Notes on Moby Dick Themes

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Moby Dick Topic Tracking: Religion

Chapters 1 - 15

Religion 1: The first mention of religion is when Ishmael enters a black church. He is slightly frightened by the seriousness and loudness of it; religion is a mysterious thing; he relates it even to a biblical image, that of Tophet and a Black Angel of Doom. There is something very Old Testament, full of wrath and brimstone, in this short glimpse, and it disturbs Ishmael.

Religion 2: Even though he is not of any specific ordained faith, Ishmael still goes to church on Sunday; it is a whaler's church, designed to preach to men of the sea, and their needs. It is an automatic search for reasoning in his world, a habit born out of lack of knowledge, and custom.

Religion 3: Jonah tried to escape the will of God. To go against God is to invite his wrath; his wrath in the form of a whale, in this story. Much is made in the novel of attacking or fighting against God; Ahab takes it upon himself to punish Moby Dick, a brute animal, for biting off his leg. In his mind, he is fighting against God, choosing to put his own proud will above that of fate's.

Religion 4: Ishmael does not see it as a problem to make token worships to a pagan's idol if it helps to bring him closer to another man. Religion is something to be used for comfort, but it need not be followed blindly; it is important to define one's own course by what one sees fit. Going to church and prayer are important, but when it comes to practical purposes, you must be good to your fellow man, because that is God's will.

Chapters 16 - 30

Religion 5: Queequeg fasts for a full day, in order to perform his religious Ramadan. Ishmael thinks this is foolish, because it puts a man in danger of death, but Queeqeug will not be convinced to stop. For Ishmael, religious practices are mere formality, and only valuable for the comfort and reassurance they provide. When it causes danger to one's self, it must be thrown away. Queequeg, however, chooses to believe more strongly in unseen forces, and the duties that must be paid to them.

Religion 6: Bildad and Peleg are not going to let Queequeg on the boat unless he can prove he has been converted to Catholicism; Ishmael tries to convince them that Queequeg is part of the church of life in which everyone is a part. They change their minds, though, as soon as they see an example of Queequeg's skill with the harpoon, sacrificing the spiritual for the practical.

Religion 7: Ishmael is bothered by the prophet only when he learns that the prophet's name is Elijah, the name of the Biblical prophet.

Chapters 31 - 45

Religion 8: Ahab's rage against the whale is a rage against the injustices piled down on man by God since the creation of Adam. This relates earlier to the story of Jonah; however, Ahab is not just trying to escape God, he's trying to attack him; not avoiding his destiny but showing his defiance. He believes himself above the natural world, and almost a god. This belief lends him power and majesty, but it also brings about his doom.

Chapters 46 - 60

Religion 9: Ahab will not kneel, because of his ivory leg- but he is prideful as well, so he would never kneel before anyone, not even God. Pride is the one thing that will not be tolerated by God. Ishmael is not strictly religious, although he observes when it comes to him; but he considers himself a passenger aboard a vessel, and not its captain, and so he survives. Ahab considers himself the pilot, and tries to decide his own fate.

Chapters 61 - 75

Religion 10: Fleece is ordered to deliver a sermon to the sharks, in order to get them to stop feeding in such a frenzy. The sermon is one an actual priest might give, albeit more eloquently, about the importance of self-control and discovering the angels in our nature. The metaphor of the flock as a group of hungry sharks is indicative of an old statement on religion; feed the stomachs, then the souls. Fleece's preaching largely goes unheeded, basically because the sharks are dumb beasts who can't understand what he's saying; they are also too busy feeding to pay attention to much else.

Religion 11: Gabriel is the name of the madman aboard the Jeroboam. He calls himself after the angel of God, and believes he hold vials sealed by the angels. He warns that going against Moby Dick is doomed, because he believes Moby Dick to be the incarnation of God. Oddly enough, even though he is half mad, his predictions all come true; he warns his own ship against attacking the White Whale, and the first mate is killed. Then he warns Ahab not to sail against Moby Dick, and the entire ship is destroyed. Elijah offers the same warning earlier, and he seems slightly mad; such a close connection with Fate and prophecy indicates a certain strangeness of character.

Chapters 76 - 90

Religion 12: The story of Jonah is one that can be proved, if the Bible is not taken too literally. Faith is something the can always defeat doubt. As seen before, religion is not something to be taken exactly, but only as it fits the situation; belief should adapt to the world, and not the other way around.

Chapters 121 - Epilogue

Religion 13: Ahab equates the fact that the carpenter works on both legs and coffins as the capriciousness of the gods. He believes he can stand against such capriciousness; that he can understand the will of the gods, or God, and he can decide where he should stand in such a will. The idea of free will is very important here: the choice of each man to either follow God, or stand against Him.

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