Friday, March 18, 2011


Fedallah has often puzzled and dissatisfied critics (Isani 386). He can be generalized as Ahab’s alter ego and a personification of evil, but his lack of character development left me wondering what the point of his presence was in the novel’s main argument. He is a man guided strictly by his orthodox religion, which ironically reduces his religion to ritual. In this matter of faith, Fedallah is both a foil to the rationalistic rebel Ahab and a reminder that orthodoxy is not without its dangers (Isani 385). In order to better understand his actions, one needs to understand his religion—which is his main motive for the course of actions he takes.

He is a Parsee, which is a very orthodox-based Indian branch of Zoroastrianism. As discussed in class, the main points of this religion is the bases of the two Gods—one good and one bad. “The Zoroastrians think that of animals, such as dogs, fowls, and urchins, belong to the Good God Ahura Mazda, and water animals to the Bad God Ahriman” (Isani 387). The latter point may imply the reason as to why such a religious man chose such a barbaric career; he may see whales as the offspring of his God’s enemy. This also shows that Fedallah is not actually the evil figure he is brought out to be, but a soldier of the Good God. If one views Fedallah as a soldier of Good, his actions on board the Pequod become even more obscured. For instance, many times throughout the novel, the Parsee is described as worshipping fire (often a symbol of raging and destructive evil):

“Fedallah; tail coiled out of sight as usual. What does he say, with that look of his? Ah, only makes a sign to the sign and bows himself; there is a sun on the coin—fire worshipper, depend upon it.” (Ch. 99).

“The hard pressed forge shooting up its intense straight flame, the Parsee passed silently, and bowing over his head towards the fire, seemed invoking some curse or some blessing on the toil” (Ch. 113).

The first example takes place during the crew’s discussion about the value of the doubloon; while everybody is discussing its worth, the Parsee simply bows to its engravings. This portion exemplifies Melville trying to make Fedallah look evil, as he writes of him as a demon-like character—tail coiled out of sight as usual. The next example shows Fedallah secretly bowing to Ahab’s weapon as it is being forged. This scene once again purposefully leads the reader into an ambiguous understanding of his motives, as Melville does not specify whether he uttered a curse or a blessing.

“There is, in truth, nothing that can be seen or felt, which combines so many symbolic attributes of splendor, terror, and beneficence, as fire” (Isani 385). With a stronger understanding of the metaphysical concepts surrounding Zoroastrianism, one would see that neither fire nor light can be evil; instead, it is a symbol of enlightened truth (Isani 386). With this in mind, I find it a curiosity that Melville painted such a misleading picture of Fedallah—did he purposefully portray him through the racism of the Christian crew or did he want him to be inherently evil? Perhaps he wanted Fedallah to symbolize the extremities of orthodox religions?

This last argument is reinforced by the Parsee’s failure to abort the hunt for Moby-Dick, even after his prophetic foreknowledge of his own fated death upon the water. He continues to hunt the whale only in his devotion of ritual and sacrifice. He knows that his body is “destined to defile the sacred ocean” (Ch. 113), and that his death will signal the imminent death of Ahab. With these half-truths, Fedallah deceives and uses Ahab for his own orthodox religious ends, as he misleads Ahab into believing his death can only occur on land via hanging. Disregarding reason and seeking justification solely in faith, he perpetuates evil in the service of the Good God and does not recognize the paradox of his actions. (Isani 389-390). And, as predicted, he does sacrifice himself as a ritual for his religion, as well as indirectly sacrificing the rest of the crew in the process.

Through my research of the Zoroastrian religion, and the more specific Parsee branch, my point of view of Fedallah has changed immensely. I no longer distinguish him as a demon-like worshipper of an evil religion, like Melville and the Pequod crew tried oh so hard to do. I am now able to understand the reasons for his unclear actions during the novel; however, this has also caused me to feel a sense of sympathy—not necessarily for him, but for the people like him that turn to the outer extremities of religion and end up being consumed by its false promises. To reiterate, I do not want readers to picture Fedallah as either good or bad; instead, see him as a symbol of the countless unnecessary deaths caused by the over-belief and over-exaggeration of one’s faith.

Isani, Mukhtar Ali. "Zoroastrianism and the Fire Symbolism in Moby-Dick." American Literature 44.3 (1972): 385-97. Http:// Web.

1 comment:

  1. Your summary of Isani seems able and compact - but your introduction doesn't really explain whether you agree with him, and why. For instance, it's far from obvious to me that we should understand Ahab as a "rationalistic" rebel. Do you think we should? This isn't necessarily a complaint about this draft - but if you revise, you'll need to contextualize Isani within your own reading.

    Throughout the essay, I feel like you do a good job of explaining Isani's views, but that you miss some good and relatively easy opportunities for responding to them. For instance, what do you *do* with the fact that Fedallah is understood as being so evil by the crew (especially Stubb and Flask, of course), but that given even a basic understanding of Zoroastrian dogma, it's easy to understand him another way?

    Personally, I'd argue that Melville is, in a very dark and tricky way, using the reader's prejudices, without necessarily exposing them to light. If you've been reading Kermode, my reading of Melville's use of Fedallah is that he uses Fedallah as a way of keeping the "outsiders" out; there are secret meanings there, but not even the slightest hints to what they are, unless we do our digging and reading on Zoroastrianism.

    You don't need to agree with me. My point isn't that you should think that, but that you need to do *something* with this material beyond simply reporting on Isani's views. What do we do differently with the novel, now that we understand them? Even given the limited scope fo the assignment, I think you could have done a little more in this direction.