“For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.”
At what point does young ambition tip into morbid disease? When does general optimism about the future turn into a narrow fixation with a specific goal? These are the great questions at the heart of the juxtaposition between Moby Dick’s young narrator, Ishmael, and the grizzled, twisted figure of the Pequod’s captain, Ahab. It is difficult not to wonder what exactly it is that separates them, particularly when Ahab reflects on his early years as a whaler: did he ever share Ishmael’s enthusiasm for the open sea, or was monomania always a defining part of his character? It is tempting to think that perhaps Ahab’s all-consuming ambition is a product of his age, that he is merely a wizened replica of the fresh-faced Ishmael: a man whose passion for whaling generally has been chiseled into a hard-edged obsession with the single white whale.
“…Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey – more a demon than a man! – aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool – old fool, has old Ahab been!”
But that seems simplistic, and it is easier to imagine that Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick merely replaced some previous yearning. Perhaps Ahab was a young mariner hell-bent on rising within his chosen profession, dreaming of one day commanding his own ship. When that goal was successfully reached (and we know he has spent thirty-seven of the previous forty years at sea, abandoning his wife in the process) he was probably forced to reset his sights, to aim higher at some new unreachable target. To this extent, we might contrast Ahab with the captains who remain ashore, Peleg and Bildad, whose life at sea has been replaced by a very material dedication to the purely financial interests of the whaling ships they send on their way. Ishmael, on the other hand, has no interest in worldly gain of that sort. We learn at the outset that he is almost contemptuous of those who aspire towards positions of authority:
“…I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever.”
On the contrary, Ishmael is drawn to the sea by something altogether less tangible. His adventure aboard the Pequod is not limited in scope, and it is clear that his journey is more of a personal, spiritual quest than that of the other members of the crew, excepting maybe Queequeg the harpooneer, who is happy to let his portable god make his decisions for him. The distance between Ishmael’s open-mindedness and Ahab’s tunnel vision is most obvious when one considers their different experiences at the top of the Pequod’s mast-head. Ishmael confesses to being a terrible lookout: “let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard.” Indeed, chapter 35 (‘The Mast-Head’) quickly becomes a classic Ishmaelian digression ranging from the greats of history to ancient Greek philosophy. Ishmael enjoys looking, but not for anything in particular. He explains his poor watch-keeping thus:
“With the problem of the universe revolving around me, how could I – being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude…”
In fact, Ishmael describes the expansive view of the sea from the top of the mast-head as his “ultimate destination.” Not so Ahab, who climbs the mast-head in chapter 130 (despite his wooden leg) with the single objective of sighting the white whale. Whilst he is “perched aloft”, he gazes so intently at the horizon for signs of his prey that he fails to notice the sea-hawk that symbolically swoops down to remove his hat, later dropping it in the distance, never to be recovered.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
Ahab recognizes the absurdity of his quest in one stark moment of lucidity and candour in which he tells Starbuck, his first mate, not to follow him when he lowers his boat to give chase to Moby Dick. However, he also asserts that he himself has no choice in the matter, that he is merely the puppet of a “remorseless emperor.” This passage confirms the role of linear authority aboard the Pequod. Just as Ahab is unable to disobey what he sees as his fate, so Starbuck is unable to disobey Ahab, despite being all too aware of the madness of the chase. It also confirms the helplessness of Ahab’s situation: he has spent so long pursuing his goal that he is now merely the victim of a terrible disease which drives him forward, almost in spite of himself. And yet, notwithstanding Ahab’s suicide mission, Melville’s novel is certainly not dismissive of the spirit of adventure in general terms. The fact that Ishmael endures as the sole surviving member of the Pequod is surely intended as a salute to that spirit of adventure, a spirit that does not allow itself to be curtailed by narrow-mindedness.