A lot of fans and critics of American literature get annoyed when Herman Melville's Moby Dick is summarized as a revenge story. There's an irony here. True, thanks to film adaptations, Captain Ahab's mad desire for revenge is often and wrongly believed to be the main theme of the novel. However, I think there is a revenge story at the heart of Moby Dick--not Ahab's revenge against the whale, but the whale's revenge against civilized man. The truth is, Moby Dick is just as maniacal as Ahab, if not more so, and it's Ishmael's coming to terms with this mad whale that leads the narrative.
Ahab is perhaps the greatest whaling captain of all time, and thus the strongest, most revered emblem of whaling itself, which had been recognized as mankind's greatest industry. (Melville twice reminds us of Edmund Burke's 18th-century praise of whaling as an unequaled industry, and he describes at length and speculates about the many great purposes of whaling.) Ahab is the shining star of this, civilization's most awesome utilization and appropriation of nature.
Among other things, Ahab's greatness shows in his unique willingness to stand up to Moby Dick. Unlike other sperm whales, Moby Dick strikes first. He's an aggressor, wrathful, the most unruly and powerful creature nature has ever known (at least, as Melville would have us believe). Before the action of the novel begins, Ahab's vessel was attacked, like so many others, by Moby Dick. Yet, unlike other whalers, Ahab did not run in terror from the white whale. He fought back, with nothing more than his courage and a six-inch blade. He should have died, but he only lost a leg.
It's not just that Moby Dick took Ahab's leg. Ahab's not mad about the leg. Not ultimately. He's more mad about the whale's wrathfulness. About Moby Dick, Ahab says, " I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him." The hatred was there before Ahab lost his leg. The monomania which resulted from his pain and suffering only intensified and focused a sentiment that was already there.
Ahab's attitude is a natural response to Moby Dick, whose madness is (in Melville's world) a natural response to whaling. Whaling facilitates an extreme cruelty to whales, as Melville describes most explicitly in Chapter 81, "The Pequod Meets The Virgin" (see below). During the pursuit of a large sperm whale, the Pequod's first mate, Starbuck, is "humane" towards the whale, as if whales were human--or, if not human, just as deserving of respect and compassion. Unfortunately, Starbuck's sentiment loses out to Flask's cruelty. The old whale, sick, suffering, exhausted and terrified, dies in the most painful and pitiable way imaginable. For what purpose? As Melville explains with implicit condemnation, "in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all."
Can you blame Moby Dick for being a bit mad?
The white whale, wise and wrathful, is a threat to the world's greatest industry, an offense to mankind's impulse to conquer nature. Ahab's undying mission is not simply to kill the whale who hurt him, but to prove himself against this monstrous insult. As Ahab says, he'd "strike the sun if it insulted" him. That is why Ahab must continue to fight till the death, even when he knows he will fail. To give up against Moby Dick would be to give up on life.
Ishmael respects and admires Ahab's quest. He goes along with it from beginning to end, even though he doesn't share the rest of the crew's tragic fate. (He alone is left to tell the tale, fated to cetological evangelism.) Perhaps, as Albert Camus later suggested, Melville meant the absurd tragedy of Ahab's fight to be a lesson in existential virtue. However, Ishmael does not simply become a preacher of Ahab and the greatness of whaling and industry. He is a passionate worshiper of the whale. Ishmael does follow Ahab, but when all is said and done, he believes in the whale.
While Moby Dick embodies everything Ahab hates, everything that signifies a limit to his eminence and power, Ishmael sees the sublime in the white whale. Moby Dick expresses the godless, incomprehensible, uncontainable truth of nature. (See Chapter 42, the last paragraph in particular.) Ishmael is the one who experiences whaling for the first time, who is transfixed by the philosophical and spiritual vagueries and emptiness that can creep upon the isolated, far-flung men aboard whale ships. Ishmael has "the problem of the universe" inside of him. He is the one who appreciates the humility of pluralistic society and the beauty and innocence of primitive, uninhibited man, and who from the very beginning holds civilized society in contempt. He repeatedly and throughout the novel critiques the hypocrisy and corruption of religion (Christianity in particular) and civilization. Ishmael understands and respects Moby Dick's fury. Ishmael does not hate the white whale. He is in awe of it. That's why this is Ishmael's story, not Ahab's.
"Who's got some paregoric?" said Stubb, "he has the stomach-ache, I'm afraid. Lord, think of having half an acre of stomach-ache! Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys. It's the first foul wind ever knew to blow from astern; but look, did ever whale yaw so before? it must be, he's lost his tiller."
. . . It was a terrific, most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright. Now to this hand, now to that, he yawed in his faltering flight, and still at every billow that he broke, he spasmodically sank in the sea, or sideways rolled towards the sky his one beating fin. So have I seen a bird with clipped wing, making affrighted broken circle in the air, vainly striving to escape the piratical hawks. . . .
His motions plainly denoted his extreme exhaustion. . . .
As the boats now more closely surrounded him, the whole upper part of his form, with much of it that is ordinarily submerged, was plainly revealed. His eyes, or rather the places where his eyes had been, were beheld. As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all. Still rolling in his blood, at last he partially disclosed a strangely discolored bunch or protuberance, the size of a bushel, low down on the flank.
"A nice spot," cried Flask; "just let me prick him there once."
"Avast!" cried Starbuck, "there's no need of that!"
But humane Starbuck was too late. At the instant of the dart an ulcerous jet shot from this cruel wound, and goaded by it into more than sufferable anguish, the whale now spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows. It was his death stroke. For, by this time, so spent was he by loss of blood, that he helplessly rolled away from the wreck he had made; lay panting on his side, impotently flapped with his stumped fin, then over and over slowly revolved like a waning world; turned up the white secrets of his belly; lay like a log, and died. It was most piteous, that last expiring spout. As when by unseen hands the water is gradually drawn off from some mighty fountain, and with half-stifled melancholy gurglings the spray-column lowers and lowers to the ground- so the last long dying spout of the whale.'