What roles do fate and prophecy play in shaping the ways Moby-Dick's characters behave?
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In addition to highlighting many portentous or foreshadowing events, Ishmael’s narrative contains many references to fate, creating the impression that the Pequod’s doom is inevitable. Many of the sailors believe in prophecies, and some even claim the ability to foretell the future. A number of things suggest, however, that characters are actually deluding themselves when they think that they see the work of fate and that fate either doesn’t exist or is one of the many forces about which human beings can have no distinct knowledge. Ahab, for example, clearly exploits the sailors’ belief in fate to manipulate them into thinking that the quest for Moby Dick is their common destiny. Moreover, the prophesies of Fedallah and others seem to be undercut in Chapter 99, when various individuals interpret the doubloon in different ways, demonstrating that humans project what they want to see when they try to interpret signs and portents.
Some novels might be subtle about issues of fate vs. chance, but Moby-Dick thrusts questions of free will vs. determinism right into the reader’s face, starting in the very first chapter. At one point (Chapter 47, to be precise), the novel even develops a complicated metaphor that brings together fate, chance, and free will in one elaborate system. The question for the reader is whether this metaphor can take all the strain of an insane quest, a revenge tragedy, a series of strange coincidences, and heavily allegorical symbolism. When we can no longer bear the power and strangeness of fate, the novel explicitly encourages us to consider laughter our only recourse.