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Ahab as the Hero of Moby Dick

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Ahab as the Hero of Moby Dick

One might think it a difficult task to find a tragic hero hidden in the pages of Moby Dick. Yet, there is certainly potential for viewing Ahab as heroic despite unfavorable responses to him by the reader.

In the original formula coming from the Greeks, the tragic hero had to be a high-born individual of elevated status possessed of a fatal flaw which resulted in their downfall. With Othello Shakespeare redefined elevated status to include position alone rather than being linked to societal or birth status. In this way it was possible for Othello as the military leader to be the tragic hero despite being an outsider in the composition of the society. Melville follows this example in Moby-Dick. On board the Pequod, Ahab as the ship's captain assumes the role of king or dictator that gives him the elevated status to fit this traditional view of the hero (Millhauser 76). Melville himself wrote:

Men may seem detestable . . . ; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes . . . . If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; . . . then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which has spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! . . . . Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God! (444-445)

Melville takes the traditional heroic view and reinterprets it from the American...

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... halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life" (Melville 545). With these words, Ahab's fate is linked with a universal fate of mankind. Through this common denominator, Ahab's struggle becomes that of all men everywhere.

In Ahab, Melville developed an unlikely hero. He is not always appealing, but he does seek within his own realm of knowledge and experience to overcome what he perceives as a major evil force. Ultimately, Ahab gives his life in pursuit of a betterment for everyone.

Works Cited

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 8 Classic American Novels. Ed. David Madden. San Diego: Harcourt, 1990.

Millhauser, Milton. "The Form of Moby-Dick." Critics on Melville. Ed. Thomas J. Rountree. Coral Gables: U of Miami P, 1972. 76-80.
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