Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Whale Jesus Christ

In the chapter “The Pequod meets the Virgin”, both the Pequod and the Virgin compete to kill the jaundiced old bull sperm whale. When a pod of whales traveled past the two ships the old bull was slowly trailing behind the rest due to a stump of a fin and a sickness he displayed. From the first time reading this chapter you would suspect that it was just about the obviously stated but after reading the following quote from Moby Dick’s extracts it made me think differently.
"The aorta of a whale is larger in the bore than the main pipe of the water-works at London Bridge, and the water roaring in its passage through that pipe is inferior in impetus and velocity to the blood gushing from the whale's heart." —PALEY'S THEOLOGY.
After thinking about this quote and noticing that it is from a book of theology, this caused me to think of this whale and scene of the book in a deeper, more meaningful way. As Moby Dick represents God Himself, I believe this whale represents Jesus Christ. I reread the chapter and caught on to small details that help support my conclusion.

Going in order from the beginning of the chapter I will describe what I noticed. First they described the whale as being “afflicted with the jaundice, or some other infirmity” (385). These to me have double meanings for the whale. Yes, he is seen as weak and inflicted with disease that causes jaundice, but these could also represent the whale in a religious way. Jaundice also means distorted judgment. The men of the Pequod and the Virgin are seeing him as a stupid old whale that is an easy kill because of his ailments but the whale really is Jesus Christ who is willing to sacrifice himself to save the rest of his pod. This also goes along with infirmity where infirmity can mean moral weakness. The sacrificing of himself because he feels like he morally has to, showing his moral weakness to the pod.

Some other small instances I noticed as I was rereading the chapter includes when they described the whale as carrying “the everlasting mail” (389). In Christianity Jesus is more or less the messenger to God. You must go through Jesus first and he will deliver you to God, that Jesus’ everlasting mail is the people who want to reach Him. Another small reference that made the whale be more Jesus-like is after the whale was struck by the three harpoons and was suspended to three bits of board. The whale was just dangling from the iron as he knew he had to sacrifice himself. The way it was worded in the novel just brought the image of Jesus Christ as he was suspended by just a few nails on some board during his crucifixion.

Although Jesus’ life in the mortal world was taken from him during his crucifixion, his eternal life would carry on. “His life, as they significantly call it, was untouched” is a statement from the novel that is directed at the whale at hand and gives him Jesus-like qualities (391). The whale now is seen as being invincible even if his life on this earth is taken away from him, because we know he will carry on afterwards.

With help from the quoted extract, I believe the last stroke on the whale to be at his heart due to the immense velocity the blood was spraying out. When Flask struck him there the whale began “spouting thick blood, with swift fury blindly darted at the craft, bespattering them and their glorying crews all over with showers of gore, capsizing Flask's boat and marring the bows” (391). I think since the whale has such a large heart, that the flow of its blood is more powerful than that of the water flowing to London bridge, shows alone the power the whale has and makes it a sacred creature, making this individual whale more like Jesus Christ. Also the showering of the men and the boat is the washing away of their sins. Jesus shed his blood to wash away our sins, just like this whale is shedding his blood and showering the crew to wash away their sins. After this, the whale began to sink, which is an unusual thing for a sperm whale. But it is said that when the whales sink they always rise back up more buoyant than life, this again relates to Jesus. After he died and was resurrected three days later, and was literally more buoyant than life.

There were other small hints that were brought to my attention after reading the quoted extract that should have made the reader believe this incident was more than just the obviously stated and that it had a deep religious meaning to it. One was that the whale was said to be “holding mad Christmas in him” (386). With Christmas being the day Jesus was born. Another hint was “May of life”, alluding to Jesus’ resurrection (393). Also the use of threes in this chapter are prominent, which in the Christian religion is significant, especially while dealing with Jesus Christ, for example; three boards, three mates that killed him, and the three boats (or phantoms) that surrounded the whale. Another is the Virgin, which could hint to the Virgin Mary. So yes, this is scene of a whale hunt but it has symbolic meaning for Christianity, especially with the whale representing Jesus Christ.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.


  1. Props to you for choosing such an interesting topic! I thought it was really cool how you brought in the double meanings of "jaundice" and "infirmity." I don't actually know much about the story of Jesus (which I suppose is strange in a fundamentally Christian society) but you've got a lot of good stuff here. As someone who is reading this without knowing much about it, however, I think you should incorporate more the story of Jesus. I.e. in that same paragraph, why is Jesus morally weak, why does he have a distorted judgment? I thought the rest all seemed pretty strong, but this part was shaky, because the image I have of Jesus as a non-Christian is the moral example for Christianity as the savior. So discuss more here and prove it to the reader. Good Luck :), and again, cool idea!

  2. I enjoyed this, and I have no really issues of any kind with what you've written so far. What I have, instead, are three questions (a fitting number!) which are meant to make you think over what your approach would be, if you revise.

    1) What does this argument have to do with Paley's Natural Theology? I actually think your use of the extract was good, and that you don't *need* to get into the book itself. But you could, and I think that you would find relevant material to extend (or perhaps in some ways question) your reading. I've never read the book myself, but I know it was very influential during its time.

    2) Why don't you incorporate the imagery of cruelty and torture surrounding the old blind whale? This seems like strong support for your argument.

    3) This is the most important one. Now that you've established, in detail, that Christ-imagery surrounds the old blind whale, what do you *do*? How does that impact your understanding of the novel as a whole?

    I don't know your answer, but one thing that's on my mind is that we might focus on the relatively small role of this whale vs. Moby-Dick. Melville is famously more focused on the Hebrew Bible (old testament) vs. the Greek Bible (the New Testament). Showing that symbolism re: Christ pervades this chapter, but symbolism re: God himself pervades the whole book could both help prove that point, and help us figure out *why* things are that way.

    That's only my first suggestion, and you might have something much better in mind. I certainly would want to see you explore why your well-made argument about this chapter does something with the novel as a whole, though.