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Was Captain Ahab Ahead of His Time?

In the 1956 film production of <em>Moby-Dick</em>, Gregory Peck played a fanatical Captain Ahab.
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In the 1956 film production of Moby-Dick, Gregory Peck played a fanatical Captain Ahab.
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Is it possible? Could Ahab — the peg-legged ship's captain who leads that ill-fated quest for the great white whale in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick — have been misunderstood.

To most, especially those who know him only from John Huston's film, Ahab is a petty dictator, tyrant of a tiny seaborne fiefdom, a monomaniac dedicated only to killing the whale that mauled him. Ultimately, he's a mass murderer who drags dozens of sailors to Davy Jones' Locker.

But under that exterior madness, some see a man of surprising talents — a man destined for greatness, then marred by destiny. He's a wounded man, haunted not just by his loss, but by the image of the wife and child he's left behind. There's a humanity to him — and he's his own worst enemy.

There have been men of vision who've recognized this, not least Orson Welles, who turned Moby-Dick into theater and grabbed the part of Ahab for himself. Welles' play Moby-Dick Rehearsed has a following among Ahabophiles for staying faithful to the master.

And Ahab, finally, may be a more modern character than his 1851 vintage might suggest. Corporate groups come to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut for leadership seminars inspired by Captain Ahab. (And no wonder: He convinces a bunch of boozy seamen to join his suicidal mission. And there's no mutiny on the Pequod; Ahab is no Captain Bligh.)

In some sense, he's every leader of every country who asks the population to trust him, follow him — wherever.

In this installment of NPR's ongoing series In Character, our correspondent takes a high-concept trip to the decks of the Pequod, in search of what makes Ahab such an enduring figure.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Abramson
Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.