(Chapter 28, if you’re counting.)
I’d wager that a person who hasn’t read Moby-Dick, but who’s heard of it, can tell you one thing about Ahab: he has a peg leg, made of whalebone. However, for Ishmael, Ahab’s “grim aspect” is so engrossing that “for the first few moments I hardly noted that not a little of this overbearing grimness was owing to the barbaric white leg upon which he partly stood.” In other words, Ahab’s missing leg is not his defining physical feature, at least to the men he works with.
The ship’s mates are uncomfortable too, for “moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe” (135). Indeed, Ishmael’s first impression is similar to the impression of torment given in this passage; at first glance, Ahab “looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness” (134).
I find this juxtaposition of images — the Christ-figure crucified and the heretic at the stake — intriguing, especially since my first reading of the stake comparison relied on my image of Joan of Arc — until I realized that she wasn’t canonized until 1920. With these two images, Melville and Ishmael provide us with a foreshadowing of Ahab’s later character development; we’ll find him to be brave, stoic, even, but also possessed with the pursuit of unrighteous revenge.
I’ll leave off my musing with another contrasting set of images: Ahab as a tree.
In the first, his scarring (which happened before his encounter with the white whale) is compared to the mark of a lightning strike on a great tree, in such a way that I thought of Ahab as nature’s inertia embodied, markable but not really changeable in essence (was his monomania brought on by Moby Dick’s attack, or was the capacity for madness always lurking within him?).
In the second, the possibility for softness in Ahab’s character emerges without diminishing his otherness from his fellow men.
[Ahab’s scar] resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. (134)
For, as when the red-cheeked, dancing girls, April and May, trip home to the wintry, misanthropic woods, even the barest, ruggedest, most thunder-cloven old oak will at least send forth some few green sprouts, to welcome such glad-hearted visitants; so Ahab did, in the end, a little respond to the playful allurings of that girlish air. More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile. (136)
What do you remember most about Ahab?