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.
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.
Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown – The Puritans and Love
Young Goodman Brown: The Puritans and Love Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, exposes the puritan view of love and relationships. In theory, these two visions are diametrically opposed. One exalts love as a physical manifestation between two individuals (although it also claims to represent higher ideals), the other sees it as a spiritual need, one best manifested by attachment to God. In fact, the puritans did not see love as a good thing, but rather as an evil, a grim necessity, that is, they saw physical love (between a man and a woman, or sexuality and all it carries with it) as such. The emotional turmoil affecting Goodman Brown clearly expresses this.
The problem we find in this story, and in puritanism, is that it presents contrasting views of love. Attachment to earthly possessions, to other people in fact, is discouraged, because everything physical leads to temptation and damnation, and ultimately hell, while the road to salvation of the individual wanders through a spiritual discipline, rigour, austerity. A man should not love his wife more than he loves God; in fact, it is recommended that he not derive pleasure from his wife, but rather seek suffering, in order to redeem himself from his earthly condition, his impure state.
This conception of love can be traced back to the first chapters of the Bible, Genesis. Adam and Eve, in the garden of Eden, eat the forbidden fruit and are forever outcast from paradise, forced to suffer. The puritans argued that, if God wishes us to suffer, who are we to go against his wishes. We are sinners, because of the Original Sin, and it was Eve who gav…
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…ne, it kept the women in a box, it basically prevented uprising by instilling divine fear. Eventually, these ideas evolved, but we still witness many of the after effects of puritanism in today’s world.
Again, however, we are faced with a story, this time written after the fact, that sheds a negative light on an ideology. It seems Nathaniel Hawthorne did not want to endorse puritanism, but denounce it, denounce the abuse and contradiction it implied. Once more, we find a work that denigrates an established understanding of love. First, there was opposition to the courtly love tradition, now, we find opposition to the puritan love ideology. So far, we have only been willing to define love by what it wasn’t, what we felt was a wrong way of doing things.
If a more definitive answer is to be found, it must be found elsewhere.