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11. The Old Testament story of Jonah is important in Moby-Dick not only for its whale-linked subject matter but also for its underlying theme of a man's disobedience to God and God's punishment of that disobedience-a theme closely related to the mad quest of Ahab for Moby-Dick.
We see the first mention of the story in the introductory section, "Extracts": "The Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah." In the chapter "The Sermon," the story is first the subject of a hymn and then of an eloquent sermon by Father Mapple. Jonah, called by God to preach to Ninevah, attempted to flee his duty and was punished by being thrown into the sea and swallowed by a whale. He prayed to God, admitting that his punishment was just, but begging forgiveness, and God rescued him.
How does Melville want us to understand Father Mapple's sermon? The question is vital, because it's closely linked to our understanding of the book as a whole. On the one hand, we can take the sermon at face value: Jonah was justifiably punished, then mercifully rescued. If we agree with this interpretation, Ahab has engaged in disobedience by rebelling against the universe and declaring himself God's equal, and he fully deserves his final punishment.
On the other hand, Melville throws some doubts on the value of Father Mapple's sermon. In the chapter "The Pulpit," Ishmael briefly wonders if Mapple is more a theatrical trickster than a minister. And in the chapter, "Jonah Historically Regarded," Ishmael doesn't seem to take the story seriously at all. If we believe Melville has doubts about the story, then it becomes easier to believe that Melville considers Ahab's rebellion a noble one, against a God who, far from being merciful, is consistently cruel.
12. Melville links whales to mysteries and the unknown almost from the very start of the book, when, in the chapter "Loomings," Ishmael ends his list of reasons for going to sea with the description of the whale as "a portentous and mysterious monster." Shortly afterward, in "The Spouter-Inn," he sees a painting so dark and smokey that its subject can't be determined-another mystery which again turns out to be a whale. Throughout the book, Ishmael's essay-like discussions of the species emphasize how little is known about it. The chapter "Cetology" ends with Ishmael abandoning his attempt to classify whales. In the chapter "Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales," we see that even after centuries of attempts, mankind has painted few accurate portraits of the creatures. In the chapter "The Sphynx," Ahab compares the whale's head to a silent Egyptian ruin; in "The Prairie" Ishmael compares it to Egyptian hieroglyphics that he will never be able to translate. Even in discussing a subject as seemingly solid as the whale's tail, Ishmael admits, "I know him not, and never will."
13. Both answers are possible. Pessimistic: Ishmael who by his name begins the book an outcast, ends the book no better, as, in his own words, "another orphan." This should be no surprise, for throughout Moby-Dick sorrow is seen as the natural condition of man. When in the chapter "The Ship," Ishmael looks at the Pequod, he says that all noble things have much melancholy in them; in "The Try-Works" he remarks that any true man will possess more sorrow than joy. Ishmael is incapable of looking at even the loveliest ocean without remembering the horrors that lie beneath it. His moments of friendship with Queequeg and brotherhood with the crew provide a brief release from the bleakness of life, but that friendship and brotherhood sink with the Pequod at the book's end.
Optimistic: Ishmael's mere survival to tell his story indicates at least a partly happy ending. And the reasons for his survival hint that Melville holds a partly optimistic view of the universe. The depressed Ishmael begins the book in danger of becoming another Ahab; in a sense he's as obsessed with knowing the whale as his captain is with controlling it. In the chapter "The Try-Works," his Ahab-like need to stare into the unnatural fire almost costs him his life. Yet Ishmael does not become Ahab. His affection for Queequeg and his feeling of brotherhood with the crew allow him to see a beautiful side of life invisible to the mad captain. In the chapter "The Grand Armada" he learns to value the every-day comforts of home and family.
Friendship saves Ishmael, for it is the coffin of his friend Queequeg that prevents him from drowning with the rest of the crew. And the fact that the sharks swim by him "as if with padlocks on their mouth's" hints that Melville feels the universe can on occasion be a kindly place.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version