The Prophet | Study Guide

Kahlil Gibran

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The Prophet | Symbols


The Ship

In literature the appearance of a ship often signifies that a great change is about to occur. This change can be the transition from life to death. In The Prophet the ship represents the prophet Almustafa's passage to the afterlife. After 12 years in exile in the city of Orphalese, he is going home. A ship has come to take him back to the island of his birth, the place where his life began. But this is more than a physical journey. Traveling aboard the ship, Almustafa will complete his life's journey. It will come full circle, ending where it began: in the place from which life sprang and to which life will return.

Details of the ship deepen its symbolism as Almustafa's means of transport to the afterlife. The seafarers aboard the ship personify death. Almustafa acknowledges that, once among them, he will be a seafarer, too. The ship is described as "coming with the mist," and when it sails away from Orphalese, it vanishes into the mist. Mist denotes mystery and the unfathomable. It signifies the unknown realm into which Almustafa is transported. That realm is death.

The sea, as the element through which the ship travels, adds a further layer of meaning. Almustafa speaks of the sea in terms of death in the prose poem "On Death." He states that "life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one." In "The Coming of the Ship," the prophet says he soon will become one with "the vast sea, sleepless mother, who alone are peace and freedom to the river and the stream." He will become "a boundless drop to a boundless ocean." In "Farewell," when it is time for the ship to sail, he tells the people of Orphalese "the stream has reached the sea, and once more the great mother holds her son against her breast."

In short, the ship as a symbol stands at the center of several others to which it is linked: the seafarers, the mist, and the sea. All represent some aspect of death, and the ship is the vehicle that will transport Almustafa to that final destination.

The People of Orphalese

The people of Orphalese represent all humanity, especially those who seek a deeper understanding of themselves and their world. Upon learning a ship has come to take Almustafa away from them, the people of the city gather to hear his last words of wisdom. One by one, they ask the prophet to speak on a topic dear to them. The people represent all walks of life. They are innkeepers, ploughmen, masons, tailors, merchants, judges, orators, teachers, and astronomers. They are the rich, the workers, members of the clergy, parents, and in all ways, ordinary people.

Their requests reveal their lack of understanding of the spiritual nature of their existence and chosen vocations. For example, the ploughman in the poem "On Work" says to the prophet, "Speak to us of work." The man knows what it is to work—the essence of toil and sweat—but he does not know, in the spiritual sense, the higher meaning of his labor. This is the insight Almustafa provides for the ploughman and for each person who asks for counsel. Collectively, they understand the earthly, physical, or practical purpose of houses, clothes, laws, and so on. But they do not understand how the spiritual transforms the physical into something more meaningful, something transcendent and touched by love and the divine. Almustafa, in his teaching, seeks to open their minds and hearts to this awareness.

In representing humanity and those who seek enlightenment, the people of Orphalese play a dual role. In their requests for counsel, they reflect the shallow understanding and spiritual unawareness that blinds humans to living in the fullness and beauty of truth. But as seekers, they are prepared to hear Almustafa's counsel, to contemplate its meaning, and to discover that truth for themselves.

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