dick has great significance beyond the passing of the novel's antagonist. It is a symbol of where man stands with respect to Nature. Despite continual attempts to exert authority over the forces of Nature, Ahab's death demonstrates that he has no such authority. This display of arrogance in the face of Nature is related to ideas about God as well. The story suggests that to disobey or turn away from God will eventually lead to some form of punishment. In Ahab's case, he found his punishment in the form of a whale, which is similar to the fate of the biblical Jonah.
Fate also plays into the symbolic imagery of Ahab's death. The death occurs exactly as it was foretold, suggesting that life's choices are predetermined. Fate has given Ahab a vision of his death through Fedallah's prophecy. No matter what he does, he will still end up chasing the white whale. For a static antagonist whose sole purpose is to chase down a whale at all costs, his death has far more meaning than one might first expect.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseMoby-Dick Study Guide
10 chapters | 96 lessons
Next LessonForeshadowing in Moby-Dick