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AHAB

AHAB. The captain of the Nantucket whaleship Pequod* in Herman Melville’s* novel Moby-Dick* (1851), Ahab is identified by a scar running down
his face, his ivory leg, replacing the leg taken by Moby Dick, and his fixed,
seaward gaze. Soon after his first appearance in Melville’s novel, he proclaims
to the Pequod’s crew, hypnotized by the urgency and eloquence of his rhetoric, his intention to seek and to slay Moby Dick. Resisted only by his first
mate, Starbuck, Ahab legitimates this quest by implying that the white whale
is the embodiment of evil. To the task of discovering one whale in all the
world’s seas Ahab brings extraordinary intellectual concentration and physical courage. However, he becomes increasingly isolated from his crew and
from gams with other whaleship captains and increasingly hubristic, projecting the illusion of an intellectual and spiritual power over nature,
through technological tricks and black magic. Finally confronting Moby
Dick, Ahab sees the whale sink the Pequod and dies, snared in his own
harpoon line.
Numerous antecedents have been suggested as sources for Captain Ahab,
whose namesake is an idolatrous Hebrew king, including other Old Testament figures Adam, Jonah, and Job; the classical Prometheus; Shakespeare’s
Macbeth and King Lear; as well as Johann Goethe’s Faust, John Milton’s
Satan, and Lord Byron’s Manfred. Through association with such tragic
figures, who, in their suffering, defiance of human limitations, and challenge
to God’s authority, become heroic, Melville ennobles his American whaling
captain.
Critics, however, considering the devastating impact of Ahab’s quest on
his crew, also perceive him as a reflection of nineteenth-century imperialism
and industrialism and a precursor of twentieth-century fascism. Caricatured
since the 1950s in cartoons, adventure novels, and science fiction as the
archetypal, driven madman, Melville’s Ahab remains an enigmatic, complex,
and moving character. Enduring contemporary interest with a feminist orientation is demonstrated by two creative endeavors: Ellen Driscoll and Tom
Sleigh’s “Ahab’s Wife or the Whale,” a multimedia theatrical production
that premiered in 1998, and Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel Ahab’s Wife or, The
Star-Gazer (1999).