Ahab and the Glamour of Evil: A Burkean Reading of Ritual in 'Moby Dick.'

By Todd, Jeff | Papers on Language & Literature, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Ahab and the Glamour of Evil: A Burkean Reading of Ritual in 'Moby Dick.'


Todd, Jeff, Papers on Language & Literature


Numerous critics have commented upon the significance of ritualistic acts in Moby Dick, particularly in the "Quarterdeck," "Forge," and "Candles" chapters. Poet W. H. Auden writes that Ahab enacts "every ritual ... of the Religious Hero, only for negative reasons" (qtd. in Bloom 17). Tony Magistrale calls him the "high celebrant" of "each unholy rite ... a blasphemous parody of a religious ritual" (Bloom 50); Lawrance Thompson refers to the "inverted" rituals of communion, baptism, and prayer (Bloom 19). Henry A. Murray links the "Quarterdeck" directly to Christianity: Ahab acts as an Antichrist figure who performs a Black Mass (40-41).

Ahab performs these rituals to induce action in his crew. S. I. Hayakawa writes that we use verbal and nonverbal directive language to cause change, "to reach out into the future and control conduct" (244). Such directive utterances gain collective sanction in public ceremonies, where ritual and grandeur are "calculated to impress the occasion on the mind" (242). Some elements which accompany these collective directive utterances are activities or gestures; feasts, dancing, and other joyous manifestations; and appeals to supernatural powers (242). Clearly, then, Ahab designs his ceremonies to duplicate accepted rituals. He wants to convert the Pequod's crew to his quest for vengeance upon the whale that crippled him, so he enthralls them with the blessings, gold, and wine of "sacramental symbolism" but keeps the specific motive of self-destructive revenge hidden (Cowan 117).

Although such interpretations are accurate, they fail to address the necessity for ritual. Why does the austere, Quakerbred Ahab continually rely upon such extravagant display? He could track the whale from his cabin and with the reports from passing captains without creating a spectacle of Moby Dick. Other ships they encounter had lowered for the white whale, so in the normal course of business, the Pequod would also. The ceremonies, though symbolically rich, do not alter the crew's ability or willingness to hunt whales. In fact, the rituals almost backfire because they alert Starbuck to a drive in the captain that could cause the ship's destruction. Though the ineffectual Starbuck never acts on this information, the rituals do provide potential justification for mutiny.

One way to address the necessity for ritual is through Kenneth Burke's ideas about identification through courtship. In his description of the courtly intention, Burke writes that the courtier operates under two motivations: the social and the personal. The social deals with honoring the other, the courted. Through praise, the courtier seeks favors from the courted, whether prince or beloved. The personal motivation deals with the courtier's self-love. Through the interaction of courting, the courtier finds his "individual identity" in the rhetorical relationship (147-48). Earlier in the book Burke refers to this formation of the individual through the socialization of rhetoric; by identifying with an audience, the orator identifies himself through his own images and ideas (38-39). Through the ritual, then, Ahab courts his crew and wins them to his cause. Simultaneously, he identifies himself, with the ceremony, he binds himself to suicide by identifying with the crew, who is bound to the same quest. The ritual creates a reciprocal relationship which neither can break because of pressure from the other, a pressure generated from the use of rhetorical symbols.

Henry A. Murray has referred to the "Quarterdeck" ritual as a Black Mass; in the context of courting, it becomes more appropriate to consider it as a Wedding Mass. The symbols traditionally associated with the Mass, and more specifically with a marriage ceremony, are present. Like all sacraments, marriage is an initiation, "the entry -- accompanied by ritual practices -- into a new phase of life." The ceremony signifies transformation. The ring which Ahab commands the men to form around him symbolizes "joining, fidelity, or membership in a community and thus of distinction, office, and dignity"; it is an eternal union.

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