Psychoanalysis is a school of psychiatry founded by Sigmund Freud in 1906. Freud determined that every human’s personality consists of three basic elements: the id, the superego, and the ego. Each component has different principles. The id is impulsive, the superego is driven by morality, and the ego works to balance the other two in realistic ways. Each of the three main characters in Moby Dick embodies one of these elements. Ishmael is the ego, Captain Ahab is the id, and Starbuck is the superego.
Ahab represents the id, which is the most primitive element of a personality. It is impulsive and childish. Ahab’s actions and dialogue embody these qualities throughout Moby Dick. Ahab is a large man with a commanding voice, a prosthetic leg made out of whale bone, and a long scar running down his face. Melville created a larger-than-life character with a loud, impulsive personality. When Starbuck asks if Moby Dick was the whale who took off Ahab’s leg, Ahab responds, “‘it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now. Aye, aye,’ he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose” (Melville 33). Ahab’s dialogue is very aggressive here. His words are described as an “animal sob”, because animals cry or “sob” when they are in distress. Ahab’s experience with Moby Dick has tormented him and affected the way he views his existence. He is vengeful; his entire life is now devoted to killing this whale. His monomaniacal tendencies towards the whale are childish. Another important aspect of the id is that it does not care about possible consequences. Ahab knows from experience that Moby Dick is dangerous, but this does not stop him from putting the lives of his entire crew in danger. He does not think about the possible outcomes his actions could have on other people.
Starbuck represents the superego which is the most moral of the three personality components. Its job is to control the id’s immoral impulses and to persuade the ego. Starbuck is a solemn Quaker from Nantucket. His thin body makes him appear condensed, as opposed to Ahab’s imposing figure. His response to Ahab announcing his hunt for Moby Dick is, “‘vengeance on a dumb brute!’ cried Starbuck, ‘that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.’” (Melville 34). Starbuck was pointing out that it is irrational to take revenge on an animal without a conscience who does not know what it does. By challenging Ahab, he is acting in the same way that the superego attempts to control the id. Ahab demanded the entire crew take an oath to hunt Moby Dick. Starbuck is the only crew member to disagree with Ahab and refuse the oath. He stands by his values; he is a devout Quaker who believes the Pequod should kill as many whales for profit as they are meant to. He believes that hunting Moby Dick is “blasphemous,” which is a term used in religious context. One of the main things religion focuses is morality: the difference between right and wrong. Starbuck, a religious man, embodies these traits, which are also key parts of the superego.
Ishmael represents the ego. His personality has aspects of both the id and the superego, and it is obvious through his actions that the two are battling for dominance in his psyche. When Ishmael first went to the port to sign up to sail on the Pequod, he only met Captain Peleg, not Ahab. He also did not have any whaling experience. He began to think, “But I had not proceeded far, when I began to bethink me that the Captain with whom I was to sail yet remained unseen by me...However, it is always as well to have a look at him before irrevocably committing yourself into his hands. Turning back I accosted Captain Peleg, inquiring where Captain Ahab was to be found,” (Melville 16). Ishmael's rash decision to join the Pequod’s crew was an example of his ego giving into his id. This was impulsive and not thought out well. Ishmael’s superego also played a role in his actions while aboard the Pequod. He was the only crew member not to take part in the actual killing of the whales; because of this, he is the only surviving crew member at the end of Moby Dick. “The ego's goal is to satisfy the demands of the id in a safe a socially acceptable way. In contrast to the id the ego follows the reality principle as it operates in both the conscious and unconscious mind,” (McLeod). Ishmael joins Ahab on his journey to find Moby Dick, but he is not as extreme as Ahab. Ishmael does not actually participate in harpooning or anything that would harm the whales. He is more realistic than Ahab. Ishmael’s psyche is a constant battle between his id and superego, which combined create his true self and his ego.
Each of the three main characters in Moby Dick represent one component of psychoanalysis: the id, the superego, and the ego. Ahab is the id, because of his impulsive tendencies and childish motives. Starbuck is the superego, because he stands by his values and speaks out against Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick. Finally, Ishmael is the ego, because his actions are a balance of both the id and superego, which creates his personality. The motivations of Melville’s characters are better explained when Freud’s psychoanalysis is applied.
McLeod, Saul. "Sigmund Freud." 's Theories | Simply Psychology. N.p., 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 01 Mar.2017.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. (edited and abridged by John Russoniello, 2015). Web. 12 Feb. 2017.