Captain Ahab's Death in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

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.

Ahab's death in Herman Melville's 'Moby-Dick' fulfills the prophecy that foretold his death. His death has a larger meaning, too, in that it references the biblical Jonah's punishment for disobedience, and shows the dangers of arrogance.

Ahab's Death

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.

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