ARCHIVE FILE | Moby Dick Parallels

27 08 2008

No, I’m not able to post any kind of high level comparison of Platoon and Moby Dick. I’ve read the book long ago and hated it (sorry!), I don’t think I’ll read it again. Actually, I would be happy if anyone having the needed skills had done it before. But, surprisingly, it seems that nobody did. Even renowned journalists and reviewers seem to overlook the parallels that literally jumped at me while reading the book. In all reviews/articles I’ve read (and there are plenty of them, at least those which are free available) the novel is only seldom mentioned, and that in a very general manner. 

In the movie Chris calls Barnes “our captain Ahab-the eye of our rage” and it surely makes sense. Both characters are completely possessed by revenge, in Moby Dick it’s much more evident and clearly stated, in Platoon the hints were edited and can be found only in the script and the novelisation of it. You just have to replace the White Whale by Vietcong, both are shown as almost blind nature forces.

Even if there is a character in Moby Dick with the name Elijah: a strange beggar prophesying the ill fate of Pequod (see also the post about Biblical parallels). He says: 

Oh! when ye get there, tell ‘em I’ve concluded not to make one of ‘em.

…and it is the only thing the movie Elias could say. If I remember right, if there was a substitute of Elias in Moby Dick, it was Starbuck, someone who saw the madness of Ahab’s hunt and didn’t want to participate in it, but had not much choice “being in the same boat.”

Another similarity of both stories is the character of Ishmael, someone who survived the apocalyptic confrontation to tell us the story. Stone does compare himself to Ishmael in some of the interviews.


The examples below are surely not all, I made some notes in 1988 when I read the book, not all of them survived the time.

Reading Moby Dick I was surprised how much Barnes actually is Ahab, and how much the way Ishmael sees the captain, resembled the way I (and probably Chris/Oliver Stone) saw sgt. Barnes from the very beginning. It started with the mere description of the character’s face:

Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. 

So there is a scar on Ahab’s face even if I cannot recall an explanation about what caused it. 


This is what I saw in the “I am reality scene”.

(…)moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.  


Another fragment that could be easily applied to sgt. Barnes.

(…) you must jump when he gives an order. Step and growl; growl and go – that’s the word with Captain Ahab. But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa? – heard nothing about that, eh?


Captain Peleg’s description of Ahab echoes a little bit of what Rhah says about Barnes through the movie: 

I know Captain Ahab well; I’ve sailed with him as mate years ago; know what he is – a good man – not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man – something like me – only there’s a good deal more of him. Aye, aye, I know thathe was never very jolly; and I know that on the passage home he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about, as any one might see. I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody- desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one. (…)

(…) be your boast, Stubb, that ye were kicked by old Ahab, and made a wise man of. Remember what I say; be kicked by him; account his kicks honors; and on no account kick back; for you can’t help yourself, wise Stubb.


I didn’t know the script back in 1988, so the part about Barnes marrying the Japanese woman was a surprise. The “wicked name” is surely an allusion to the biblical king Ahab:

So good-bye to thee – and wrong not Captain Ahab, because he happens to have a wicked name. Besides, my boy, he has a wife – not three voyages wedded – a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man had a child…


And this was what I felt about Barnes, against the common opinion.

… hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities! (…)

As I walked away, I was full of thoughtfulness; what had been incidentally revealed to me of Captain Ahab, filled me with acertain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning him. And somehow, at the time, I felt a sympathy and a sorrow for him, but for I don’t know what, unless it was the cruel loss of his leg. And yet I also felt a strange awe of him; but that sort of awe, which I cannot at all describe, was not exactly awe; I do not know what it was. But I felt it; and it did not disincline me towards him; though I felt impatience at what seemed like mystery in him, so imperfectly as he was known to me then.


This sounds so much like “the only thing that can kill Barnes is Barnes” 

Thou hast outraged, not insulted me, sir; but for that I ask thee not to beware of Starbuck; thou wouldst but laugh; but let Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.


And this one sounded like the essence of what the soldiers felt entering the village, the moment when Ahab’s name is mentioned in Platoon:

Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury theminds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chipsof chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.  



Those two essays dealing with Ahab have some interesting points

Ahab as a Blasphemous Figure

A major assumption that runs through Moby Dick is that Ahab’s quest against the great whale is a blasphemous activity, even apart from the consequences that it has upon its crew. This blasphemy takes two major forms: the first type of blasphemy to prevail within Ahab is hubris, the idea that Ahab thinks himself the equal of God. The second type of blasphemy is a rejection of God altogether for an alliance with the devil. Melville makes this point explicit during various episodes of the novel, such as the instance in which Gabriel warns Ahab to “think of the blasphemer’s end” (Chapter 71: The Jeroboam’s Story) and the appraisal of Ahab from Peleg in which he designates him as an ungodly man (Chapter 16: The Ship).

The idea that Ahab’s quest for Moby Dick is an act of defiance toward God assuming that Ahab is omnipotent first occurs before Ahab is even introduced during Father Mapple’s sermon. The lesson of the sermon, which concerns the story of Jonah and the whale, is to warn against the blasphemous idea that a ship can carry a man into regions where God does not reign. Ahab parallels this idea when he compares himself to God as the lord over the Pequod (Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin). Melville furthers this idea through the prophetic dream that Fedallah tells Ahab that causes Ahab to conclude that he is immortal.

In a way Barnes also sees himself as a God of at least his platoon, it is “his war”, his world where he seems to have the absolute power, and destroys Elias who challenges this power.


The Attack on Transcendentalism, by Keegan Lerch

Moby Dick and Captain Ahab both refute the Transcendentalist principle that there is no evil, there is only love. The Transcendentalists feel that the world is filled with goodness, however, the Anti-Transcendentalists believe in the more reasonable idea that man has the potential to be either good or bad. Moby Dick is portrayed as evil in the story as Ahab tells of how he lost his leg to the white behemoth. After Ahab loses his leg to the white whale he Creates himself as the “race-hero”; moving against the presence of evil, Ahab vows to kill the source of evil: Moby Dick. (Stern, 74) Ahab, therefore, unconscientiously casts his own evil onto Moby Dick. The whale also personifies the evil that exisists within Ahab. The evil Ahab possesses is the result of his obsession with extinguishing the evil in the whale. The very evil that exists in Ahab is that which the transcendentalists deem to be non-existent. Melville is therefore striking heavily upon the ideals of the Transcendentalists.

… and it somehow reminds me of what albert_frey2 wrote at IMDB about Barnes Messias complex (read the post). It is arguable if you can see Vietcong as a force of evil, but if you were a GI in the jungle, they surely could be perceived as such.  


Here are some links about the story that inspired Melville to write Moby Dick: In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick




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