The moral qualities of Queequeg, Starbuck, and Ahab



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Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville reached the American public late in the year 1851. Early reviewers with a few perceptive exceptions, recognized only the narrative aspects of the novel. Most considered it a continuation by Melville of the genre of sea tale adventure stories. This style of writing had established his literary popularity with the publication of Typee and Omoo. There is evidence to suggest, however, that Melville had concluded the writing of Moby Dick with a completely different purpose in mind. His goal was not to present merely an exciting account of the chase of a fabled whale; rather he sought a story which would express a large and liberal theme. While powerful description would help further this purpose, physical detail alone was not sufficient for its accomplishment. Melville went a step beyond physical description and endowed his characters with specific moral qualities on the psychological level. Examination of Queequeg, Starbuck, and Ahab reveals their respective moral qualities as well as the significance those moral qualities have for the novel. Queequeg, a pagan, embodies the moral qualities preached by Christianity: kindness, sincerity, selflessness, and love of his fellow man. As a result, he becomes a vehicle by which Melville can compare the religions and behavioral characteristics of civilized Christians and pagans. Starbuck is influenced by two conflicting moral qualities. The first is a faith in God and a recognition of his need to do his duty as reflected through Christian principles. The second is his duty to obey his Captain in accordance with the traditions of the sea. The moral qualities provide a dual role for Starbuck in the novel. On one level he is in direct opposition to Ahab on the material and moral plane. On yet another level he is an unsuccessful counterbalance to the influence of Fedallah. Ahab is motivated by one dominant moral quality, a desire to achieve universal justice for himself and all men through a determined assertion of will. His coercion of the minds of his crew for his own selfish ends leads to his destruction. Moreover, it helps establish his role in the novel as a tragic hero. Melville's introduction of moral qualities changed the scope of the tale from mere narrative to a novel which abounds in parables, symbolism and allegory, a philosophical account of man's existence in the universe.