One of the questions that arises in the course of Melville’s Moby-Dick is whether Ahab’s name is significant. It’s not just a matter of literary symbolism, in which the author is sending a signal to the knowing reader that the the reader might glean something about the character from the name. That’s standard practice in allegory.
For example, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678), a Christian allegory that takes the form of a dream vision, the main character is named “Christian,” and we’re meant to understand that what we’re reading is a representation of the Christian life. But none of the characters in the book talk about why Christian is named Christian.
Likewise, Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) has a name that is fraught with symbolic overtones: her first name brings to mind Oedipus, Sophocles’ tragic hero or Freud’s Oedipus complex or the Oxford English Dictionary (commonly referred to as the “OED,” which happens to be Oedipa’s nickname, “Oed”); while her surname sounds like the Spanish , the intensifier “more” (from the Spanish más, meaning “more” or “most” or “else). Reader, make of all that what you will!
It’s different in Moby-Dick though. Naming the captain of the Pequod “Ahab” is not just a signal to the reader about ways of reading both the character and the narrative: it’s also a subject for discussion among the characters themselves. In one of my favorite chapters, “The Ship,” Ishmael signs up to serve on the Pequod (after a wonderfully comic good-cop-bad-cop routine in which two of the ship’s owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad, use Biblical logic to drive down poor Ishmael’s share of the profits) and then thinks to ask about the ship’s captain.
Here’s Peleg’s answer:
He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab — so some think — but a good one.
Oh, thou’lt like him well enough; no fear, no fear. he’s a grand,
ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he
does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab’s
above the common; Ahab’s been in colleges, as well as ‘mong the
cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery
lance in mightier stranger foes than whales. His lance! aye, the
keenest and the surest that out of all our isle! Oh! he ain’t Captain
Bildad; no, and he ain’t Captain Peleg;
he’s Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!
Ishamel, though, is a former schoolteacher and knows his Bible, so he calls Peleg’s bluff: “And a very vile one. When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?” The reference is to the story of Ahab in 1 Kings.
So Peleg changes his tack:
“Come hither to me — hither, hither,” said Peleg, with a significance
in his eye that almost startled me. “Look ye, lad; never say that on
board the Pequod. Never say it anywhere. Captain Ahab did not name
himself. ‘Twas a foolish, ignorant whim of his crazy, widowed mother,
who died when he was only a twelvemonth old. And yet the old squaw
Tistig, at Gayhead, said that the name would somehow prove prophetic.
And, perhaps, other fools like her may tell thee the same. I wish to
warn thee. It’s a lie.”
Is naming Ahab’s prophetic? Near the end of the novel, Ahab seems to embrace the idea: a sense of destiny that seems to be foretold by his naming. Justifying his seemingly mad actions to his first mate, Starbuck, Ahab asks (in Chapter 132, “The Symphony“), “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? … how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think
thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that
living, and not I.” Seemingly answering his own question, he says, “By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in
this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.”
Now two economists at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, David Kalist and Daniel Lee, offer a modern perspective in the Social Science Quarterly. You can read about their work in a Time magazine article entitled “Can Your Name Make You a Criminal?” According to Time, “The short answer is that our names play an important role in shaping
the way we see ourselves — and, more important, how others see us.”
I guess squaw Tistig was on to something.
Then again there are people who, unlike Ahab, manage to overcome the limitations implicit in their naming. Here’s one for you: Barack Hussein Obama.