Notes on Moby Dick Themes

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Moby Dick Topic Tracking: Vengeance

Chapters 16 - 30

Vengeance 1: Ahab wishes to take some time to relax and smoke a pipe, but because of the insane need for revenge that has been burning in him ever since he lost his leg to Moby Dick, he cannot have any peace. He tosses the pipe over the side instead, symbolic of him tossing away all comfort. Vengeance, at least in a man, is a need, or emotion, that cannot live alongside other emotions. It destroys peace of mind, and sets one's soul to warring; it is clearly not something to be valued.

Chapters 31 - 45

Vengeance 2: Ahab tells Starbuck that all things are masks for God, and that Moby Dick is just a mask for the inscrutable things that attack us everyday. His need for revenge has gone past the anger of losing his leg; for him, Moby Dick has come to be all the wrongs in the world. Vengeance inspires monomania, the obsession with one goal, and it turns everything into a reflection on the person who is feeling it; everything in Ahab's world is either for or against his hunt.

Vengeance 3: Ahab looks at himself as a ship leaving behind a wake in the world; his choice of pursuing revenge has put him apart from a normal life. For him, his monomania has now ceased to be a choice. That which put him apart from other men, has now made him doomed to always be apart, no matter what he should choose now.

Vengeance 4: Starbuck, who is a decent and honorable man, is terrified by Ahab's desire. He knows that his need for revenge will doom them all. Starbuck, as mentioned in the chapter describing him, has a deep-seated fear of "spiritual terrors." While he will face a whale like any other man, the oddness and depth of Ahab's madness is something he can't quite face head on. The extreme to which Ahab will go to satisfy his need for revenge, is something that is not human. It lends a tragic circumstance to his surroundings.

Vengeance 5: Ahab's madness gives him a sort of cunning, and it forces him to look at the rest of the world, mainly his crew, as tools to achieving his ends. The need for vengeance eliminates all other thoughts in his mind. He no longer can normally consider people as "people," but looks down on everyone as his means to achieving his goal. The monomania reduces his humanity.

Vengeance 6: Ahab sleeps as though in a fever, and is often driven to the decks with a look of half-madness. This is caused by the decency in his soul warring with his monomaniacal drive for revenge; his goodness is what makes him look insane, he is so far gone. There is still some decency left in him, which is horrified by what he is becoming - it comes up at different moments, in his later dealings with Starbuck, and in his caring for the mad Pip. This can be viewed as one of the tragedies of his character; not that he is so driven, but that he can still occasionally experience regret and compassion even through his madness.

Chapters 46 - 60

Vengeance 7: Fedellah is associated with the devil, and the reason he was hired by Ahab was in order to hunt Moby Dick. His cause has him associating with things outside of humanity. He has sold himself over to mysticism.

Vengeance 8: The fish traveling over to the other ship is normal, but to Ahab it is a sign of desertion. His monomania makes him paranoid, believing everything to be a sign of people leaving him. Also, he does not travel to the other ship, because his need for revenge has driven out even the desire for normal conversation.

Vengeance 9: Here it is Moby Dick who acts in vengeance, killing a man who wounded someone else. The distinction is that it is provoked vengeance in the name of someone else. Ahab pursues Moby Dick because he lost his leg to the whale; but the only reason the whale took his leg was that Ahab was hunting him in the first place. Moby Dick only attacks when pursued, which may be what gives him his apparent invulnerability.

Chapters 76 - 90

Vengeance 10: When being pursued by pirates, Ahab sees himself as being chased by devils towards his goal. Everything relates back to the hunt for Moby Dick. Also, he knows that his course is a damned one, but he chooses it still. There is a profound sense of defiance in his vengeance, as if privately Ahab knows that he will die, but still wishes to push onward.

Chapters 91 - 105

Vengeance 11: Ahab looks at the doubloon, and describes it in terms of his own determination, immovable mountains, and so forth. He justifies his search in everything he sees. Like the pirates, and the fish that swim away from the ship, everything is a sign to him; everything is part of his journey, his choice of the hunt.

Chapters 106 - 120

Vengeance 12: When his ivory leg is damaged, Ahab uses this as further fuel to push him onward. Vengeance justifies itself; he is receiving pain from a wound inflicted at one time by Moby Dick, and since he cannot strike at God for inflicting that pain, he will hunt down the whale. What drives his vengeance is a profound sense of injustice in the world, a feeling of being treated wrongly and needing to redress these wrongs. Like Job, man is supposed to endure, but Ahab's pride and majesty, which raise him above his fellows, also force him to be unsatisfied (to understate) with his position.

Vengeance 13: Not even the beauty of the Pacific can touch Ahab but for a moment. His desires consume all other thoughts. This relates to the early comment on his infrequently surfacing humanity. Ahab is offered numerous moments of retreat, of salvation, but his monomania eliminates the ability to examine such choices. His later dealings with the Rachel provide another example; when he is asked to help in the search for a missing child, he refuses.

Vengeance 14: Ahab can never be calm with his desire to kill the White Whale- he asks the blacksmith to smooth his brow, but that can only happen in death. In order to put himself closer to his goal, he creates a weapon he believes can hurt the whale, and in doing so, uses the blood of men. There is a lowering of humanity in this, a descent into savagery.

Chapters 121 - Epilogue

Vengeance 15: Ahab's fury and need for revenge comes from his tremendous pride. He cannot simply accept the pain the world has given him; he feels he must strike back at the world, in the guise of the whale that took his leg. It also fuels that pride, because in believing that Moby Dick hurt him especially, he is giving himself a quality above other men. This relates also to the question of God in the narrative, and what happens to a man who feels the need to strike back at God.

Vengeance 16: Even when almost all of his boats are destroyed, Ahab pushes onward, even when Moby Dick is trying to escape. He cannot let go to save anyone's life, especially his own. Besides, he believes himself immortal, because of the seemingly impossible prophecy made by Fedellah. But he still dies, and the prophecy comes true; there is a thread of man being able to occasionally foresee the turn of events, but not truly being able to change them.

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