Ahab is the central character in Melville’s Moby-Dick. He is a hero, whose actions are surrounded by the symbolic magnificence and whose fight with the white whale becomes a fight against the dark and terrible forces of nature.
Ahab was the name of a wicked king in the Old Testament. Peleg explains that this name was given to him by his foolish and ignorant mother and that an old woman had said that the name would somehow prove prophetic. And, indeed, the woman’s prophecy proves to be true at the end. Ahab is a man of dictatorial nature, an egotist with an idiosyncratic mind. He gradually becomes a monomaniac as he pursues the white whale. He believes that he is invincible and therefore, he defies even God and baptizes his harpoon in the name of the Devil. He is destroyed at the end by the white whale or Moby-Dick.
Ahab’s dictatorial nature is clear from the time when he first appears on the deck when he walks to and fro on the deck with his ivory leg; the sailors feel disturbed and cannot sleep soundly. Ahab demands implicit and instantaneous obedience from the members of the crew. There is certain “Sultanism” in his behavior and it is this Sultanism which makes a dictator of him. He always speaks in a peremptory tone. He does not talk much, and even at the dinner table, he sits like a mute sea-lion surrounded by his brave but respectful cubs. Indeed, the mates sit before him as if they were little children. Ahab is a man of determination; and we witness an example of this determination when, in a mood of disgust with his habit of smoking, he throws his pipe into the sea, saying, “I’ll smoke no more.”
Since his disastrous encounter with the white whale, Ahab has been harbouring‘a wild vindictiveness’ against the monster. The white whale swims before him as the “mono-maniac incarnation” of all the malicious agencies which are believed to be responsible for human suffering. Ahab has begun to believe that the entire world’s evil is visibly personified in Moby Dick and that this evil is practically assailable. And he talks to himself the task of assailing this evil and putting an end to it. There is no exaggerated idea of his own heroism and valor. He baptizes the special harpoon, not in the name of God but in the name of the Devil. Armed with this harpoon, he believes that nothing can prevent him from killing Moby Dick. Several times in the course of the voyage, Starbuck urges to hive up this mad resolve but Ahab does not relent. Then, after Moby Dick has actually been sighted, Starbuck twice appeal to Ahab not to persist in his purpose and to order the crew to change the direction of the ship to return home. But Ahab still pays no heed to Starbuck. On the second day of the chase, Ahab thus reiterates his resolve:
“I’ll ten times girdle the unmeasured glove; yea and dives straight through it, but I’ll slay him yet.”
Ahab is undoubtedly a fearless and a daring man. He is a dynamic person who never wears his purpose. Although he is primarily a man of action, yet he is at the same time a kind of philosopher too. His mind is perpetually at work and he often indulges in soliloquies and monologues. In his soliloquy, he says that he has lost the power to enjoy beauty and loveliness. He feels that he has been damned in the midst of paradise. People like Starbuck think him mad and he admits that he is demonic. He describes himself as ‘madness maddened’. He says that he has been dismembered by Moby dick. He then challenges the gods, mocks and hoots at them. He describes the gods as cricket-players and urges them to fight with someone of their own and not to crush him.
Ahab dies a martyr to his resolve which may be described as almost superhuman. Symbolically, Ahab is a seeker often truth or the mystery which lies at the heart of this universe, and Moby dick, the white whale represents that mystery and that truth. But Ahab has also been regarded as symbolizing Satan in revolt against God who is represented by the white whale. On the other hand, some critics regard Ahab as Christ, the “Redeemer.” He is a tragic figure too. Pride is his ‘hubris’ which proves to be his undoing. He wins a lot of our sympathy even a Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost wins our sympathy. Although Ahab’s motive is regarded as evil and as tending to destruction, we have to admit that he is a Titanic figure. He compels our admiration by virtue of his gigantic venture and his superhuman resolve. He may not be a benefactor of humanity as Prometheus was, but he is certainly a Prometheus like figure because of his towering personality and his heroic endurance of anguish and woe. Indeed, Ahab is a memorable character in the whole range of American Literature.