Herman Melville began working on his epic novel Moby Dick in 1850 and originally intended it to be primarily a report on the whaling voyages he took through the 1830’s and 1840’s. Because of this, many critics believe that Melville’s original draft of Moby Dick did not include some important themes and characters such as Ahab, Starbuck, or even Moby. It wasn’t until Melville befriended author Nathaniel Hawthorne when his literature changed greatly. After meeting Hawthorne, Melville was influenced by such works as that of Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise lost. These influences lead Melville to completely overhaul his novel and publish a completely different book in 1851. In this new edition, Melville incorporated a new storyline with deep symbolism that help study man’s relationship with the world, fate, and ultimately God.
Although in a sense, Moby Dick is not necessarily a character, it is considered by many as an allegorical force that many readers have debated to be a representation of God. Like God, Moby Dick is seen throughout the novel as a mysterious, powerful being that humans cannot oppose or defy. As Ishmael explains, a whale mostly remains hidden, only appearing from the deep depths of the ocean to observe the human world. Likewise, God, although known by many, is still ultimately seen as an unknowable, mighty force that largely remains hidden to humans, even when he is amongst and ‘interfering’. Moby Dick has been widely viewed as an invisible force that cannot be deterred; thus paralleling the thought that God’s ‘almighty power’ that overpowers all. This varying idea of God can be seen even within the Pequod’s crew; Ahab is very overconfident and almost opposes God in his ruthless pursuit of Moby Dick whereas Starbuck relies on his Christian principles to guide him throughout life. Through Ahab, Melville symbolizes the population who question God and the ‘fate’ God has laid out. Captain Ahab’s “faith in self-reliance [lead] to the belief that one is equal to God and of nature” (Fish 22). Thinking he is immune to nature (and ultimately fate), he relentlessly hunts the ocean in order to seek revenge against Moby and that, like a God himself, he can achieve his revenge against all odds despite numerous opposing signs.
As the Pequod and its crew ultimately end in demise (save for Ishmael), Moby Dick arises the victor once again. As it is said in the bible, verse 10: “In that he is god, he is able to avenge himself on those who oppose…” If we were to accept the idea of Moby Dick acting as an allegorical representation of god, then the demise of Ahab and the Pequod crew seems very fitting after reading this verse. Like verse 10 states, for anyone who “opposes” god (Moby in this case), then ‘God’, is able to “avenge himself.” Perhaps this is why Melville incorporated the Old Testament story of Jonah within Moby Dick “not only for its whale-linked subject manner but also for its underlying theme of a man’s disobedience to God and God’s punishment of that disobedience – a theme closely related to the mad quest of Ahab for Moby-Dick.” (Fish 123)
This idea of an intervening God however, can be seen throughout Moby Dick as well. In Chapter 119, The Pequod is caught in a typhoon where “God’s burning finger has been laid” on the ship and Starbuck sees Ahab’s three ‘good omen’ spermaceti candles as warnings against the quest for Moby Dick (549). Furthermore, when Starbuck sees Ahab’s harpoon flickering with fire as well, he interprets it as God’s opposing force against Ahab. Starbuck tells Ahab that “God is against thee” but Ahab continues to “blow out the last fear” as he tells the crew there is nothing to be worried about (552). Although Starbuck warns Ahab of the imminent dangers if he choses to pursuit Moby Dick, Ahab stubbornly continues, believing he is immune to God’s predetermined fate.
The idea of relating Moby Dick to God can also be seen simply in the regard in which Moby and God is held. Moby Dick, like God, is seen as a largely unknown force that seems to be ‘everywhere’. Both are generally passed on and depicted through word of mouth or stories. Moby Dick is even considered by some to be a myth; as sailor stories and legends say, “Moby Dick can be seen in two places at once at different places around the globe,” thus suggesting Moby’s omnipresence state, a common trait of God. There are also numerous tales of Moby Dick sightings but one has yet to prove there is really such an animal. Even Ishmael, our whaling expert, has trouble accurately identifying parts of a generic whale during his first hands on experience. This relationship between God and Moby is further strengthened when Starbuck accuses Ahab of ‘blasphemy’ after Ahab’s passionate speech about enticing the crew to pursuit Moby Dick. The word blasphemy is generally used to describe irreverence towards God or something sacred, usually not something you would call a whale. With this said, it is very feasible that Melville chose the Christian-minded Starbuck to deliver this harsh accusation towards Ahab as a way to compare Moby to that or something sacred or God-like. This varying idea of what Moby Dick really is symbolizes humanities inability to truly understand the world. Perhaps Melville was trying to show that some things humanity just cannot explain and must simply accept it. Maybe there may be some things in the world that need not ask why but just let be for the better.
This varying depiction of God and Moby and the Pequod’s doom both seem to further support the idea of Moby Dick representing the idea of God. If this was the case, then it appears that Melville is depicting God as a vengeful, interfering ruler who seeks revenge on whoever opposes him. This seems to be a bit contrasting to the narrator’s (Ishmael) view of religion. Therefore, perhaps Melville is trying to show that the lack of religious belief in God (and fate) as a whole, ultimately leads to ’demise.’ However, God is also kind and forgiving, always leaving “a window for redemption.” This would more make sense, as the only survivor left after the final battle with Moby Dick, is Ishmael, saved by Queequeg’s coffin, perhaps symbolizing a sign of resurrection or rebirth, something that would need to happen in order to pass on the tale, spread the ‘belief’ of Moby Dick, and keep the ‘legend’ alive.
Herman Melville. Moby Dick. New York, NY: Baronet, 1990.
Peter Fish, Michael Spring. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. New York, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, 1984.