The Vengeful Heart that Drives Moby Dick and The Revenant

Reading my father's copy of Moby Dick, The Limited Edition's Club, 1943. First line: "Call me Ishmael." (#1 of 100 Best First Lines from Novels)

Before the monstrous sperm whale “reaped away Ahab’s leg,” the raging Captain had “dashed at the whale with a six inch blade to reach the fathom deep life of Moby Dick.” So wrote Herman Melville. And ever since that fatal encounter, Ahab had “cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale…. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down, and then as if his heart had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”*

Rage. The desire for revenge. “Gnawed within and scorched without," Ahab was intent on "an audacious and supernatural revenge." It drove Captain Ahab some said to madness. And surely Herman Melville inhabited a bit of that madness as he penned the novel now considered an American classic.

The Heart of the Sea Trailer
Not a single reader in 1943 had to scratch his or her head, wondering what motivated the one-legged Captain Ahab to venture back into the sea to hunt down the monster that had torn him asunder. And every decision that vengeful Captain Ahab made on the fateful voyage, which only Ismael survived, was driven by this desire for revenge. Does the new movie The Heart of the Sea adhere to Melville's rendering? No. Director Ron Howard's movie is about the true story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick and includes a love story not in the novel,  but doubt not, the white whale had a starring if not vengeful and monomaniac role in both.

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant.
Melville called Ahab's obsession with the white whale "mono-mania," a fitting term for Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of mountain man Hugh Glass in The Revenant. Here was a man equally obsessed, not with fear after being ripped to shreds by a sow grizzly, but with the desire for revenge on the men who left him to die.

The Revenant, Michael Punke
I first read Michael Punke's novel (on which the film is based) in 2002 when he asked me if I might be willing to provide a cover quote. His publicist at Carrol & Graf sent me a review copy, I read the first line, and was hooked. "They were abandoning him. The wounded man knew it." Fitzgerald and Bridger robbed him of his possessions and left him to die. "Murdered him, as surely as a knife in the heart or a bullet in the brain. Murdered him, except that he would not die. Would not die, he vowed, because he would live to kill his killers. Hugh Glass pushed himself up and continued his crawl down the banks of the Grand."

Rage. The desire for revenge. A driven man, Hugh Glass tore himself from death's grip again and again. Readers and moviegoers did not need to scratch their heads here either, wondering what emotion was driving the character's actions. We were too busy hanging off the edge of our seats.

When I get back to writing my novel, this is a lesson I want to remember. Lyrical language is not enough to move a story forward. Whatever the desire driving my character's actions, it better be deep-seated, its edges well-honed, and it better not be a knife in the abstract. If I try to reach the reader's heart with a six-inch blade, as Ahab tried to reach "the fathom deep life of Moby Dick," I will surely find myself washed overboard and ill-equipped.

NOTE: For a more humane view of our relationship with whales, I highly suggest Linda Hogan's novel People of the Whale, and the movie Whale Rider about the young New Zealand Maori girl Pai*Melville, Herman, Moby Dick, Copyright 1943, The Limited Editions Club, Inc. Heritage Press, NY, page 195.


Judith Grout said…
Interesting analysis of rage - an element of character development that needs to be treated with sensitivity and respect. And what an honor to be asked for a cover quote. I'm impressed.

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