Long before Ahab's first appearance, there is an air of mystery about the captain of the Pequod. The owners hire the crew in Ahab's absence. When Ishmael inquires about the captain, he is told that Ahab is a man of few words but deep meaning; from the first, it is clear that the captain is a complicated character. He is a "grand, ungodly, god-like" man who has been in colleges as well as among the cannibals. This brief introduction reveals significant information. Ahab is ungodly in that he refuses to submit to any higher power. He does not worship or even acknowledge the superiority of forces beyond himself. Ahab is god-like in that he is larger than life. Perhaps he even wants to be God.
The mystery continues as Ahab remains in his cabin through the early days of the voyage. Ishmael grows increasingly uneasy, checking the area outside the captain's cabin whenever the narrator goes on watch. When Ahab finally appears on his quarter-deck (Chapter 28), he is an imposing, frightening figure whose haunted visage sends shivers over Ishmael. The captain looks like a man "cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness." A white scar, reportedly from a thunderbolt, runs down his face and, some say, the length of his body. Ahab does seem godlike, or at least mythic, from the beginning. He is surrounded by legend, cured by lightning, grim, determined. We learn early on that an equally legendary White Whale has bitten off one of the captain's legs. A prosthesis replaces it, fashioned from another sperm whale's jaw. The man is thus part whale himself, part lightning bolt; he feels a thunderous electricity within himself. If Ahab is mad, he is madness personified, a huge man, larger than life, legendary, god-like.
Ahab is a man of great depth but few words. When he speaks, others listen because he moves them with charismatic persuasion. In the pivotal Chapter 36, Ahab finally gathers the crewmen together and, in a rousing speech, solicits their support in a single purpose for this voyage: hunting down and killing the White Whale. He first unifies the group by asking a series of emotionally charged questions that call for collective responses: What do you do when you spot a whale? What do you do next? What tune do you pull to in pursuit? The men are increasingly excited, as if they are in the blood lust of a real hunt. Ahab then employs his prop, a Spanish gold ounce, offering it to the lookout who first sees ("raises") the White Whale. The end of Ahab's oration unites all of the crewmen except for Starbuck in the monomaniacal goal of pursuing Moby Dick.
Ahab's quest is grand, ungodly, and god-like. Starbuck accuses the captain of blasphemy for seeking revenge against a "dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct" (Chapter 36). For Ahab, blasphemy is no vice. He would "strike the sun if it insulted me." The captain wants to take on the structure of nature, even God himself. To him, Moby Dick is not just some dumb brute. The White Whale is a façade, a mask, behind which lurks the "inscrutable thing," the force that is Ahab's true enemy. Ahab is certain that the force is evil. Others find the evil in Ahab's ego, in his own soul. To understand Ahab, we must understand that it is this force behind the mask that Ahab really wants to kill. Ahab believes that the force wants to injure him, to limit his role in the world. Perhaps he is right. Perhaps the force is evil. Or perhaps Ahab is madness itself, striking out against the essential powers of the universe, which he cannot possibly defeat. In either case, his quest is bold and literally magnificent. If Ahab is mad, as even he concedes that he is, it is a huge madness, containing multitudes. Part of the universal appeal of the book is that this is a madness to which many briefly aspire, from time to time, resisting our limited, petty roles in the universe. For most, it is just a fleeting yearning and clearly beyond our grasps. For Ahab, it is everything.
We see a different side of Ahab the day before the Pequod's first encounter with the White Whale. Starbuck and the captain are at the rail in the sunshine and soft breezes. For the most part, Ahab is a static character, one who does not grow or change throughout the novel due to his single-minded obsession. But here he briefly wavers. Ahab recalls his forty years at sea, harpooning his first whale at age eighteen; finally marrying when he was past fifty; sailing for Cape Horn the next day. Of those forty years, he has not spent three ashore. He calls himself a "fool." But when Starbuck tries to persuade him to turn back and go home, Ahab says he is no longer in control of his fate: "What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me?" This is the beginning of the greatest speech in the novel, near the end of Chapter 132, a soliloquy that should be read aloud to fully appreciate Ahab's character. Like the figure behind the mask of the White Whale, the force behind Ahab's motivation is also an inscrutable, dominating master. In his madness, perhaps Ahab is fighting evil or nature or God; or perhaps he is simply fighting Ahab.
The captain is no stereotype and certainly is no ordinary man. He is a complicated, deep, tortured soul. Even though he knows he is mad, he cannot stop himself. Ahab contemplates the beauties as well as the horrors of life and death as he smells the sweet air blowing over the Pacific. He muses that mowers have been making hay somewhere beneath the slopes of the Andes and are "sleeping among the new-mown hay." We all sleep at last, he thinks, sleep and "rust amid greenness." Or at the depths of the ocean.
The final three days leave no time for contemplation as Ahab finally encounters Moby Dick. The captain's final defeat seems inevitable. Time and again, the White Whale out-maneuvers the crew of the Pequod, once even using the lines of the harpoons, which the men have lodged in the whale, to whiplash and smash their boats. Ahab's final attempt to kill his nemesis results in his own death as the hemp line of the captain's harpoon lodges around his own neck, casting him to his death in the sea.