Critics often describe Captain Ahab and Heathcliff as monomaniacal characters. Monomaniacal is a term defined by a psychosis of thoughts confined to one idea or group of ideas. Monomaniacal characters often obsess over a single goal, directing all their actions to accomplish it. Each character has their own backstory that develops their specific obsessions. Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, loses his leg on a whaling voyage. The loss of his leg drives him to blame the white whale for the problems of all humanity and he takes it upon himself to extract revenge.
Heathcliff, an abused orphan, obsesses over urting his abusers. Heathcliff carefully plans his actions to make sure they will negatively affect someone else. Ahab and Heathcliff are similar in the way they each have a clear end goal in which they devote all their time to accomplish. Both Ahab and Heathcliff express a common goal of revenge, however their course of action varies slightly. For both characters, the pain they experience at one point in their lives fuels their motivations. For Ahab, an obvious factor of his pain is from the loss of his leg.
An overlooked influence of Ahab’s pain could have been his absence with his wife. In hapter 132, the Symphony, Ahab discusses how wrong he was to have left his wife alone while he risks his life for something that may not be worth it. It is apparent that Ahab understands the injustice his wife must deal with as he left her “a widow wither her husband alive” but he feels compelled to finish what the whale started (Melville. 405). Ahab left only “one dent in [his] marriage pillow” and realizes that he will never get back the time he spent to “make ware on the horrors of the deep” (Melville. 05).
Because of that realization, his obsession for killing Moby Dick could have grown stronger as he feels pain nd rage for not having time with his family. Moby Dick causes Ahab to experience, excruciating physical pain at the initial loss of his leg. However, the whale also causes Ahab extreme mental and emotional pain. Ahab projects all the evil in the world on Moby Dick. As a way to bring justice to that evil, Ahab takes it upon himself to kill Moby Dick. As for Heathcliff, his obsession develops from the pain he experiences throughout his childhood.
Heathcliff is an orphan who enters a household where his presence does not excite the family. One of the servants residing in the household admits “Hindley hated him [… we plagued and went on with him shamefully” (Bronte. 38). Young Heathcliff receives multiple beatings from Hindley, his brother. The only one who protects Heathcliff is the master of the house, Mr. Earnshaw. However, when he perishes, Hindley becomes the new master and reduces Heathcliff to the status of a servant, stripping him of the little education he has.
The shift in control has a negative effect on young Heathcliff as he no longer has anyone who can protect him. Not only did he suffer from the physical pain Hindley inflicts upon him, Heathcliff also suffers from the unintentional pain that Cathy causes him. In chapter seven of Wuthering Heights when Cathy returns from her stay at the Linton’s, she changes dramatically to raise her self-respect with “fine clothes and flatter” (Bronte. 52). Even her attitude towards Heathcliff changes and she mocks him for being dark skinned and dirty. This hurts Heathcliff, as she becomes less of the person she knew.
Besides the master of the house, Cathy is the only one who truly cares for Heathcliff. That is why, when Cathy begins to mock him, it is the more than he can handle. The final devastating blow is when he overhears Cathy say, “it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff ow” (Bronte. 80). All of the agony young Heathcliff endures causes him to obsess about getting revenge on those that hurt him. In Ahab’s case, he isolates himself from the people surrounding him as they cannot understand his fixation with Moby Dick and some want to steer away from the whale.
Due to this growing obsession, Ahab cannot stand being away from the sea. Ahab confesses to Starbuck that he has been on the sea for forty years and “of those forty years [he] [has] not spent three ashore” (Melville. 405). At eighteen, Ahab becomes a harpooner and dedicates over half his life to the sea. However, his obsession truly begins when he requests a peg leg made of whalebone. This peg leg represents his obsession with the whale as he always has the whalebone with him.
As his passion for killing Moby Dick increases, Ahab begins to have no regard for the well-being of his crew. This is apparent when he keeps his mission a secret until it is too late for the crew to back down. He even brings his own harpooners in case they refuse. With no intent of carrying out the actual mission of the Pequod, Ahab devotes the crew’s entire voyage to hunting Moby Dick, despite Starbucks protests. The obsession becomes so severe that Ahab isolates himself and devotes his time to tracking the whale on a chart.
This chart presents his obsession because Ahab knows the “sets of all tides and currents,” and the “ascertained seasons for hunting [Moby Dick] in particular latitudes” (Melville. 167). Ahab becomes familiar with all the recorded encounters with Moby Dick so that he can calculate the whale’s most probable location. In order to satisfy his monomaniacal soul, Ahab devotes all his time and energy into finding and killing Moby Dick, his one and only goal. Like Ahab, Heathcliff, too, isolates himself and uses people to get what he wants.
The difference is that while Ahab does use his crew for self-interests, he does not use them necessarily to hurt them. Heathcliff, on the other hand, uses people as pawns, maneuvers to control them and cause them pain, whether directly or indirectly. After Cathy marries Edgar, Heathcliff takes the action to marry Isabella, Edgar’s sister. This course of action is for multiple reasons. For one, boy, Thrushcross Grange will not have an heir and Heathcliff becomes the master. Another reason is to spite Cathy as she is n opposition to the pair.
Finally, by marrying Isabella, Heathcliff if Cathy does not give birth to a has leverage over Edgar, if he truly cares for his sister. He does not only get revenge on Cathy and the Lintons. As a young boy, Heathcliff announces he “shall pay Hindley back” for the neglect that experiences. Heathcliff accomplishes this by gambling with a drunken Hindley. Eventually, Hindley becomes so deep in debt that he has to give Heathcliff Wuthering Heights in order to pay off his debt. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff is the new guardian of his son Hareton.
Heathcliff creates the same situation for young Hareton as he experiences as a young boy. Heathcliff is now in control of both Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights and degrades Hareton to mimic the treatment young Heathcliff experiences. By definition, monomaniacal characters focus on one idea or group of ideas that revolve around a specific focal point. Both Ahab and Heathcliff possess this characteristic. Similarly, the two share a common goal of vengeance. The goal differs in the sense that Ahab focuses his revenge on an animal while Heathcliff extracts his revenge on the people surrounding him.
Though Ahab may seem careful and organized with his actions, Ahab acts mostly on impulse, especially considering they are chasing a whale that has the open sea to hide. Heathcliff plans his moves and ensures that they will have negative consequences on the people surrounding him. Another difference is the fact that only one of them accomplishes their goal. Heathcliff inflicts pain on most everyone around him up until the day he dies and therefore completes his goal of causing others pain. Unfortunately, for Ahab, he does not complete his quest of killing Moby Dick and the whale kills Ahab in the process.