Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 6–9 | Summary

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Summary

Out on the streets of New Bedford, Ishmael describes the variety of people who are out and about. He then assures the reader that there are not only "harpooners, cannibals, and bumpkins" in the town, but also many wealthy people who have made their living in the whaling industry. Because it is Sunday, Ishmael goes to a Whaleman's Chapel in Chapter 7, housing marble tablets inscribed with names of those lost or killed at sea. Ishmael takes a seat and is surprised to notice Queequeg is there, too. The marble tablets remind him that he is about to embark on a voyage that may end in his death, but this fact does not frighten him. He does not fear the destruction of his body, for he feels his soul is indestructible.

A robust chaplain named Father Mapple enters the chapel in Chapter 8, takes off his wet jacket and hat, and ascends to the high pulpit by a rope ladder similar to one used to climb onto a ship. Ishmael is surprised that Father Mapple pulls the rope ladder up after him when he is situated in the pulpit. The pulpit is shaped like the front of a ship, which Ishmael feels is appropriate. Father Mapple asks the congregation to sit closer in Chapter 9, then kneels, prays, and leads a hymn. He then preaches a powerful sermon about the biblical book of Jonah. His sermon centers on the topic of obedience to God, noting that "if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists." Mapple uses his knowledge of ships and sailing to elaborate on the story of Jonah's attempt to run away from the task God had set before him. Mapple commends Jonah's repentance—which took place in the belly of the giant fish—to the congregation as a model for their own repentance. After his impassioned sermon, he covers his face with his hands, and the congregation quietly leaves.

Analysis

Ishmael, who is himself about to go to sea on a whaling boat, takes notice of the many marble tablets that are displayed in the chapel. He considers that their message to him is one of warning: "there is death in this business of whaling." While he doesn't seem too worried about this at the present time, this episode (again) foreshadows later plot events in which the captain and crew of the ship he's on are all killed by a sperm whale, save one.

Besides being about Jonah and a large fish or whale, a topic Ishmael will have a great deal to say about in later chapters, Father Mapple's sermon, introduces several important themes that will be developed over the course of the novel. Just like Jonah, Ahab will try to follow his own plan rather than obeying the mission of the Pequod's owners. He will attempt to kill a creature much larger and more powerful than himself, one that represents the unknowable mysteries, displaying an arrogance certainly classified as sinful pride. And like Jonah, he will be punished by a great whale acting as an agent of God (or fate, or nature, or all three). (It should be noted that the biblical story of Jonah does not refer to a whale, but to a great fish. This detail will be taken up in a much later chapter by Ishmael.)

The presence of Queequeg in the chapel is a small detail that hints at an issue Ishmael will explore on and off throughout the book—the difference between "heathens" and Christians. Although the issues framed are religious in nature, they are also racial issues. In the novel, whaling as an industry is revealed to be one in which white men and those of other races mingle and coexist. Even though there is still a racial hierarchy, respect for one another is one aspect of the relationships on the ship.

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