So, now we’re past the big fiery chapter, and will linger a while in the afterglow. Ahab revealed his true intentions, and the world didn’t end. He has set a flame in the hearts of his men, kindled from his own, and now everyone has to deal with the fallout.
The next few chapters are pretty short, but that gives me a good opportunity to dig into some themes. That last chapter was so dense and important, there’s a lot of stuff that necessarily fell by the wayside. You could probably write entire books untangling all the various strands of meaning in that pasteboard masks speech.
SUMMARY: Ahab sits alone in his cabin, looking out the stern window. He soliloquizes about his fate, his lack of ability to enjoy previously pleasurable things, and the weight of his responsibility. Then, he leaves the window, and thinks to himself about how the speech went better than he expected.
Comparing himself to a car on iron rails, Ahab is fully committed to his goal, and knows that nothing can turn from this course of action now.
There’s an interesting bifurcation in this chapter, it’s divided cleanly into two sections. First, we get Ahab looking out the window, reflecting how different he is now from he used to be, lamenting the heavy burden that he has taken on. Then, when he leaves the window, he is fully back on his shit, thinking about his plans and beliefs, talking himself into his quest for revenge all over again.
He uses an interesting analogy for the weight of his responsibility, the Iron Crown of Lombardy. Which is a famous crown of a large kingdom in Italy, which is also a reliquary, having been built around a nail from the true cross (thus the “iron” crown, even though it’s made entirely of precious metals and gems). The idea being that the crown appears glorious to those who see it, but to the one who wears it the iron in the rim is heavy and sharp.
’Tis iron—that I know—not gold. ’Tis split, too—that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!
Reminds me a bit of a thing from Game of Thrones, or rather the book series it’s based on, A Song of Ice and Fire. The Iron Throne from those books is almost certainly based on the iron crown. It is a glorious-looking seat, made of dozens of swords melted together by dragon fire, and sitting in it gives one control over a while continent the size of South America! But, for an unfit ruler, it is also a torture device. It is, after all, a chair made of swords, and not cleverly forged by artisans, but thrown together by a conquering king. There are yet many sharp barbs and spikes sticking out at various places, and the Mad King Aerys was always cutting himself on them.
Man, those books are good. The show ending recently made me want to read them again. I keep waiting for the new one to come out, but at this point it seems doubtful. I suppose I can be patient. I’ve got enough on my plate at the moment.
Anyway, the long and short of it is that Ahab sees his quest of vengeance not as some sort of dream he’s fulfilling, but as a grim duty to be carried out. In a sense, this chapter shows how he himself has become a sort of slave to his own ambition, his own ironclad reasoning having trapped him into a self-destructive course of action.
What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself!
Ahab, you see, is fully aware that what he’s doing seems crazy. That by all rights, seeking to fight directly against fate by taking vengeance on the very thing that injured him is completely irrational. He is not out of his mind, he’s knows that what he’s doing appears to make no sense at all.
The fact is, he’s going to do it anyway. He’s going to be stubborn, he’s going to use all of his power that he can possibly muster to make this thing happen. Being the strong, independent, rugged American man, he’s going to do whatever it takes to see that his will is enforced upon reality, no matter the obstacles or consequences.
It’s interesting to read Ahab’s whole character as an attack on the notion of individualism in a democratic context. The result of Ahab’s quest is, of course, the death of not only himself, but literally every single person on the crew except for Ishmael. He does not exist in a vacuum, struggling against fate in some private dimension where his actions have no consequence.
In a system where every voice is theoretically equal, how does it come to be that one takes a position of power and leadership? What do you do when people voluntarily follow a demagogue who is definitely going to get them all killed? Ahab’s freedom and ability to see his will fulfilled means the slavery of everyone else on the ship. The only thing he desires from them is absolute obedience, and he’s getting it!
In reflecting on the Quarter-Deck myself, I noticed an interesting contrast between Ishmael and Ahab. We’re going to Ishmael’s response to the speech in a few chapters, but for now we can look back to the beginning of the book for some insights.
Waaaaay back in chapter 1, Loomings, there’s a paragraph where Ishmael is talking about the transition from being a master on land to an obedient servant at sea. Specifically, going from being a schoolmaster, and having everyone follow his own orders, to having to follow the orders of his captain on a ship:
What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.
Everyone serves someone, at the end of the day, so there’s no reason to take offense at it. If you just get over your own bullshit, you can get along much better with other people in the world, and we can all live in peace and harmony.
Contrast that, the literal wording, with this bit from the Quarter Deck:
since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.
The literal opposite view, yet in the service of a similar ideology! Everyone is their own master, nobody is above anyone else. Thus, there is nobody and nothing that is truly above Ahab in status, so any action he takes cannot possibly be blasphemous or wrong. Enforcing his will is his natural right, as an equal with everyone else in existence!
This is the fundamental conflict between their characters. Ishmael is a considerate, empathetic person, who only wants to help everyone he meets, and wishes them the best. Ahab desires his own will be done and nothing else, he is going so far as to purge himself of the ability to feel his own emotions in order to make it happen.
Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!
In a sense, Ahab has become a slave to his own will, as he seeks to enslave everyone on the Pequod. They’re all locked into that iron way together, and this train has no brakes. Being so committed to a course of action makes him less free to consider other possibilities. This rigidity shall be his doom, even as he has many opportunities to change course before the end.
I find the dynamic between Ishmael and Ahab fascinating precisely because they are not, exactly, at the most extreme ends of the spectrum. Ahab is not too far gone, he knows what he’s doing and keeps fretting over it, but finds himself unable to resist his own iron will. Ishmael is not only a dreamer, unable to ever make any decisions, or else he wouldn’t have even ended up on this ship in the first place!
Many adaptations and analyses seem to disregard the incredible insight that we get into Ahab’s internal processes. They focus on the external madness, the monomania, and don’t reflect the internal conflict. I, personally, find many aspects of Ahab relatable, as someone who has suffered from severe depression in the past.
The weight of expectation and narrative can be crushing, no matter where it comes from. I have followed through with self-destructive action simply because I had willed it at some point in the past, because I felt like it was something I was supposed to do. A part of the puzzle that was expected, in some way or another. In a way, external pressure is easier to deal with than internal, where it can insidiously hide and then come in full force when you are least prepared.
It is fully possible to be aware of all the arguments against your action, all the reasons not to go through with it, but to do it anyway, just because of your own stubbornness.
Whew, got a bit heavy at the end there, but this is a heavy tome, worthy of heavy subjects.
Melville is often lauded for an early exploration of the concept of depression his work Bartleby the Scrivener, so it’s no great stretch to see those themes here as well. It would be fun to write about his short stories some time, they’re very different from Moby Dick, but also interesting.
Until next time, shipmates!