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Ahab’s Solipsism and the Illusion of Self-Reliance: The Career of Herman Melville


Liu, Victoria (2021) Ahab’s Solipsism and the Illusion of Self-Reliance: The Career of Herman Melville. Other, California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/5apa-8591.


[Introduction] What’s eating moody Ahab? In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ahab is obsessed with hunting the white whale and cannot rest until he gets his revenge. His monomania germinates before the start of the novel, when a misadventure with Moby Dick results in a cruel disfigurement. Ahab cannot fathom any explanation for his lost leg except that the whale must be composed of pure malice—he places “the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (Melville 182) onto Moby Dick’s white hump, personifying the whale as the supreme evil of the world. Ahab then believes that he must be the one to take down the wicked whale. He becomes a man of absolutes, of black and white, and his world closes in until the only certainties are himself and the wicked whale. As a reaction to transcendentalism, Melville has the vengeful Ahab follow much of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” advice, often too literally. Rather than becoming truly self-reliant or competent, Ahab instead becomes more selfdeluded, more reliant on others, and loses touch with humanity. On the other hand, through Ishmael and Queequeg, Melville shows how transcendentalism can be used in non-problematic ways to lead meaningful lives, and these characters can be seen as foils to Ahab. Ahab often takes Emerson’s transcendentalist advice to an extreme, creating an image of toxic self-reliance that morphs into solipsism; Ahab then dangerously perpetuates his narcissism through self-idolatry, and, by viewing the ship as his personal stage, eventually leads everyone—except Ishmael—to their demise.

Item Type:Thesis (Other)
Subject Keywords:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize ; Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English ; Hixon Writing Center
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:English
Awards:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English, 2021.
Thesis Availability:Restricted to Caltech community only
Research Advisor(s):
  • Weinstein, Cindy A.
Group:Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize, Gordon McClure Memorial Communications Prize - English, Hixon Writing Center
Thesis Committee:
  • None, None
Defense Date:2021
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:06092021-171613155
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14270
Deposited By: Leslie Rico
Deposited On:09 Jun 2021 21:00
Last Modified:09 Jun 2021 21:08

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