So well-known is Captain Ahab’s hunt for the white whale that readers often overlook the word that describes his quest: monomania. Yet by the 1800s monomania had supplanted melancholy as the master term for all diseases of the negative emotions. It was this very combination—monomania and partial insanity—that legitimated the new field of psychiatry in post-Revolutionary France. So important is the concept that without it, Ahab’s character and Moby-Dick’s plot would not be possible.
While monomania’s primary role in structuring Melville’s most famous novel provides formal and literary historical justifications for historicizing this now-archaic concept, this essay aims to go one step farther by showing how the novel turns monomania on its head. In particular, I claim here that Melville uses monomania to racialize Ahab. While monomania was disproportionately used in medicine and law to diagnose ethnic and non-white laborers as imbalanced and particularly prone to diseases and crimes of passion, as in the sensational cases of homicidal monomania that dotted the three decades preceding Moby-Dick’s publication, Melville diagnoses a Nantucket Quaker sea captain with the disease—in other words, a special kind of WASP, but a WASP nonetheless. In doing so, he anticipates Max Weber in connecting the theology of Nantucket Quakers—their calling as an elect group—to their work ethic and political economy to explain how Nantucketers became the supreme imperialists of the sea. At the same time, he anticipates Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis in arguing that the Quaker’s extreme natal environment, the sandy, deforested island of Nantucket, and their work environment, the sea, transformed them from pacifists into “fighting Quakers”—angry, destructive, “ugly” Americans. Monomaniacal Captain Ahab is thus merely the extreme outcome of Melville’s revision of the European ethnic: a “Protestant ethnic,” his white rage the symptom of the pathologies of American exceptionalism and nascent finance capitalism.