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. 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.
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.
This brief introduction reveals significant information. Ahab is ungodly in that he refuses to submit to any higher power. The mystery continues as Ahab remains in his cabin through the early days of the voyage.
He does not worship or even acknowledge the superiority of forces beyond himself. Ishmael grows increasingly uneasy, checking the area outside the captain's cabin whenever the narrator goes on watch.
Like the figure behind the mask of the White Whale, the force behind Ahab's motivation is also an inscrutable, dominating master.
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In his madness, perhaps Ahab is fighting evil or nature or God; or perhaps he is simply fighting Ahab.
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. The men are increasingly excited, as if they are in the blood lust of a real hunt.
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? Ahab then employs his prop, a Spanish gold ounce, offering it to the lookout who first sees ("raises") the White Whale. that simply smote thee from blindest instinct" (Chapter 36). He would "strike the sun if it insulted me." The captain wants to take on the structure of nature, even God himself. The White Whale is a façade, a mask, behind which lurks the "inscrutable thing," the force that is Ahab's true enemy. Others find the evil in Ahab's ego, in his own soul.
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.