Before Ahab appears, Ishamel learns of him from the boat's owners, gossips of him, speculates about him, and is even warned by a prophet, Elijah, about him. Before he speaks, the boat has been chosen, the sails set, and the ocean reached. As grand an entrance as it is, it is still only a way-station to higher points in the drama.
Many of Melville's minor characters - Fedallah, Pip, even Starbuck - serve as foils to Ahab, helping define him and magnify him. There are two characters at the core of this book - Ahab and the Whale, and to truly explore Ahab's character is to get to the heart of the book. We can only just begin here.
As an introduction to Ahab and Melville's painting of him, let's look at a just one great central moment for Ahab, one that drives right at his character: the forging of the harpoon that Ahab intends to use to kill the whale.
Fashioned at last into an arrowy shape, and welded by Perth to the shank, the steel soon pointed the end of the iron; and as the blacksmith was about giving the barbs their final heat, prior to tempering them, he cried to Ahab to place the water-cask near.
"No, no - no water for that; I want it of the true death-temper. Ahoy, there! Tashtego, Queequeg, Daggoo! What say ye, pagans! Will ye give me as much blood as will cover this barb?" holding it high up. A cluster of dark nods replied, Yes. Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale's barbs were then tempered.
"Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood.
The Latin translates to "I do not baptize in the name of the father, but of the devil!" Melville was inordinately fond of this line - a longer version ("Ego non baptizo te in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Santi. - sed in nomine Diaboli") is found scribbled in the back of one of his Shakespeare volumes, and he wrote a letter to Hawthorne describing it as the "secret motto" of the book. But set aside what this passage might mean - we'll get there, but not for a long time. All we're interested in right now is Ahab the character and his presentation. What man should we prepare to meet?
Ahab is the central figure whenever he appears. Melville writes in short chapters, each a small tableau or drama, and if Ahab speaks in a chapter, expect him to be the focus of that chapter. His speech is always heavily laden with salty sailor and "thees" and "thous" Quaker, and there is often a significant contrast in tone between Ahab's speech patterns and those with whom he speaks, whether the plain-spoken wry Ishamel or the level-headed rationalist Starbucks. This helps him stand out. As noted earlier, there is often stage direction inserted to accompany him.
After his build up and grand entrance, Ahab will almost inevitably deliver one or more absolutely killer lines. "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!" The great lines are often heavily laden, referential and suggestive: by turns Melville will suggest Marlowe's Faust, Milton's Satan, or Shakespeare's Edmund. As you read, stop and admire the art of the framing of Ahab: all these techniques, all this build up, and all these wonderful lines are what make him one of the most powerful characters in literature. These one-liners are the greater part of the sheer bombast in Moby Dick. All too often, critics remember them as the whole book, and forget the less dramatic, contemplative, philosophical and humorous stretches that make up most of the work.
Outside of the chapters where Ahab is central, most chapters will fit into two other types: chapters that focus elsewhere but lead to a discussion of Ahab or flesh out some aspect of Ahab, and chapters that generally take a philosophical deep dive, often focused on the Whale or whaling, wholly omitting Ahab.
The chapter entitled Moby Dick, for example, is one of the first category, focusing first on the whale, but finally leading to Ahab and his key mates and crew:
Here, then, was this grey- headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals -- morally enfeebled also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right- mindedness in Starbuck, the invulnerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered, seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his monomaniac revenge.
For the most part, however, Ahab recedes into the background for the long less dramatic parts of the book; these are the territory of the whale and whaling, and of we mere mortals who concern ourselves with them. When Melville turns contemplative, Ahab and his Latin and his thees and thous step aside.