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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How does Melville use weaving imagery throughout Moby-Dick?

Melville uses the imagery of weaving and looms throughout Moby-Dick to show how people's lives are intertwined with other aspects of the world—other people, circumstances, fate, and so on. The metaphor can also be applied to the way his novel weaves different themes, styles, and perspectives into a single story. Chapter 1 is titled "Loomings," and introduces many themes that will be revisited again and again in the novel. In Chapter 47, Ishmael and Queequeg weave a mat together, and Ishmael uses it to discuss the interwoven parts of a person's life. In Chapter 72, Ishmael discusses the monkey-rope as a connection between his own fate and another's fate. In Chapter 93, Ishmael describes Pip as seeing God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, which suggests that God is the divine weaver. In Chapter 102, Ishmael again refers to God as a weaver.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 54 how do the Dons react to Ishmael's story, and how do their responses reflect the larger novel?

The Dons—Sebastian and Pedro—ask Ishmael about some of the places and terms he uses, such as Lakeman and Canallers. Ishmael explains, and he seems to feel that his explanations help his story make sense: "such information may throw side-light upon my story." The Dons insist on interpreting things symbolically: Don Pedro says "the world's one Lima" and asks if the story is really true. In all of these things, the Dons' questions mirror the responses of the reader (at least as far as Ishmael imagines the reader) of Moby-Dick: readers get confused by the whaling terms and exotic places and need further explanation; they take things symbolically and relate them to their own experiences; they wonder whether the story is too outrageous to have happened.

In Moby-Dick, how do the whale-line and the monkey-rope compare?

In Chapter 60, Ishmael describes the way that the whale-line is potentially dangerous: if a man gets caught in it, he can be dragged overboard and killed. Then he uses the whale-line as a metaphor to say that "[a]ll men live enveloped in whale-lines," meaning that all men are constantly in danger of being killed, whether they know it or not. In Chapter 72, Ishmael describes the monkey-rope as something that takes away his individuality, tying him to the fate of another. He expands this metaphor to say that all men are connected in this way to other people—all interconnected and dependent on the actions of others. So, while Ishmael uses the whale-line to explain that death can strike without warning, without a person doing anything, he uses the monkey-rope to explain how individual actions can affect another person. The whale-line is an agent of chance or fate, while the monkey-rope is a reminder that a person's individual choices may affect others.

How does Ishmael's emotional state in Moby-Dick, Chapter 94 compare and contrast to his emotional state up to that point?

At the beginning of Moby-Dick, Ishmael is very down—he is bored and depressed with life on land, and his thoughts turn grimly to death and even suicide. He is less unhappy after he makes a friend in Queequeg, but he is still very uncertain and anxious about the mysterious captain of the ship—Captain Ahab. However, as he squeezes the spermaceti oil, he seems suddenly healed of all these negative emotions. He says that as he is squeezing the oil, he forgets all about Ahab's mission and their oath to help in his revenge quest: "I washed my hands and my heart of it ... I felt divinely free of all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever." While squeezing the spermaceti, he feels loving kindness toward his shipmates and ultimately connected to them, as he feels their hands in his. This contrasts sharply with Ahab's aloofness.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 87 how is Ishmael similar to the cows and calves they encounter?

Ishmael notes that the nursing calves can nurse and observe the world at the same time, as if "leading two different lives at the time." This is similar to his own personality: he is an active member of the Pequod's crew, but he is also an observer of the story's action. Ishmael also comments on the way the cows and calves are so peaceful in the midst of all the activity and chaos—they "serenely revelled in dalliance and delight." He says that he feels the same way: "While ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy."

What does Ishmael mean in Moby-Dick, Chapter 96 when he says, "There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness"?

In this chapter, Ishmael has been steering the ship, and he falls briefly into a light sleep. He experiences a sudden disorientation and feels for a moment that he is looking into darkness with flashes of redness. As he awakens and grabs back onto the tiller, he feels as if he is inverted for a moment. This experience clarifies something for Ishmael: Things are not always as bad as they seem. There can be an "artificial fire" that makes everything look "ghastly." In the light of the sun, these seemingly ghastly objects are ordinary. He then balances this by saying that if someone is too joyful, they probably are not looking at reality, either. Therefore, the "wisdom that is woe" is the wisdom of seeing there are terrible things in the world, while the "woe that is madness" is the artificially awful way things may seem to those who have given themselves up "to fire."

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 85 what life lessons can be learned from Ishmael's lengthy discussion of the whale's spout?

In Chapter 85 of Moby-Dick, Ishmael discusses at length the question of whether a whale's spout is water or air. He poses the question as if asked by an impatient reader: "Can you not tell water from air?" This seems very black and white—the spout is either water or it is not water. Yet Ishmael makes the point that it is not always as easy to understand "the plain things" as people would have others believe. The truth is, it is difficult to decide exactly what the spout is. Ishmael also points out that sometimes a rainbow can be seen in the spout. This reference to the rainbow—to Noah's rainbow—suggests that great truths, spiritual truths, can be seen in everyday "plain things," perhaps especially those who look long enough to wonder exactly what they are.

How can Moby-Dick, Chapter 99 be applied to reading the novel itself?

In Chapter 99 of Moby-Dick, various characters interpret the picture on the doubloon in different ways, according to their worldviews and personalities. Self-obsessed Captain Ahab thinks it symbolizes himself, while religious Starbuck sees religious imagery, and Stubb sees man's entire life and fate represented by the zodiac. The novel, with its many themes and symbols, lends itself to just this sort of varying interpretation. Each reader takes his or her own personality and experiences to the reading of the novel, and there are many ways to interpret it. For example, people may have different opinions on whether the novel says that Ahab's death is a result of fate or the result of his own madness, or whether Moby Dick represents God's judgment or the triumph of nature over humankind.

How does the captain of the Samuel Enderby, Captain Boomer, compare and contrast with Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, Chapter 100?

The two captains each lost a limb to Moby Dick and replaced it with a fake one made of whalebone. Captain Boomer lost an arm, while Captain Ahab lost a leg. But that's where the similarity ends. Although they have endured a similar injury because of Moby Dick, they respond very differently to the incident. Captain Boomer is described as telling the story "good-humoredly," while Ahab is grim and bitter. Furthermore, Boomer says he came upon Moby Dick two more times but avoided him, knowing he was dangerous. Ahab, on the other hand, is actively seeking another confrontation with the White Whale.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 99 how does Stubb's observation that there are "[a]ll sorts of men in one kind of world" apply to the novel?

The diversity of humans sharing one world is an important theme in the novel. Ishmael makes a point of noting the variety of people in New Bedford and Nantucket. There are many Quakers, but each one is unique. There are many "pagans," but each one has his own story. The Pequod as a microcosm of the world in all its diversity is a potent symbol in the novel. Chapter 40 in particular highlights the fact that sailors from all parts of the world are present on one ship. Just as there are "all sorts of men in one kind of world," there are all sorts of men in each particular part of it—at sea and on land.

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