In Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick the author is eager to tell us a tale of good and evil. These two opposing forces are represented everywhere throughout his story, the vying battle between the two is the back bone of the entire novel. Good versus evil, love against hate, forgiveness or revenge, they are all explored throughout its many pages. This is one of the reasons for its enduring popularity amongst readers.
Some readers consider the great Moby Dick to be the character best placed to represent the evil force. Yet this whale, no matter how huge and scary is still simply that, a whale. He is an animal with no conscious ability to be rational, he is simply an animal living within his natural habitat.
So for me the obvious representation of evil is Captain Ahab. Ahab’s entire world is seeking out the whale that dismember him many years ago. He is a man consumed by one single goal, a goal to bring about death to a creature that has no understanding of what is happening. Captain Ahab is a man possessed by the idea of killing the great white whale, and he doesn’t care what happens as long as that end goal is achieved.
Yet Ahab is also not a one dimensional man, he is a tortured man. He is certainly not a cardboard figure of evil. “Once the captain throws his pipe overboard, he takes a turn for the worse,” here Melville is showing us that the Captain has become so overwhelmed with his need for revenge on Moby Dick that he no longer enjoys little acts, such as his pipe, as he once did.
Yet we must also remember that Captain Ahab leads his entire crew – baring Ishmael – to their death, for nothing more than petty vengeance. The true evil in this novel is the very human traits of stubbornness and obsession. A sentient and conscious man is willing to throw away everything to wreak his vengeance upon a creature who acted simply out of instinct and not malice.
The presence of good is shown in the novel most clearly in the character of Queequeg, who was once a barbaric cannibal but who now embodies the ideals of ‘Christianly’ behaviour more than any of the other men aboard the Pequod.
While Ishamel and Queequeg’s relationship starts off with a brawl and attempted murder at the Spouter-Inn, it quickly turns into a beautiful friendship.
The reader gets to see the true heart of Queequeg for the first time when the two men fall asleep beside one another. When the two awaken the ‘savages’ arm lies draped across Ishmael in an affection manor, or as Melville describes it, as if Ishamel were “his wife”.
Queequeg also shows incredible modesty when dressing in the morning ing, even attempting to hide himself as he pulls on his boots. This moment shows the two sides of Queequeg, the savage and the civilised man: “if he were a savage he wouldn’t consider boots necessary, but if he were completely civilised he would realise there was no need to be modest when pulling on his boots”.
While this theme of friendship becomes less prominent once the Pequod unfurls its sails Queequeg does still save Ishmael’s life, albeit indirectly. Yet he also saves two other men from drowning while acting as harpooner aboard the vessel.
Queequeg’s presence within the novel slips as it draws towards the great climax as Melville begins to darken the tone and focus upon the aggression and hatred of the captain. However, his greatest action occurs at the novel’s finale.
While suffering from a fever Queequeg believes he is at deaths door and asks the ship’s carpenter to construct him a coffin in the form of a canoe to remind him of home. The coffin is not needed however as Queequeg makes a full recovery, it therefore becomes the ships new life-boat, which in turn is the only thing that allows Ishmael to survive Moby Dick’s attack and the Pequod’s demise.
Melville also shows us how good and evil can manifest itself through the journey of ones life. For instance Queequeg lived a life of bliss on the island of Kokovoko where he was the son of a King, yet he hated the life of idleness and insisted instead on becoming a whaler and exploring the world, the pampered life was not for him. Ishmael similarly wanted to see the rest of the world, not to escape idleness but instead to combat the early stages of a creeping depression. All of this is in stark contrast to Captain Ahab who’s sole reason for the journey was revenge, cruel and selfish revenge. Ahab is swept up in his manic desire to kill Moby Dick and the end result is a grizzly and unnecessary demise for his whole crew.
Overall Melville does well to give us good and evil characters with layers and depth. Captain Ahab has all the characteristics of a tragic hero, he has a great heart but tragic flaws. Yet it is his final actions and manic obsession with revenge that destroys his heart and leaves him simply as a flawed and hate filled villain. Queequeg on the other hand may appear to be a savage but his heart stays pure and he has a truly noble spirit.
Melville shows us that we cannot simply judge a person by their appearance, that titles and riches do not matter, it is only the heart that can be judged to show ones true self.