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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
As Ishmael tries, in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, to
offer a simple collection of literary excerpts mentioning whales,
he discovers that, throughout history, the whale has taken on an
incredible multiplicity of meanings. Over the course of the novel,
he makes use of nearly every discipline known to man in his attempts
to understand the essential nature of the whale. Each of these systems
of knowledge, however, including art, taxonomy, and phrenology,
fails to give an adequate account. The multiplicity of approaches
that Ishmael takes, coupled with his compulsive need to assert his
authority as a narrator and the frequent references to the limits
of observation (men cannot see the depths of the ocean, for example),
suggest that human knowledge is always limited and insufficient.
When it comes to Moby Dick himself, this limitation takes on allegorical
significance. The ways of Moby Dick, like those of the Christian
God, are unknowable to man, and thus trying to interpret them, as
Ahab does, is inevitably futile and often fatal.
In addition to highlighting many portentous or foreshadowing events,
Ishmael’s narrative contains many references to fate, creating the
impression that the Pequod’s doom is inevitable.
Many of the sailors believe in prophecies, and some even claim the
ability to foretell the future. A number of things suggest, however,
that characters are actually deluding themselves when they think
that they see the work of fate and that fate either doesn’t exist
or is one of the many forces about which human beings can have no
distinct knowledge. Ahab, for example, clearly exploits the sailors’
belief in fate to manipulate them into thinking that the quest for
Moby Dick is their common destiny. Moreover, the prophesies
of Fedallah and others seem to be undercut in Chapter 99,
when various individuals interpret the doubloon in different ways,
demonstrating that humans project what they want to see when they
try to interpret signs and portents.
At first glance, the Pequod seems like
an island of equality and fellowship in the midst of a racist, hierarchically
structured world. The ship’s crew includes men from all corners
of the globe and all races who seem to get along harmoniously. Ishmael
is initially uneasy upon meeting Queequeg, but he quickly realizes
that it is better to have a “sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”
for a shipmate. Additionally, the conditions of work aboard the Pequod promote
a certain kind of egalitarianism, since men are promoted and paid according
to their skill. However, the work of whaling parallels the other
exploitative activities—buffalo hunting, gold mining, unfair trade
with indigenous peoples—that characterize American and European
territorial expansion. Each of the Pequod’s mates,
who are white, is entirely dependent on a nonwhite harpooner, and
nonwhites perform most of the dirty or dangerous jobs aboard the
ship. Flask actually stands on Daggoo, his African harpooner, in
order to beat the other mates to a prize whale. Ahab is depicted
as walking over the black youth Pip, who listens to Ahab’s pacing
from below deck, and is thus reminded that his value as a slave
is less than the value of a whale.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!