Moby Dick: Theme Analysis
Free Will vs. Fate
Melville constantly explores how much free will humans have. In a key chapter, “The Mat-Maker,” Ishmael explains the relationship between free will, fate, and chance. He and Queequeg weave a sword-mat for their boat. The warp or fixed vertical threads represent fate or necessity—the things in life that cannot be changed. Ishmael weaves the woof or horizontal threads, representing his free will, while Queequeg packs the threads together, randomly hitting them with a sword, and this represents chance events. Together the three make up the character of time.
Ahab, however, in his madness, ties himself to fate alone; he calls himself “the Fates’ lieutenant,” and he will not swerve from the iron grooves of his soul. His run-in with Moby Dick has sealed his fate, once for all, he thinks. Yet the narrator tells us all humans are born entangled in dangerous “whale lines.” Ahab is not unique in his misfortune. We see the cheerful Captain Boomer, also a victim of the White Whale, taking the accident in stride.
Perhaps Ishmael survives the journey, then, because of the other two forces at play: chance and free will. It is chance that brings the coffin-buoy to save Ishmael on the ocean. It is Ishmael’s free will that has led him to his friendship with Queequeg and his larger, more successful, interpretation of life. Ishmael is the epic hero who, like Odysseus, has the favor of the gods because of his own superior qualities, and Ahab is the tragic hero, who, like Satan, is fated to misfortune because of his self-imposed blindness.
Melville suggests that much of Ahab’s drama is internal, and like Satan’s in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, self-created. Satan says, “I myself am Hell,” admitting there is no external agent who put him there.
The primary freedom of humans is in their quality of reason and interpretation, and in their ability to love. Ishmael is as subtle as Ahab in his philosophizing, but he has a healthy mind and heart and can feel more at home in the universe. Ahab isolates himself from affection and common sense and gives himself over to “fate.” Melville shows the greater the development of one’s humanity, the greater one’s free will, under the circumstances.
The Mystery of the Universe
Ishmael tells us before the voyage, “the universe is finished” (2.9). This fits in with Ahab’s theory that he can do nothing to change the course of events. The only thing left to do is try to understand it, a hopeless task for humans. In the chapter, “Cetology” Ishmael shows that even scholars cannot agree on a simple thing like categorizing types of whales, and he claims even the book he is writing, like all human knowledge, can never be finished.
In “The Sphynx” Ahab speaks to the decapitated whale head as though it is the ancient sphinx who knows the riddle of the universe: “thou has seen enough to split the planets” (70. 309). Ahab spends every waking minute, as does Ishmael, in trying to interpret the universe and his place in it but concludes it is an unknowable mystery. The imagery of the sphinx and pyramid not only represent the mystery but the unfriendliness and hardness of this mystery in relation to human beings, as though they are in a hostile environment. Ahab calls it a “stepmother world” and feels abandoned by God.
In “The Whiteness of the Whale” Ishmael makes clear that the essence of objects is an unknown. It is their associations for us that make “good” and “bad,” and so, instead of seeing white as good, he sees it as bad and frightening because it is the color of the terror of Moby Dick. The whale himself will never be understood. Each ship the Pequod meets has a different take on Moby Dick, and even the final encounter does nothing to absolutely reveal whether he is evil incarnate, God punishing Ahab for his sin, or just a whale defending himself.
Ahab’s response to this mystery is anger. He wants to strike through “the pasteboard mask” of the whale’s skull, as though the inscrutable power of the universe were hiding there. He wants to confront it directly.
The capsizing of the Pequod into the ocean vortex is the ultimate mystery of creation and destruction. Equally boggling to Ishmael is the fact he is the sole survivor, who can only repeat the shocked words of the witness and survivor in Job: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” These words contain the necessity for each reader to experience the tragic catharsis or purging of understanding of the mystery of life.
The central relationship demonstrating human solidarity and brotherhood is the one between Ishmael and Queequeg, a white man and a tattooed dark skinned man of the South Seas. In the years before the Civil War, interracial friendship was a daring theme. Melville uses this pairing to bring out some comic relief and to contrast ideas of civilization, but he does give Queequeg dignity and treats the friendship seriously.
Queequeg calls it a “marriage” when they smoke the pipe together and vow to share both hardships and material goods. Ishmael says, “I felt a melting in me. No more splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it” (10.50). This brotherhood Ishmael learns with Queequeg is extended to the other shipmates from around the world, of different races and religions. Ishmael squeezes the spermaceti in the tub with the other men and squeezes their hands: “Come; let us squeeze hands all round” (94. 413).
Ahab, in contrast, purposely pushes away his cabin boy, Pip, for fear sympathy and love will cure his madness. He pushes away Starbuck’s friendship for the same reason. Ahab is angry that he has to depend on others, like the carpenter, who fixes his leg: “Here am I, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead” (108. 467). For Ahab, friendship removes freedom and brings dependency and softness of will.
Ishmael admits this is true, but there are times when we willingly give our lives into each other’s keeping. For instance, in “The Monkey-Rope,” he explains how he and Queequeg are “wedded” by a life-line between them, as Queequeg is lowered into the sea to attend to a whale carcass. Any slip means death for both: “my free will had received a mortal wound,” he says, admitting to the interdependence (72. 317).
Ishmael is only enriched by this friendship with Queequeg, for in the end, his friend’s legacy, the coffin-buoy, saves his life, as Queequeg’s generous heart had already saved Ishmael during the voyage.