“Well, never mind. I am a New Englander, like Emerson. You must learn about him, for he was important to your people. He had a hand in your destiny. Yes, perhaps that is what I mean. I had a feeling that your people were somehow connected with my destiny. That what happened to you was connected with what would happen to me…” (Ellison, 41)
The concept of fate is heavily embedded in many works of literature, plays, movies, in addition to playing a major role in religion. It is a concept that has been toyed with, debated, and manipulated as long as there has been human life. Does fate happen to us? Are our paths predestined? Or is our fate self-manufactured, a product of our daily decisions? Perhaps, in some ways, fate is a convenient excuse. Through their respective works, authors Melville and Ellison use their works to describe fate and what they believe to be its connotations. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, fate, or perhaps, Captain Ahab’s obsessive devotion to carrying out what he believes to be his fate, in the end brings himself and his crew to their untimely demise. Throughout the novel, Ahab’s devotion to carrying out this destiny worries his entire crew, who know too well that they too will be caught up in his maddening desire to confront the white whale. Even when questioned, Ahab remains loyal to what he believes to be his fate, ignoring logic and the obvious signs of his own impending doom. While Captain Ahab believes his fate lies in the destruction of the white whale, Mr. Norton, a character from Ellison’s Invisible Man; a founding member of the narrator’s college, believes that his fate lies in the further expansion of the college he has helped found and the creation of more bright young African American scholars. However, both of these characters are questioned on their fate and its merits. And yet, despite this questioning, neither waver from their paths; a sign that perhaps Mr. Norton, much like Captain Ahab, will be, in one way or another, destroyed by his devotion to his fate.
It is hard to understand what Melville’s stance on fate is, among other things; his views on fate seem ambivalent. On one hand, the reader comes to understand that captain Ahab feels truly compelled by fate, so much so that he has chosen to abandon all life on land, including a wife and child. “Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which for a thousand lowers old Ahab has furiously foamingly, chased his prey…” (Melville 591) It is hard to imagine someone abandoning their entire life on land for the pursuit of a whale if they weren’t utterly compelled by some sort of malevolent outside force. However, Starbuck makes a simple argument in return, why not simply turn back around and go home to our wives and families? After all, Starbuck argues, it is extremely simple. “Away! Let us away!—this instant let me alter the course!” In the end, is Ahab not captain of the ship, and therefore able to alter his destiny by giving up this wild chase and returning home after forty long years at sea? Ahab seemingly has a choice, and has the power to change his own fate. However, despite feeling clear sorrow and regret about the way Ahab has lived his life, he continues on. His rational is unwavering; he has no choice but to continue on, despite how much he wishes that he could turn back, believing yet again that his destiny lies within the hands of a higher power. “What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me.” (Melville 592) It is as if Ahab’s faith in destiny, and belief and adherence to the path which has been determined for him by some higher power, rather than destiny itself, is what compels him forward rather than destiny itself. From the very beginning of the novel, Ahab makes it is his purpose and destiny to kill Moby Dick—a destiny that goes unfulfilled, as Ahab and the rest of the crew are killed by the white whale. If not for Ahab’s obsessive pursuit and his belief that God himself was compelling him to do it, then the whole crew may have survived. It appears that Melville may be suggesting that it was Ahab’s blinding devotion to fate that damned the Pequod, and in the end, that ruined his life.
In Ellison’s Invisible Man we are presented with a seemingly much more benevolent character, Mr. Norton. Mr. Norton is one of the original founders of the University in which the nameless narrator of the novel attends. However, similar to Ahab, Mr. Norton steadfastly believes in the idea that his fate is closely intertwined with those of the students of the University. So much so that he claims that his entire fate lies within each and every one of his students, how they are his legacy and his triumph, including the narrator. “…you are involved in my life quite intimately, even though you’ve never seen me before. You are bound to a great dream and to a beautiful monument…whatever you become, and even if you fail, you are my fate.” (Ellison, 43-44) Much like Ahab’s fate is fixed on the destruction of Moby Dick, so is Mr. Norton’s fate tied to the fate of his school and its students. However, it appears that Mr. Norton’s belief and fate, and what it drives him to do, are seemingly much more benevolent than Captain Ahab’s intentions. Despite this, there is another character, a vet who treats Mr. Norton after his series of fainting spells, who questions Mr. Norton’s intentions much like Starbuck questioned Ahab’s. Upon Norton telling the vet that he believes that the school is part of his destiny, he replies, “You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see—and you, looking for destiny! It’s classic!...To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less—a black amorphous thing.” (Ellison, 95) The vet tears down Mr. Norton’s beliefs and notion of fate and destiny lying with the school. Instead, the vet claims that the narrator, and others like him who attend the school aren’t his destiny, but rather like a type of trophy he wishes to win in order to make his supposed “destiny” seem valid. However, by doing so, he neglects to see the students, the school, and the narrator as what they are—and instead assigns them another meaning by calling them his fate. By doing so, he sets himself up for the possibilities of great glory and terrible disappointment.
The parallels between the two are seemingly clear enough as to justify that Ellison was perhaps influenced by Melville on the notion of fate. Both characters assign higher meaning to worldly things and call them fate. Captain Ahab’s fate lies within the destruction of the great whale, whereas Mr. Norton’s fate resides within the school he founded and the students—however, by doing this, by assigning a type of higher meaning to a white whale and a school both characters commit a fatal flaw. By calling something their fate and simply following through with what their “fate” chooses to do, they neglect are blinded. Ahab fails to see that he has choice, and an entire crew to care for, and Mr. Norton seemingly neglects the fact that the students are all individuals and the campus is more than eager, well cared for students. They neglect to see their options, their choices, or see people as people or things as simply what they are. Despite questioning, both go on believing, no matter how ill-advised it may seem. Although we do not yet know the fate of Mr. Norton, if we are to believed that Ellison was influenced by Melville, we can surmise that like Ahab, Mr. Norton’s blind devotion to fate will bring him pain, and perhaps ruin in one form or another. Regardless of their differing intentions, both characters possess the same fatal flaw, and will face the same consquences.