The Fate of Moby Dick

Updated on April 21, 2018
Matthew Schramm profile image

Matthew is an English and education student at Oregon State University.


"Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before the ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders."

— Herman Melville

Resist your lust for revenge, even when it seems that you have no choice; for the bitterness of unforgiveness inevitably leads to death, and not just of the self, but also for those around you. If you feel the pull of the Fates on your mortal soul, run fast in the opposite direction. And if you find yourself the monomaniacal captain of a whaling vessel out to slay the Leviathan, or if a beastly White Whale haunts your dreams and you wake up missing a leg, know that you are not alone and you are not doomed to failure. Listen to the voice of choice, for it may very well save you from a tragic end. Likewise, if you stand out as an Ishmael in the crowd and depression threatens to overwhelm you, be wary of the sea and her mysteries, and of vengeful captains.

Moby Dick is a highly philosophical book that challenges the divine question of destiny. Is man a puppet? Or did God make His creation without strings? In other words, are we governed entirely by fate, or does man have free will? Melville plays both sides of this doubloon by writing characters with faces imprinted on either side, while tactfully seeming to evade a concrete answer to the question until the very end of the novel. On the free will side of things, Starbuck is the loudest voice; and on the side of the Fates, we have, most obviously, Ahab himself. In the middle, or rather running around the edge of the doubloon, exists Ishmael.

On the whole, the story is a roundabout pursuit of truth for the narrator which ends with Melville’s answer to destiny: we are on a journey with only one destination, and the Fates own us all. According to Greek mythology, the Fates were the deistic incarnations of destiny; three sisters who controlled the threads of life for every mortal from birth until death. Jacobs, in his essay on fate, states that the first sister, Clotho, “spins the thread of life and represents birth” (387). Lachesis, the allotter, determined the lifespan of a person. Finally, Atropos had the task of cutting the threads of life with her shears, thus ending the cycle. The Fates had total, independent rule over everyone, even the gods (with the exception, possibly, of Zeus). Individually, the Fates play no major role in Moby Dick; but as a unit, they are mentioned quite often by many of the characters.

Ishmael begins his retrospection in chapter one saying, “Doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago” (22). Providence in this instance refers to some guiding power over human destiny, which Ishmael and other characters most often attribute to the Fates. Since this story is written in the past tense, there is a layered point of view that biases the journey part of Ismael’s perspective. Whether Ishmael believed it was Fate that placed him on the Pequod initially, we cannot tell from the first chapter. Though by the end of it all, he is certain that Fate is what (or who) drove him onto this particular voyage and not another.

In chapter thirty-eight, Starbuck states his take on the revenge quest: “[Ahab] drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut” (144). This passage loudly echoes the Fates and their occupations—the string of life spun by Clotho is the cable that binds Starbuck to Ahab, and the “knife to cut” is the shears Atropos uses to end the lives of mortals. And to speak of reason, the counterpart of emotion: Ahab roused his crew on the quarter-deck with an emotional vigor that trumped the reason of even the most reasonable. Here, Starbuck has lost his reason and decides that it is his Fate to help Ahab even though he knows it is foolish to do so.

Similarly, Stubb falls in line with these words: “A laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left—that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestined” (145). In a much more carefree response to Ahab’s quarter-deck speech, Stubb abdicates responsibility for the destination of the Pequod. This abdication is near fatalistic, bordering on defeatism, though not quite so because of Stubb’s optimistic (though perhaps misguided) worldview.

To Ahab, the unswervable madman who states: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run” (143). Ahab is the embodiment of Fate’s will, a being completely lost to choice, submitting only to what he wants his destiny to be, effectually generating his own outcome. Furthermore, he self-states: “Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege” (419). Going back to the relationship between reason and emotion, Ahab is a man almost purely governed by what his feelings tell him. He is a man of grit, of gut response, unable to think clearly because of the desire for revenge that clouds his mind.

In the final, climactic chapters of the novel, the loudness of Fate’s voice in Ahab’s ear is evidenced in his response to Starbuck’s desperate pleas to turn the ship away from its destructive course. On the second day of the chase, Ahab declares: “Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before the ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders” (418). We want to believe that Ahab will succeed, but even if he does not, at least it will not be his fault. Here lies the power and seduction of fatalism: Ahab places the blame for his actions on the Fates shoulders (and not his own) because it means that even if he makes a poor decision, he is not responsible for the outcome. It is this approach to life—that God and fate always win against man and free will—which pushes Ahab and the crew of the Pequod to their drowning demise.

In Emerson’s review of Mr. Herbert’s book, Moby Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled, he raises the “discontinuities of the ‘house-religion’ of Melville’s family.” Herman’s father, Allan, had a “qualified commitment to religious liberalism;” and when he passed, Herman’s mother, Maria, attempted to cope with the loss inside of a “Calvinist frame of reference” (484). These conflicting forces that Herman witnessed at home seem to dictate his pursuit for answers and make even clearer his autobiographical connection to the character of Ishmael, who for the most part stands between the forces of liberal free will and conservative, Calvinist fate.

Melville, like Ishmael, was concerned with finding his identity and religion. This is vividly seen in chapter thirty-six when Ishmael is raised physically to the mast-head for his duty as watchman and raised philosophically to an elevated state of mind. He states that he was “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie… that at last he [lost] his identity; [took] the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature” (136). This passage seems a reflection upon Melville’s nurturing, having lost (or never found) his identity because of the different positions of his parents. And this search for identity is not constrained solely to Ishmael, for Ahab also questions himself up until his final days, “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” (406).

Perhaps this unknowing was a source of fear for Melville. It certainly was for Ishmael, who likened this fear to the way he appalled the whiteness of Moby Dick. This terror invoked by the essence of whiteness, or “the visible absence of color… such a dumb blankness” (165), is like the image of the sea as “the ungraspable phantom of life” (20). It is natural for man to fear that which he does not understand, and Ishmael’s fear of the whiteness of the whale plays on our lack of knowledge and the resulting fear of our ultimate fate. We cannot grasp what we cannot see, and what we cannot see is God: a being that is beyond our understanding, like the pure vastness of the sea.

Harrison Hayford, in his critical interpretation of “Loomings,” visits this theme of “the problem of free will, of responsibility of one’s actions.” He argues there are three images (magnetic influences, Fate or Providence, and atmospheric influences) in this first chapter that all share a common denominator of a “postulation of exterior forces determining the action of the mind” (668). This exterior force is key to understanding the war waged between Ahab and the White Whale. Internally, the force that drives Ahab is his emotion. Somewhere along the way, Ahab gave into the idea that Fate ruled his being and there was no escaping it, so this too he internalized. Moreover, the Whale is what Ahab sees as the visible manifestation of the invisible concept of pure evil, an external force that opposes him in the form of god-like Moby Dick. His submission to Fate takes over the action of his mind, and seemingly removes his responsibility for his actions, urging him onward in his criminal behavior.

John Wenke also speaks on this and the question of agency. There are times when Ahab, like Ishmael, is not so certain of himself. When Starbuck urges his captain to turn away from his mission and return to Nantucket, to home and family, Ahab doubts, though only briefly. Returning to his former self, he states: “By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike” (407). Wenke writes “The province of Fate absolves Ahab from having to think seriously of Starbuck’s tempting scenario. Instead, he translates his self-generated constructs into a predetermined force that controls human agency” (709). The question of destiny essentially boils down to this notion of agency and who is really in control and responsible for the action of man.

Ishmael’s spiritual quest mirrors Ahab’s; mirrors but does not mimic. Like a mirror reflects the original, so too does Ishmael reflect Ahab. Ahab’s spiritual quest is to spite God and overcome evil because he believes he is fated to do so. Ishmael’s quest is to find God and escape evil because he finds himself lost on land. In the Epilogue of Moby Dick, Ismael states: “It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman” (427). The result is similar, for Ishmael, like Ahab, has submitted to the external force of Fate to determine his will. What is curious about this is the element of chance, which indicates that Ishmael sees Fate as a random diviner of destiny, lacking reason. This again plays into the emotional aspect of Fate that so clearly defines Ahab.

So, does Moby Dick present an answer to the question of destiny? In a roundabout way, yes, it does: fate is unavoidable if you make it so; and if you make it so, then it is because you seek to renounce responsibility for your actions. It is unclear whether Melville himself held to this belief or whether he killed off all of the fatalist characters to prove that scapegoating is destructive behavior. Either way, the story ends with the majority believing that they are owned by Fate and cannot escape her spinning threads of life and death. Perhaps this is Melville’s take on agency: that we are predestined to live and die, but how we live is our choice.

Works Cited

Emerson, Everett. Book Review of “Moby Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled.” American Literature 50.3 (n.d.): 483-84. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Hayford, Harrison. “‘Loomings”: Yarns and Figures in the Fabric.” Moby Dick. 2nd ed. Norton Critical Edition, 657-69. Print.

Jacobs, Michael. “Have We Lost Fate?” Psychodynamic Practice 13.4 (2007): 385-400. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. 2nd ed. Norton Critical Edition. Print.

Wenke, John. “Ahab and ‘the Larger, Darker, Deeper Part.’” Moby Dick. 2nd ed. Norton Critical Edition, 702-11. Print.


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