Study Guide

Moby-Dick Madness

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 37: Sunset
Captain Ahab

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! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and – Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. (37.4)

Ahab’s ability to do his own psychoanalysis shows us the limits of his insanity. Even though his object is crazy, he’s able to find sane ways of evaluating and reaching it. So, if you know you’re crazy, are you crazy?

Chapter 41: Moby Dick
Captain Ahab

Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab’s full lunacy subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson, when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of Ahab’s broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object. (41.20)

Insane Ahab isn’t just a different man from sane Ahab—he’s sane Ahab plus. It’s not a transformation that he goes through, but a process of addition: everything that Ahab was before, plus monomania.

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. [. . .] All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it. (41.19)

Here we’re introduced to Ahab’s monomania, his single-minded fixation on the White Whale. Basically, what’s driven Ahab crazy is that he’s not very good at symbolism. As a clever Shmoop reader, you know that things don’t just symbolize whatever you decide to make them mean; the limits of their symbolic potential are determined by context. But Ahab takes the White Whale out of context and projects onto it everything that’s enraged any human being ever.

Nothing can really hold all that symbolic weight. Not even an inscrutable white whale.

Chapter 44: The Chart
Captain Ahab

For, at such times, crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale; this Ahab that had gone to his hammock, was not the agent that so caused him to burst from it in horror again. The latter was the eternal, living principle or soul in him; and in sleep, being for the time dissociated from the characterizing mind, which at other times employed it for its outer vehicle or agent, it spontaneously sought escape from the scorching contiguity of the frantic thing, of which, for the time, it was no longer an integral. But as the mind does not exist unless leagued with the soul, therefore it must have been that, in Ahab’s case, yielding up all his thoughts and fancies to his one supreme purpose; that purpose, by its own sheer inveteracy of will, forced itself against gods and devils into a kind of self-assumed, independent being of its own. [. . .] Therefore, the tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes, when what seemed Ahab rushed from his room, was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to colour, and therefore a blankness in itself. (44.11)

In this freaky sleepwalking scene, we see that Ahab’s madness has become a sort of living thing all its own, something that can inhabit his body even when his soul isn’t there. So he doesn’t have a soul tainted by vengeance; instead, his soul seems to have been imprisoned by his obsession with revenge.

Chapter 71: The Jeroboam’s Story

He had been originally nurtured among the crazy society of Neskyeuna Shakers, where he had been a great prophet; in their cracked, secret meetings having several times descended from heaven by the way of a trap-door, announcing the speedy opening of the seventh vial, which he carried in his vest-pocket; but, which, instead of containing gunpowder, was supposed to be charged with laudanum. A strange, apostolic whim having seized him, he had left Neskyeuna for Nantucket, where, with that cunning peculiar to craziness, he assumed a steady, common sense exterior and offered himself as a green-hand candidate for the Jeroboam’s whaling voyage. They engaged him; but straightway upon the ship’s getting out of sight of land, his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself as the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard. He published his manifesto, whereby he set himself forth as the deliverer of the isles of the sea and vicar-general of all Oceanica. The unflinching earnestness with which he declared these things; – the dark, daring play of his sleepless, excited imagination, and all the preternatural terrors of real delirium, united to invest this Gabriel in the minds of the majority of the ignorant crew, with an atmosphere of sacredness. Moreover, they were afraid of him. [. . .] Such things may seem incredible; but, however wondrous, they are true. Nor is the history of fanatics half so striking in respect to the measureless self-deception of the fanatic himself, as his measureless power of deceiving and bedevilling so many others. (71.8)

Ahab’s madness is contrasted with the insanity of several other characters, among them Gabriel, the self-proclaimed prophet aboard the Jeroboam. Gabriel has managed to take control of the entire ship, despite being an ordinary sailor and a crazy one at that. But his ascendancy reminds us that madness has a special persuasive force all its own, and we begin to scrutinize Ahab’s behavior a little more closely.

Chapter 93: The Castaway

But it so happened, that those boats, without seeing Pip, suddenly spying whales close to them on one side, turned, and gave chase; and Stubb’s boat was now so far away, and he and all his crew so intent upon his fish, that Pip’s ringed horizon began to expand around him miserably. By the merest chance the ship itself at last rescued him; but from that hour the little n**** went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God. (93.13)

The moment at which Pip is driven mad is the moment at which he becomes transcendently aware of God’s presence in the natural world and as a force of destiny.

Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin
Captain Ahab

"What we come twenty thousand miles to get is worth saving, Sir."

"So it is, so it is; if we get it."

"I was speaking of the oil in the hold, Sir."

"And I was not speaking or thinking of that at all. Begone! Let it leak! I’m all aleak myself. Aye! leaks in leaks! not only full of leaky casks, but those leaky casks are in a leaky ship; and that’s a far worse plight than the Pequod’s, man. Yet I don’t stop to plug my leak; for who can find it in the deep-loaded hull; or how hope to plug it, even if found, in this life’s howling gale?" (109.6-9)

Here Ahab gives the impression that he’s capable of snapping out of his madness, or "plugging his leak," if he wanted to, but that it’s so difficult as to be nearly impossible—and he doesn’t want to anyway. It’s interesting to think about whether Ahab is indulging in his madness on purpose.

Chapter 113: The Forge
Captain Ahab

In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should’st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can’st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can’st not go mad? (113.4)

Again Ahab presents madness as a choice—here, he suggests that it’s the only reasonable reaction to the unreasonable suffering that human beings have to endure in the world.

Chapter 125: The Log and Line
Captain Ahab

"Here, boy; Ahab’s cabin shall be Pip’s home henceforth, while Ahab lives. Thou touchest my inmost centre, boy; thou art tied to me by cords woven of my heart-strings. Come, let’s down."

"What’s this? here’s velvet shark-skin," intently gazing at Ahab’s hand, and feeling it. "Ah, now, had poor Pip but felt so kind a thing as this, perhaps he had ne’er been lost! This seems to me, Sir, as a man-rope; something that weak souls may hold by. Oh, Sir, let old Perth now come and rivet these two hands together; the black one with the white, for I will not let this go."

"Oh, boy, nor will I thee, unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here. Come, then, to my cabin. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!"

"There go two daft ones now," muttered the old Manxman. "One daft with strength, the other daft with weakness." (125.26-29)

Ahab and Pip, mad in their different ways, make an ideal pairing. Like Shakespeare's King Lear and his fool (see what Shmoop has to say on King Lear), together they become the tragic hero who falls into a bout of madness and the goofy madman who still manages to be wiser than his master.

Chapter 129: The Cabin
Captain Ahab

[Ahab moving to go on deck; Pip catches him by the hand to follow.] "Lad, lad, I tell thee thou must not follow Ahab now. The hour is coming when Ahab would not scare thee from him, yet would not have thee by him. There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health." (129.1)

In fact, Pip is so good at touching Ahab’s heart, and making Ahab aware of uncomfortable truths about the spiritual nature of the world, that Ahab has to cast him off in order to go on with his crazy revenge quest. With Pip in the cabin and Ahab on the deck for the last section of the novel, it’s as though the captain has split into two different selves, each mad in its own weird way.

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