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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Moby-Dick, how does Pip contribute to the development of Captain Ahab's character?

Both Pip and Captain Ahab have had near-death experiences, which leave both Pip and Ahab mad, but their insanity takes different forms. Ahab is obsessed and has an inflated sense of his own importance, while Pip seems to collapse into himself. They are at opposite ends of a hierarchical system. Yet this contrast is humanizing for Ahab. He takes Pip in and seems to take on a fatherly role for a time. Pip's madness also seems to give him special insight and wisdom, and many of the things he says are prophetic. Because his prophecies are ominous, this adds to the foreboding mood that pervades the last leg of the Pequod's journey.

In Moby-Dick, is Ishmael a reliable narrator?

Ishmael is the first-person narrator of Moby-Dick, and whenever a literary work has a first-person narrator, it is important to ask if that narrator is reliable. Does the reader trust Ishmael, or does Ishmael reveal himself to be biased or withholding information? On one hand, Ishmael seems reliable. He seems earnest: He does not seem to hold any factual information back from the reader, and he goes to great lengths to win over his audience with whole chapters meant to convey his expertise in whaling and his firsthand knowledge of events that make the plot seem reasonable. On the other hand, Ishmael undermines his own credibility by insisting on "factual" information that is opposed to scientific evidence, such as the classification of a whale as a fish rather than separate from a fish, based on the work of Linnaeus (Chapter 32).

How does the lightning in Moby-Dick, Chapter 119 affect Captain Ahab and Starbuck differently?

In this chapter, the ship encounters a lightning storm, and Captain Ahab, who has been associated with fire and flame imagery throughout the novel, takes advantage of the situation to claim the symbolic power of lightning in support of his quest. His mania and outsized sense of importance come to a head, and he addresses the lightning as a primal fire, a force he would tap into: "There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical ... Oh, thou foundling fire, ... leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!" This display does not comfort Starbuck, however, who tells Ahab, "God, God is against thee." The lightning, to him, is a symbol of God's judgment rather than a source of power.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 102 why does Ishmael mention "the privilege of Jonah"?

In Chapter 102, Ishmael turns his scientific discussion to the interior of the whale. The only person that he knows of who has seen the inside of a whale and could speak with authority on the subject is Jonah. So he imagines someone might accuse him of seizing the "privilege of Jonah alone; the privilege of discoursing upon the joists and beams; the rafters, ridge-pole, sleepers, and under-pinnings, making up the frame-work of leviathan." Yet Ishmael does seize this privilege. He goes on to speak in great detail about the inside of a whale in this and the following chapters.

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 115 why does Captain Ahab hold up a small vial of sand, and why is this significant?

After Captain Ahab has determined that the Bachelor isn't going to be any help, the Pequod continues on its mission while the Bachelor continues toward home. As the Bachelor sails on its way, Ahab holds up a small vial of Nantucket sand and looks from it to the departing ship. He connects the two in his mind—the Bachelor is going home and he, with his ship, is not. This moment of looking symbolically toward home is poignant, because Ishmael knows (and because of foreshadowing, the reader suspects) that Ahab's journey will not take him home. He will not see Nantucket sand again: "Ahab, leaning over the taffrail, eyed the homewardbound craft, he took from his pocket a small vial of sand, and then looking from the ship to the vial, seemed thereby bringing two remote associations together, for that vial was filled with Nantucket soundings."

In what ways is Captain Ahab (Ishmael) the main character of Moby-Dick, and why?

Many people feel that Captain Ahab is the main character of Moby-Dick because he is the protagonist to the White Whale as antagonist. Ahab is the driver of the plot events because he is in charge of the Pequod and its mission. As a character, he becomes more and more subject to his obsession, and readers see him struggle as he gradually gives up his humanity to the quest for revenge. Yet some people argue that Ishmael is the main character because he is the narrator, the only survivor, and the person who undergoes a coming of age due to the story's events. He also changes significantly as the story progresses—from a depressed, lonely young man to a member of a community, and finally to an orphan.

How do Fedallah's prophecies in Moby-Dick, Chapter 117 call to mind the prophecies in Shakespeare's Macbeth?

In Macbeth, the witches prophesize that Macbeth cannot be killed by a "man of woman born." In addition, they prophesize that Macbeth cannot be defeated until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. A third prophecy is "Beware the thain of Fife." All of these prophesies seem to Macbeth to mean that he will not die. However, they all end up describing the way he will be killed. In the same way, Fedallah's prophecies make Captain Ahab think he is invulnerable and will not be killed. The three prophesies are that (1) two hearses must be seen, (2) Fedallah will go before Ahab, and (3) "hemp only can kill thee." However, these prophesies end up simply foretelling the nature of Ahab's death: the first hearse is Moby Dick and the second hearse is the Pequod. Fedallah does die before Ahab, and the hemp of the prophecy is the line that catches Ahab and pulls him into the sea. Scholars note that Melville was actively reading Shakespeare's tragedies before and during the writing of the novel.

How does Moby-Dick, Chapter 132 develop the relationship between Starbuck and Captain Ahab?

Throughout the novel, Starbuck has had moral reservations about Captain Ahab's quest for revenge. In Chapter 132, Ahab talks openly about his wife and child for the first time in the book, and reaches out to Starbuck, saying "stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye." Starbuck is immediately moved, calling Ahab a "brave man" and a "noble heart." Starbuck clearly wants to see the best in Ahab and has been prevented by Ahab's seeming lack of human feeling. Starbuck, too, sees a similarity between himself and Ahab because Starbuck also has a wife and child waiting for him at home. It's at this moment in the novel that Ahab seems most likely to give up the chase for Moby Dick.

In Moby-Dick, how do Starbuck's, Stubb's, and Flask's attitudes toward death reflect their individual personalities?

Before he dies, Starbuck tells the crew to raise the helm. He tells himself that he should die courageously. This is in keeping with his character as a steadfast man, faithful to the last. Stubb smiles at the whale as death approaches. He wants to taste cherries before he goes. This is in keeping with his laughing approach to life and his sense that his fate is inevitable, so he might as well enjoy it. Flask thinks about his mother. He is hopeful that his mother took out an advance on his salary because he can see where things are headed and knows she won't be able to get much more from him. This reflects Flask's pragmatic outlook on life.

What is the significance of Ishmael characterizing himself as an orphan at the end of Moby-Dick?

Ishmael has gone from a lonely outcast, not feeling welcome in his own family and society, to feeling part of a community. He makes a friend in Queequeg—his first acceptance into a "family" of sorts. He then joins the Pequod and feels connected to and affectionate toward the crew of the ship as they go about their various duties working and living together. Suddenly, he loses his new "family" in a terrible encounter with the whale Moby Dick. With all of his new family dead, and being the only survivor of the disaster, he is like a child without parents—an orphan.

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