Baddies in books: Captain Ahab, the obsessive, revenge-driven nihilist

Chris Power in The Guardian:

AhabThe villain in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick isn’t the monstrous White Whale, but the man that wants to kill him: Captain Ahab. Melville withholds Ahab’s appearance for well over 100 pages of his novel. At first he is only a name, then a sailor’s story, then a brooding but unseen presence, shut up in his cabin, as the Pequod sets sail from Nantucket on Christmas Day and strikes south for the whaling grounds of the Pacific. The Pequod’s shareholders are hoping for a great profit, but Ahab is only interested in a single whale among the multitudes: Moby Dick.

Ahab is an enigma whose “larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted”. What can we say we know about him? That he is a “grey-headed, ungodly old man”. He has eyes “like powder pans”. His crew say he never sleeps, only tosses in bed. Dough-Boy the steward tells Ishmael that every morning: “He always finds the old man’s hammock clothes all rumpled and tumbled, and the sheets down at the foot, and the coverlid almost tied in knots”, and Ahab’s pillow hot to the touch, “as though a baked brick had been on it”. He has a scar, too, a “slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish”, running from head to toe. None of the crew knows where he got it, but they all know how he lost his leg. In the Pacific, a year before the events Ishmael describes in the novel, Ahab found himself surrounded by “the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades”, all churning in the “white curds of the whale’s direful wrath”. Moby Dick took Ahab’s leg, “as a mower a blade of grass in the field”, and now the captain uses a peg leg carved from whalebone.

More here.