Authoritarian and Authorial Power in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick
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Herman Melville's writing reflects his numerous experiences with despotic figures and his uncertainty regarding appropriate responses to them. Encountering oppression in his professional and personal life, Melville grappled with effective ways to challenge authority himself and to equip his readers to challenge it. In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), Melville illustrates despotism's dangers through Captain Ahab. Melville first shows readers how despots gain and retain power; he then illustrates potential responses to this power through crew members' various actions. Ultimately, the crew's failure to effectively oppose Ahab and his monomaniacal quest results in the crew's annihilation. Simultaneously, Melville exposes his authorial control over readers, thereby mirroring Ahab's control over the crew. As readers critique the crew for endorsing Ahab's tyranny, Melville's text highlights readers' own propensity to submit to authority, thereby teaching them to resist would-be oppressors and to question authoritative figures. Further illustrating power's complexity, Melville shows that authoritarian figures cannot fully obtain power without the compliance of those under them. Just as Ahab needs the crew to create his authority and to hunt Moby Dick, Melville needs readers to enable his authority as an author. Ultimately, Melville demonstrates, everyone is culpable in the creation of tyrannical authority and its devastating consequences.