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Melville’s Ahab

Pete Simon

Trying to fathom Captain Ahab, the complex antihero of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, only in relation to his scriptural namesake would be as futile as was his own quest to vanquish the white whale. Yet Melville’s narrative, saturated with biblical names, imagery, tropes, and language, suggests fateful likenesses between Captain Ahab and King Ahab of Israel.

Ishmael, the novel’s narrator, first hears of Ahab from Captain Peleg, a co-owner of the Pequod, the whaling vessel Ahab now captains and on which Ishmael sails. Characterizing the one-legged shipmaster antithetically as “a grand, ungodly, god-like man,” Peleg explains:

“He’s Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!”

“And a very vile one. When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” (Moby Dick, chapter 16) [see 1Kgs 22:38]

The biblical Ahab was known for the evil he did “in the sight of the Lord” (1Kgs 16:30-33), in particular his idolatry (1Kgs 21:26). The prophet Elijah accused him of forsaking God’s commandments and worshiping Baal (1Kgs 18:18) and rightly prophesied that dogs would lick his blood (1Kgs 21:19, 1Kgs 22:38).

The whale-chasing Ahab’s offense against God is encapsulated by his hammering a specially forged harpoon, dousing its barb in the blood of “heathen” crewmembers, and blasphemously “baptizing” the weapon in the devil’s name  (Moby-Dick, chapter 114; contrast with Matt 28:19). Melville was probably aware that “the hammer of the whole earth” mentioned by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 50:23) was traditionally assumed to symbolize the devil. He may not have known that the biblical Ahab was said to have provoked God by making an Asherah (1Kgs 16:33), which can be translated as “an Asherah pole” (NIV) or “a sacred pole” (NRSV)—or, one might even say, a harpoon.

It is no coincidence that on the Nantucket wharf, a “prophet” named Elijah warns Ishmael against sailing with Captain Ahab (Moby-Dick, chapter 19). And just as King Ahab dies upright in his chariot, wounded in battle (1Kgs 22:35), so is Captain Ahab “propped up on a lonely foot” when he heads into his final, lethal confrontation with the whale (Moby-Dick, chapter 134). Like the loss of his leg to the whale, his drowning by that “leviathan” (the epithet used for whales throughout the novel, as in Job 3:8, Job 41:1, Ps 74:14) matches not so much King Ahab’s death on the battlefield as the postmortem dismembering of his wife Jezebel by dogs (1Kgs 21:23, 2Kgs 9:10, 2Kgs 9:33-37).

In addition to their names and sacrilege, the two Ahabs share a sinful association with ivory. The luxurious ivory-paneled house that King Ahab made for himself (1Kgs 22:39), ridiculed by the prophet Amos (Amos 3:15) together with the “beds of ivory” of the wealthy (Amos 6:4), is evoked not only by the many whale-ivory adornments of the ship Captain Ahab inhabits (Moby-Dick, chapter 16; hence the recurrent epithet “the ivory Pequod” in chapters 48, 51, 67) but also by his “ivory leg” (Moby-Dick, chapters 28, 41), his “ivory stride” (chapter 36), his “ivory stool” (chapter 30), and his “ivory-inlaid table” (chapter 34).

Like other characters in the novel, Captain Ahab’s consciousness has been shaped by the Bible: he blasphemes by perverting Jesus’ baptismal words and identifies not with his biblical namesake but with the first human and sinner, Adam. To the carpenter fashioning a new prosthesis for him, Ahab laments still feeling his lost limb as though it were there: “Canst thou not,” he implores, “drive that old Adam away?” (chapter 108; see Rom 5:12-14). Near the novel’s end, Ahab complains of feeling “deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise” (chapter 132). Yet, despite his earlier delusional exclamations, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god” (chapter 108) and “I am immortal!” (chapter 117), Ahab is doomed, like Adam, by a “fatal pride” (chapter 124).

  • Eric Ziolkowski

    Eric Ziolkowski, H. P. Manson Professor of the English Bible at Lafayette College, is author of numerous books, essays, and articles in religion and literature. The North American senior editor of Literature and Theology: An International Journal of Religion, Theory and Culture (Oxford) for eight years (2004–12), he is also main editor (since 2004) of the prospective 30-volume Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (De Gruyter).