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  • Pious Ahab:The Conduct of a Christian in Melville’s “Wicked Book”
  • Dean Mendell (bio)

In a letter to Hawthorne dated November 17th, 1851, Melville speaks famously of Moby-Dick as a “wicked book” (Correspondence 212). Interpretations of this statement generally focus on the mind and actions of the charismatic Captain Ahab. As Blake said of Milton’s Satan, that he is more attractive than Milton’s God, so we have said—and continue to say—of Ahab, that this “grand, ungodly, god-like man” (Moby-Dick 79) is more attractive than any of the Christians in the novel. His is the terrible beauty of a mushroom cloud rising above ground zero. The reason the reader should despise him is obvious; and, because the reader believes in preserving life, that reason must seem valid. Melville’s response to Ahab is more profound and daring, though, than ours has been in nearly a century of Melville criticism. In a sense, we have followed the lead of Starbuck, who says that Ahab’s purpose insults heaven. But Starbuck is a conventional Christian, and in Melville’s unconventional novel, conventional thinkers like Starbuck do not understand the Bible as well as Ahab does. Ahab contends that his obsession originates in the Bible, and so does Melville. If Ahab transgresses the boundaries of decency, the fault originates in Christianity and its Jewish foundation, which taught him to do so.

Ahab’s desire to kill Moby Dick is ethically justified by God’s pledge to Noah and its reiteration in the eighth Psalm: “The fear of you, and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air; upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered” (Gen. 9.2). This pledge is prologue to all whaling narratives, whether they are addressed to children and young adults or to older readers. But there is one difference between Ahab’s attitude and the attitudes of all other Christian sailors in Moby-Dick and in other works. The pledge is always linked to the principles of the Protestant work ethic. In novels for young readers, the hero is taught that professional and religious obligations are analogous; that to be industrious and contribute to the material prosperity of one’s ship is to achieve goodness and earn God’s grace. In most of those works, a young boy discovers God, or has his religious faith invigorated; and because of the virtues attendant upon his piety he becomes a Christian hero, who justifies the ways of God to his shipmates and to the reader by becoming a servant at once of God and the almighty dollar or pound. In works for adults, admirable [End Page 278] sailors, such as Starbuck, have already learned to appreciate the moral necessity of earning money for their ships. Starbuck pleads with Ahab to act morally—by killing for profit, not vengeance. William Scoresby writes in a biography of his father, a whaleship captain, of the commercial utility of the whale trade in great detail, stuffing his hagiographic memoir with statistics pertaining to the number of whales killed under his father’s command, the size of the whales and the quantity of the oil that they yielded, the price that the oil brought, the quantity and value of the whalebone harvested, and comparable information. He brags that his father’s crews slaughtered more whales over the years than any other ship’s, and he brags of the average number of kills per year—all of this while speaking repeatedly of his father’s exemplary piety. His father’s success, he says, was a gift from God. All was “[d]ivinely yielded,” for “the economy manifest in respect to the hugest of animal creation” is evidence of the law “whereby all become subject to man, either for advantageous employment, as to their living energies, or for the purpose of utility as to the produce of their dead carcasses.” “[T]he monsters of the deep,” he asserts, “yield to this law of creation, that man should have the dominant power!” (150–51). This is...