Is Ahab the uncivilized one in Moby Dick?

There is no doubt that Ahab is the most uncivilized and barbaric of the sailors.  Although he is the captain of the ship and holds authority over the entire crew, his actions do not merit him respectability.  The harpooners carry a tarnished image by virtue of their profession – they are obligated to massacre the whales.  But Ahab’s livelihood is more of his own choice. He could easily have chosen a merchant’s life and look at fishing and hunting as merely commercial opportunities.  Indeed, Ahab was reminded of this saner and safer option by his lieutenants in the Pequod. But his vanity is too big for such humbling decisions.  Even before the grand ship set sail, Ahab was deep in his ambition of killing Moby Dick the white whale.  His battle cry is full of vehemence and bloodlust, as his final moments spent fighting the giant beast clearly reveal: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (p.19)  Not only do such a death unbecoming of a Captain, it also betrays a lack of civility.  Hence, it is Ahab who is the most uncivilized of the sailors.

Observing Ahab’s self-destructive obsession with Moby Dick, one of his dependable lieutenants advice him of alternative actions. He is reminded of the glaring fact that Moby Dick the white whale does not care about Ahab.  Despite the danger the great beast poses to voyagers, its intention is not deliberate killing of humans.  Left unprovoked Moby Dick would mind its own business.  But Ahab is blind to this obvious fact. His speech, thought and every movement in action is directed toward one end – a far from noble one – which is to kill Moby Dick and exact revenge for its history of misdemeanours with sailors.  Ahab’s obsession plunges to such a deplorable depth that he says,

“Squeeze! Squeeze! Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-labourers’ hands in it… Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget, as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill humour or envy!”

As this utterance from Ahab reveals, he is a man who has lost any sense of decency and dignity.  He has lost the ability to maintain any social graces and engulfs his subordinates into serving as his accomplices. Even in chapter 70, Ahab chucks the decapitated head of an unfortunate whale in total disdain. Hence, it is Ahab, and not the harpooners or other sailors, who is the most uncivilized. Even Moby Dick is more respectable, for it is has only acted as per its nature.

Work Cited:

Herman Melville, Moby Dick, first published in 1851 by Harper & Brothers.