Although Ahab’s insanity appears to be what shuts him off from humanity, in reality it is what makes him human. Ahab desperately wants to be freed from his obsession – to not have to rely upon it to feel. It is because Ahab is no longer in control of his obsession that the reader eventually discovers that besides what the book originally seems to insinuate, Ahab is only human.
The first few times that Ahab is introduced to the reader and to his crew, he appears to be inhuman. Even his description when he first appears on deck states that he “seemed made of solid bronze” (Melville 117). To compare him to a statue is to distance him from humanity – he is not a breathing, emotional being. However, as the book continues, it becomes blatantly obvious that Ahab hates his obsession and is greatly disturbed by the fact that he is obsessed. This self-hatred makes Ahab human because he knows that he is leading himself to his death and yet he is so possessed by his obsession that he can do nothing to stop it. Every human being can relate to this feeling, for at one point or another, everyone feels like they have lost control. Though Ahab may be an extreme example, he is simply a strong representation of a characteristic human sentiment.
This sentiment, this anxiety over lack of control is most certainly connected to his leg. By losing his leg, Ahab has lost a part of himself and seeks Moby Dick to avenge this loss. He is not able to perceive that the leg is simply a physical part, he feels that by losing a part of his body he has lost a part of himself.
This frustration of being incomplete is expressed in his actions. How he acts towards his crew, for example, appears to be out of a jealously – they are whole and he is not. For this reason, he feels that he must make up for it by being stronger and more powerful than they are. He tries to control the men, for if he can control them then he is greater than they are, though they are complete and he is not.
Although Ahab may overpower the men, he cannot overpower the universe, a fact which deeply perturbs him. He refuses to accept the infinite, instead choosing to challenge it. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” (Melville 157). He refuses to admit that he is below anyone, or anything, because to do so would only validate the fact that he is not in control. Not only does Ahab lash out against universal objects, he is completely blasphemous. Elijah tells of how Ahab had desecrated a church and spit in some sort of sacred object, but it is through Ahab’s own words that his complete disregard towards God is shown.
This blasphemous behavior is definitely a major aspect of Ahab’s insanity and it also connects him to his biblical counterpart, King Ahab. King Ahab worshipped strange gods and always made sure to go against the God of Israel. It seems as though Ahab mirrors this behavior in the book, saying, “Who’s over me? Truth has no confines” (Melville 157). In the eyes of the deeply religious Starbuck, this blatant disregard for God demonstrates how insane Ahab is, for no man would dare to threaten God.
Ahab threatens God because he does not want to believe that he relies on anyone or anything other than himself. This necessity for self-sufficiency becomes a major theme throughout the book as Ahab tries to free himself from any limitations. He attempts to destroy anything that he relies on. One example of this is when he destroys the quadrant. The quadrant, a device used to determine latitude, must be destroyed because Ahab does not want an instrument to determine where he is or where he is going.
It is because of this refusal to rely on anything that creates the frustration over his leg. He needs his leg to move, to function. He cannot destroy it, nor can he free himself from it. It is a constant reminder that he is weak and not a whole human. Since this reminder is so painful, and he cannot get rid of it, it reinforces his obsession and thus fortifies his madness.
Though he may be physically weak, Ahab most certainly shows his strength through his madness. His insanity is strong – strong enough to overtake him. This intense insanity eventually proves to be the only form of control that Ahab has. Ahab is similar to a martyr in that his belief has completely overwhelmed him and he will do whatever it takes to achieve what he feels is right. His revenge, coupled with his genius, makes him a formidable man. Ahab has nothing to lose in life and therefore he lives life in a way most people do not. He feels that he has already lost a part of himself and therefore the only thing worth living for is to get his revenge.
Since all he seeks from life is his revenge, he is not afraid to do what he wants. While most people restrain themselves to fit societal standards or to be a norm Ahab says and does what he wants. This absolute indiscretion makes him a fascination to the reader because he is freed from typical restraints.
Ahab’s insanity is hard to fully understand because it is caused by contradicting factors. He is insane because he chooses to be and because he does not have a choice. He is freed from normal restraints but bound by his own insanity. He is a genius and he is mad. He is human and he is simply symbolic. It is for all these reasons that Ahab’s insanity proves to be the epicenter of the book and generates so many questions about life, death and everything in between.