A major assumption that runs through Moby Dick is that Ahab's quest against the great whale is a blasphemous activity, even apart from the consequences that it has upon its crew. This blasphemy takes two major forms: the first type of blasphemy to prevail within Ahab is hubris, the idea that Ahab thinks himself the equal of God. The second type of blasphemy is a rejection of God altogether for an alliance with the devil. Melville makes this point explicit during various episodes of the novel, such as the instance in which Gabriel warns Ahab to "think of the blasphemer's end" (Chapter 71: The Jeroboam's Story) and the appraisal of Ahab from Peleg in which he designates him as an ungodly man (Chapter 16: The Ship).
The idea that Ahab's quest for Moby Dick is an act of defiance toward God assuming that Ahab is omnipotent first occurs before Ahab is even introduced during Father Mapple's sermon. The lesson of the sermon, which concerns the story of Jonah and the whale, is to warn against the blasphemous idea that a ship can carry a man into regions where God does not reign. Ahab parallels this idea when he compares himself to God as the lord over the Pequod (Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin). Melville furthers this idea through the prophetic dream that Fedallah tells Ahab that causes Ahab to conclude that he is immortal.
Nevertheless, a more disturbing type of blasphemy also emerges during the course of the novel in which Ahab does not merely believe himself omnipotent, but aligns himself with the devil during his quest. Ahab remains in collaboration with Fedallah, a character rumored by Stubb to be the devil himself, and when Ahab receives his harpoon he asks that it be baptized in the name of the devil, not in the name of the father.
The Whale as a Symbol of Unparalleled Greatness
When Melville, through Ishmael, describes the Sperm Whale during the many non-narrative chapters of Moby Dick, the idea that the whale has no parallel in excellence recurs as a nearly labored point. Melville approaches this theme from a variety of standpoints, whether biological or historical, in order to prove the superiority of the whale over all other creatures. During a number of occasions Melville relates whaling to royal activity, as when he notes the strong devotion of Louis XVI to the whaling industry and considers the whale as a delicacy fit for only the most civilized. In additional, Melville cites the Indian legends of Vishnoo, the god who became incarnate in a whale. Even when discussing the whale in mere aesthetic terms Melville lauds it for its features, devoting an entire chapter (42) to the whiteness of the whale, while degrading those artists who falsely depict the whale.
The theme of the excellence of the whale serves to place Ahab's quest against Moby Dick as, at best, a virtually insurmountable task in which he is doomed to failure. Melville constructs the whale as a figure that cannot be easily vanquished, if it can be defeated at all.
The Whale as an Undefinable Figure
While Melville uses the whale as a symbol of excellence, he also resists any literal interpretation of that excellence by refusing to equate the species with any concrete object or idea. For Melville, the whale is an indefinite figure, as best shown in "The Whiteness of the Whale" (Chapter 42). Melville defines the whiteness as absence of color and thus finds the whale as having an absence of meaning. Melville bolsters this premise that the whale cannot be defined through the various stories that Ishmael tells in which scholars, historians and artists misinterpret the whale in their respective fields. Indeed, the extended discussion of the various aspects of the whale also serve this purpose; by detailing the various aspects of the whale in their many forms, Melville makes the whale an even more inscrutable figure whose essence cannot be described through its history or physiognomy.
The recurring failed attempts to find a concrete definition of the whale leave the Sperm Whale, and Moby Dick more specifically, as abstract and devoid of any concrete meaning. By allowing the whale to exist as a mysterious figure, Melville does not pin the whale down as an easy metaphorical parallel, but instead leaves a multiplicity of various interpretations for Moby Dick.
A more personalized interpretation for the thematic significance of the inability to define the whale relates to Ahab's comparison of Moby Dick to a mask that obscures the unknown reasoning that he seeks. In this interpretation, the inability to define a whale is significant not in itself, but because it stands in the way of greater reasoning and understanding.
Moby Dick as a Part of Ahab
Throughout the novel, Melville creates a relationship between Ahab and Moby Dick despite the latter's absence until the final three chapters through the recurrence of elements creating a close relationship between Ahab and the whale. The most significant of these is the actual physical presence of the Sperm Whale as part of Ahab's body in the form of Ahab's ivory leg. The whale is a physical part of Ahab in this instance; it is literally a part of Ahab. Melville also develops this theme through the uncanny sense that Ahab has for the whale. Ahab has a nearly psychic sense of Moby Dick's presence, and more tragically, the idea of Moby Dick perpetually haunts the formidable captain. This theme serves in part to better explain the depth of emotion behind Ahab's quest for the whale; as a living presence that haunts Ahab's life, he feels that he must continue on his quest no matter the cost.
The Contrast between Civilized and Pagan Society
The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael throughout Moby Dick generally illustrates the prevalent contrast between civilized, specifically Christian societies and uncivilized, pagan societies. The continued comparisons and contrasts between these two types of societies is often favorable for Melville, particularly in the discussion of Queequeg, the most idealized character in the novel, whose uncivilized and imposing appearance only obscures his actual honor and civilized demeanor. In this respect, Melville is fit simply to deconstruct Queequeg and place him in entirely sympathetic terms, finding the characters from civilized and from uncivilized societies to be virtually identical. Nevertheless, Melville does not include these thematic elements simply for a lesson on other cultures; a recurring theme equates non-Christian societies with diabolical behavior, particularly when in reference to Ahab. Ahab specifically chooses the three pagan characters' blood when he wishes to temper his harpoon in the name of the devil, while the most obviously corrupt character in Moby Dick is conspicuously the Persian Fedallah, whom the other characters believe to be Satan in disguise. With the exception of Queequeg, equating the pagan characters with Satan does align with the general religious overtones of the novel, one which presumes Christianity as its basis and moral ground.
The Sea as a Place of Transition
In Moby Dick, the sea represents a transitional place between two distinct states. Melville shows this early on in the case of Queequeg and the other Isolatoes (Daggoo and Tashtego), who represents the transition from uncivilized to civilized society unbound by any specific nationality, but in an overwhelming amount of cases this transitional theme relates to the precarious line between life and death. There are a number of characters who teeter at the brink between life and death, whether literally or metaphorically, throughout Moby Dick. Queequeg again proves to be an example: during his illness he prepares for death and in fact remains in his own coffin waiting for illness to overtake him, but it never does (Chapter 110: Queequeg in his coffin). The coffin itself becomes a transitional element several chapters later when the carpenter converts it into a life-buoy and it thus comes to symbolize both the saving of a life and the end of one (Chapter 126: The Life-Buoy).
Several of the minor characters in Moby Dick also exist in highly transitional states between life and death. After Pippin jumps to his death from the whaling boat and is saved only by chance, he loses his sanity and behaves as if a part of him, the "infinite of his soul" had already died; essentially, the character becomes a shell of a person waiting for death. Melville further elaborates this theme through the blacksmith, who works on the sea primarily as a means to escape life. He came on his journey to escape from the trappings of life after his family had died, and exists on sea primarily as a passage before his eventual death.
Harbingers and Superstition
A recurring theme throughout Moby Dick is the appearance of harbingers, superstitious and prophecies that foreshadow a tragic end to the story. Even before Ishmael boards the Pequod, the Nantucket strangers Elijah warns Ishmael and Queequeg against traveling with Captain Ahab. The Parsee Fedallah also has a prophetic dream concerning Ahab's quest against Moby Dick, dreaming of hearses (although he misinterprets the dream to mean that Ahab will certainly kill Moby Dick). Indeed, the characters are bound by superstition and myth: the only reason that the Pequod kills a Right Whale is the legend that a ship will have good luck if it has the head of a Right Whale and the head of a Sperm Whale on its opposing sides. An additional harbinger of doom found in Moby Dick occurs when a hawk takes Ahab's hat, thus recalling the story of Tarquin and how his wife Tanaquil predicted that it was a sign that he would become king of Rome.
The purpose of these omens throughout Moby Dick is to create a sense of inevitability. Even from the beginning of the journey the Pequod's mission is doomed by Captain Ahab, and the invocation of various omens serves to endow this mission with a sense of grandeur and destiny. It is no suicide mission that Ahab undertakes, but a grand folly of hubris.
Moby Dick Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Moby Dick is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.