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Melville’s Captain Ahab as the Gothic hero: origins and iterations of the paradigm in American literature and culture


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Cesar, Filip. (2018). Melville’s Captain Ahab as the Gothic hero: origins and iterations of the paradigm in American literature and culture. Diploma Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of English Language and Literature. [mentor Grgas, Stipe].

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In this thesis I have tried to present a Gothic reading of Moby Dick and a Gothic overview of Captain Ahab. There are some authors who would object to this use of the term ‘Gothic’, for example Killeen, who warns of “devaluation of the term Gothic in studies of the form” and offers a definition of the Gothic as “highly-stylized mystery-tales, using a limited set of plots, settings and character-types, and including an element of history” (2). I have adopted a broader understanding of the Gothic, however, in line with Crow’s understanding, “as a tradition of oppositional literature” (2). It is important to recognize that the Gothic is much more complex and way broader than a single hero-villain scheme I have explored here. I haven’t even touched upon the female gothic, for example, or the possible repercussions of the monk as a hero. These omissions stemmed from various practical reasons, as well as the fact that, when attempting a Gothic reading of Moby Dick, dealing with Ahab first and foremost proved itself to be the most logical approach. Firstly, there’s the insistent building of suspense around him, the subtle hints of supernatural agency and the air of mystery. Secondly, we have the exploration of authority, of individual and society and of reclusiveness, solitude and isolation. But, most importantly, the central emptiness, the nothingness which looms behind the veil can only come to the fore through him and his pursuit. Within the novel, he is the “bearer of a dark truth or horrible knowledge” (Botting 98), which he slowly divulges through his monologues and repeated clashes, whether with his subordinates or Moby Dick. This exploration of the true nature of the world does not exist without him. And while Ahab being the hero-villain is perhaps the one element of Moby Dick which brings it closest to the Gothic, it is also the one element which frees the novel from its gloomy defeatism. His villainy, while introduced through Gothic conventions, is the only thing that resists the true darkness of higher truths the novel uncovers. No matter what happens, Ahab stays true. “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying, but unconquering whale”(426), he taunts Moby Dick, and, though destroyed, he remains unconquered. It is a celebration not only of individuality (or narcissism), but also of human dignity. It is the one redeeming glimmer of light amidst the uncaring sea of life and, in reality, the only thing we have. “I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.” (382), cries Ahab, “I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me.” (ibid.) This integrity, this defiance is still very present in our consciousness and in popular culture: in Bruce Lee when he says “Don't fear failure. — Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” (from Striking Thoughts), in Marvel’s The Avengers when Stark says “Because if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we'll avenge it!”, and in the famous image of a single man stepping in front a convoy of tanks on Tiananmen Square. Whether it’s delusion or a certain nobility innate to humanity, we all feel this defiance at one point or another during our lives; it may very well be the only thing that drives people to get up in the morning. In the end, Ahab cries, “Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death!” (426) If there is such a thing as universal humanity or the human condition, then the words “my whole foregone life” are definitely its epitome and its bottom-line.

Item Type: Diploma Thesis
Subjects: English language and literature > American Studies
Departments: Department of English Language and Literature
Supervisor: Grgas, Stipe
Date Deposited: 15 Jun 2018 08:14
Last Modified: 15 Jun 2018 08:14

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