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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Moby-Dick, Chapter 1 Ishmael compares his life to a part in a play. How is this idea developed in the structure of the novel?

In Chapter 1, Ishmael calls the Fates "stage managers" and says that they assigned him a "shabby" role on a whaling ship rather than a role in a high tragedy or comedy. This introduces the idea that people's lives are simply roles assigned them by destiny or Providence. To develop this theme, Ishmael presents some chapters as if they are scenes in a play. Stage directions are included to add to the effect, as are sounds coming from "offstage" (cheering and yelling from the crew, for example). Some are scenes that include the entire company, and some are scenes in which characters speak soliloquies. These scenes appear intermittently throughout the novel.

In Moby-Dick, how does Captain Ahab convince the crew to join him on his quest?

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 36 Captain Ahab divulges his mission to the crew. He needs them to join his cause for it to be successful, so he uses several forms of persuasion. First, he offers gold: He nails a gold coin to the mast and says whoever raises the White Whale can have it as a reward. Second, he uses flattery, calling the men brave. Third, he uses an emotional appeal, telling the men of the loss of his leg and the evil nature of Moby Dick. As a man with great charisma, he is able to capture the attention of the men and persuade them to join him. Starbuck is the only one of the crew who resists, and Ahab must provide Starbuck with the "little lower layer"—or deeper level of significance—in order to convince the first mate to comply.

How does Ishmael's description of Captain Ahab's appearance at the end of Moby-Dick (Chapter 44) relate to the subject of Chapter 42?

Chapter 42 is titled "The Whiteness of the Whale" and in it Ishmael explains why the color white has negative connotations and associations. He notes that the color "by its indefiniteness ... shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation." He also says that "whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink." In Chapter 44, Captain Ahab is described as "a ray of living light ... without an object to color ... and therefore a blankness in itself." With the ghastliness of white as the backdrop, this image of Ahab as without color—a "blankness"—adds to the sense that he is not just a madman but something more ambiguous, like the White Whale himself.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 44 why does Ishmael compare Captain Ahab to Prometheus?

In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a Titan who gave humans the gift of fire. He was punished by Zeus, who chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat the Titan's liver each day. Ishmael says that Captain Ahab's intense thoughts have made him a Prometheus, and the bird who torments him is of his own creation. Throughout the novel, Ahab is associated with the imagery of fire and flame that connects him to Prometheus but also to Hell. Prometheus was also tormented daily, as is Ahab by his obsession with Moby Dick—a creation of his own thoughts rather than a real threat. In addition, Prometheus was punished by Zeus, as Ahab seems to be punished by God at the end of Moby-Dick.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 47 what happens to Ishmael's "ball of free will," and what does this mean?

In Chapter 47, Ishmael uses the weaving of a mat to create an extended metaphor in which the parts of the weaving process are the different parts of fate or destiny. In his metaphor, the ball of thread he has represents his free will. Yet when they hear "a sound so strange, long drawn, and musically wild and unearthly," he drops the ball. Using the metaphor to interpret this action, Ishmael loses his free will. This suggests that at some point in the story, Ishmael becomes so involved in Captain Ahab's destiny that he loses his own ability to depart from Ahab's course.

How do Ishmael's ideas about destiny and free will compare to those of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick?

In Chapter 47, Ishmael develops a concept of human lives that suggests a balance between forces of necessity, chance, and free will: "The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course ... free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will ... has the last featuring blow at events." Ishmael seems to believe that free will has some part to play in the course of a person's life. However, Captain Ahab reveals that he does not agree, although from the outside, it appears that he is imposing his free will on the lives of others. In Chapter 37 he says that "[t]he path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents' beds, unerringly I rush!" While Ishmael believes in a complex weaving of necessity, chance, and free will, Ahab seems to live his life as fixed as "iron rails." He feels as if he has no choice but to hunt the White Whale.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 57 what is the point of Ishmael's discussion of "savages"?

Ishmael includes several "savages" in his cast of characters, and in Chapter 57 he explains ideas about what it means to be a savage. He says, "Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e. what is called savagery." Ishmael's opinion is that civilization and Christendom—the institutional Church—take away something God-given rather than add to what is God-given. Returning to a simpler, less-civilized state (as one is when one has been at sea for a long time on a whaling ship) is seen as a restoration to a morally superior state.

What is the significance of Ishmael's comparison between the sea and a mad battle steed in Moby-Dick, Chapter 58?

In Chapter 58, Ishmael describes the sea as having "[n]o mercy, no power but its own" controlling it. He says that "like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe." This view of the sea—as a wild and dangerous thing, full of beauty but also peril—is a recurring idea in the novel. Furthermore, Moby Dick (and whales in general) is an example of exactly this aspect of the sea. In Moby Dick's role as representative of the unconquerable wildness of nature, he is masterless and ultimately overruns the Pequod, which is, after all, a microcosm of the world.

Why is Chapter 60 important to understanding the climax of Moby-Dick?

Chapter 60 of Moby-Dick, titled "The Line," explains the dangers of the whale line and how careful the sailors must be when they are out in the whaleboats. If they are caught in the whale line, they can easily be pulled into the ocean and drown. Captain Ahab meets his doom when he gets caught in the line and is pulled into the ocean. Like Ishmael so often does, he prepares readers for something that will happen later by giving them the description in an earlier section. This is especially helpful when the information is necessary for understanding events that happen quickly, such as those in the climactic scene. The novel does not need to get bogged down in the details of whaling equipment during the battle because it has been thoroughly described before. The "line" is also symbolic of interconnectedness, which is a primary theme in the novel. Ahab very often feels solitary and alone; he cannot see the value of the "line" and is killed by it.

In Moby-Dick, is Gabriel's understanding of the White Whale more like Captain Ahab's view or Starbuck's view?

On one hand, Gabriel sees Moby Dick as an incarnation of God. He believes that the whale is more than he seems. Starbuck believes that Moby Dick is simply an animal—a "dumb brute." So, since Captain Ahab believes Moby Dick to be the incarnation of evil and malice, Ahab agrees with Gabriel that Moby Dick is more than an animal. On the other hand, both Starbuck and Gabriel believe it is wrong for Ahab to harm Moby Dick, though for different reasons: Gabriel believes it is wrong for anyone to harm the whale, and Starbuck believes it is wrong to harm a whale out of vengeance. In this sense, Gabriel's view and Starbuck's view align more than Gabriel's and Ahab's views.

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