Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Foreshadowing in Moby Dick

“And whereas all other things, whether beast or vessel, that enter into the dreadful gulf of this monster’s (whale’s) are immediately lost and swallowed up, the sea-gudgeon retires into it in great security, and there sleeps.”

Montaigne. –Apology for Raimond Seabond

Both the literal and assumed figurative meaning of the excerpt above can be applied to Melville’s Moby Dick. Literally, whale hunting was an extremely dangerous occupation, as whalemen faced the constant threat of being devoured or dismembered by a sperm whale. Ishmael states throughout the book that fatalities were always to be expected on ships such as the Pequod as any number of accidents were possible once the boats were lowered for a whale. Figuratively, it is important to note the double meaning of gudgeon. Although it is a name for a small fish, gudgeon is also an archaic term to describe a person who is easily fooled. As foreshadowing has almost certainly showed us that the Pequod and most of her crew will be consumed by their hunt for the White Whale, I believe that this excerpt comes as a warning to men like Ahab, who allow feelings of hate and revenge to guide their entire life, and his crew, who allow themselves to be led down the same dangerous path by their captain.

There is no question throughout the novel that Ahab is consumed by his quest to kill Moby Dick. After Ahab’s speech on the quarter-deck, Ishmael notes, “The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniacal incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating them…” (200) The first part of the excerpt thus seems to apply especially to Ahab. He enters into the “monster’s” gulf, the monster not simply being the whale, but his all consuming hate and desire for revenge, and is consequently immediately lost to anything that does not help him in his quest. The only thing that keeps him from devoting the entire trip of the Pequod to hunting Moby Dick is his desire to keep the crew from rebelling.

As I stated before, foreshadowing has also led me to believe that his quest will ultimately lead to Ahab being “swallowed up” by the sea. As soon as he recovers from his injury and devotes himself to the hunt, Ahab has almost certainly sealed his fate. I believe that the passages describing Ahab’s “monomaniacal” mission can be seen as foreshadowing his impending demise when these passages are analyzed through the lens of this particular excerpt.

If the first part of the excerpt applies to Ahab, then the second part about the “gudgeon” applies to the crew of the Pequod. Although Ahab may be knowingly “lost” to his mission, the crew may be said to follow him in “with great security.” The crew certainly takes up Ahab’s mission as their own, and Ishmael goes so far as to say that this crew of “mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals” “seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him to his revenge.” (203) Although some among the crew have their own personal experiences with Moby Dick, none have grounds to posses the same hatred for the whale as Ahab. Also, as Starbuck points out, no real financial gain can be made from devoting so much time and energy to hunting Moby Dick. Why then, should the crew, including Ishmael, allow themselves to become so deeply involved in Ahab’s vendetta?

The main reasons seem to be Ahab’s moving performance on the quarter-deck, along with the promise of fame that would come from defeating such an infamous whale. Whatever the reasons, however, most of the crew, with the exception of Ishmael and possibly Starbuck, don’t seem to understand the depth of Ahab’s hate and the drive that motivates his revenge. They take their own shallow enthusiasm and blindly follow their captain as he leads them to almost certain destruction. They follow Ahab into the “monster’s” mouth, however, with a sense of security that is provided by Ahab’s seemingly superior knowledge of the nature of Moby Dick and Ahab’s own contagious enthusiasm for revenge.

Although Ahab may end up in the belly of the beast, so to speak, having fought and been completely destroyed, and the crew may end up in this same place after simply following Ahab and then “sleeping” there, both Ahab and the crew meet their demise by being figuratively eaten by the “monster,” and literally destroyed. Just as the passages about Ahab’s obsession can be seen as foreshadowing his destruction, these passages can also be seen as foreshadowing the demise of the crew. The main difference between them, however, is that Ahab faces this demise of his own free will, while the crew does so under the heavy influence of their captain. This excerpt not only helps point out foreshadowing, but also helps distinguish among the novel’s characters. Ahab is a powerful presence in the story, while few among the crew are ever even mentioned by name. Because Ahab has taken control of his own fate, while the crew has not, Ahab becomes a prominent and important character, while the rest of the crew swim idly by, left to be seen figuratively sleeping as they move towards death.


  1. I like your passage and I generally like your approach with it, although you maybe lean a little hard towards speculation, especially since you're not as engaged with a range of supporting passages as you might have been. Let me start by trying to push your argument further, though. If "gudgeon" indicates a gullible person as well as a fish, yet the focus of the extract is on the gullible person's *survival*, then maybe what is being foreshadowed is not principally, or even mainly, the destruction of the ship, but the survival of Ishmael?

    It seems like the relationship between gudgeon and whale was also the source for metaphors elsewhere. Google "+gudgeon +whale" and you'll see what I mean. Example: here.

    Anyway, I do like your reading, but contextualizing it more deeply either within Moby-Dick or within Montaigne would have been helpful, and would have allowed that reading to seem somewhat less speculative than it does now.

    I'd also argue that the question re: why people follow Ahab into death & destruction is more answerable, and they are somewhat less gullible, than you give them credit for. My initial answer is this: these are, as you acknowledge, "renegades and castaways"; blasphemy, destruction and self-destruction have inherent appeal to them, because they are, more or less, lost souls themsleves.

  2. I think that this is essay is very well put together. I learned something while reading your entry and that cannot always be said about these entries, including mine. The double meaning gudgeon really was a good intro and got me hooked to read the rest of the essay to see what was coming next.