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Symbolism and Foreshadowing in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

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“Do human beings have free will or free choice and if not who or what shapes human destiny?” (McSweeney 9) Herman Melville utilizes Father Mapple’s sermon in his nineteenth century epic novel Moby Dick, to illustrate the duality of mankind. Mortal man pursues his own singular interests with selfish intent; however, God has prevailing intentions, which are often beyond the comprehension of the individual. Melville expands and elaborates this theme throughout his epic work. The sermon is an omen for the dynamic action of the novel, which is revealed in Captain Ahab’s megalomaniacal pursuit of the white whale. No person, ship or force of nature can sway Captain Ahab from his selfish ambition. He is willing to risk his crew, career, and even his life in this pursuit. Melville, in the chapters The Pulpit and The Sermon, provides us with his core tenets and expands and clarifies these values through the events in the work.

Ishmael delineates the entrance and appearance of Father Mapple in detail. Critics believe that Father Mapple was crafted by fusing two New England ministers Melville may have encountered. His character is given certain details, which may lead readers to believe that they have some further purpose. “…Ishmael…is equally committed to the principle that natural facts are the symbols of spiritual facts…”(McSweeney 38) He is described as an old man, known as a former harpooner and is celebrated by all. Father Mapple enters the chapel and closes the doors from the harsh storm outside. The soaking wetness detailed in his coat, shoes and hat may be linked in symbolism of hope and fruition. Ishmael notices Mapple’s face is weathered, wrinkled and aged; yet he possesses a new youthful quality. Without intimately knowing him, Mapple’s unusual scars attest to an adventurous life spent at sea. At first glance Father Mapple appeared plain, pious, and serene, as the congregation carefully observed him remove his wet clothes and ascend the pulpit.

The pulpit is constructed in the form of the prow of a ship and it has no stairway. Rather there is a rope ladder, similar to those used to board a whaling ship, which Father Mapple employs to surmount the pulpit. “Ishmael notices that “by the act of physical isolation” Father Mapple “signifies his spiritual withdrawal for the time, from all outward worldly ties and connections…”: The ship also will be a type of withdrawal from the world of land.” (Roberts 22) This isolation is a central theme in the chapter and is often linked to a generational malaise, which haunted literary authors of Melville’s era. Moby Dick is often viewed as a novel centered on the issues of solitude, seclusion, and desolation, which is also relevant to contemporary writers. Melville employs the metaphor of the world is a ship and the pulpit is its prow. As Melville writes: “The pulpit is ever the earths foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world… Yes, the worlds a ship on its passage out and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.” The Pequod is symbolized as a microcosm, or small world. “…the isolating prow pulpit symbolizes the fundamental isolation of all men – a point underscored in the account of the waiting audience….”(Vincent 71) The setting emphasizes the sermon as Father Mapple’s act of isolation foreshadows the main theme of the novel.

In the chapter The Sermon, Father Mapple rises and invokes the congregation, “Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard-larboard gangway, to starboard! Midships! Midships!” With this command Father Mapple instructs the parishioners to assemble as a crew, and shun segregation. This supplication is in direct contrast to Father Mapple’s own action of isolation by his ascension to his pulpit. ” A large block of speech is directed to an audience that lacks full participatory status…the congregation at Father Mapples’ sermon….”(Bloom, Barnett 109) Father Mapple is portrayed as a reverent sage who conveys his message via a symbolic parable forewarning the crew of their destiny. The second paragraph in this chapter also illustrates Melville’s mastery of alliteration. “There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher.” The repetition of the “s” sound sets the scene for the sermon.

The Reverend rings out in Melville’s grand self-echoing style. Once again he sets the mood, and forces the reader to be attentive. Humble Father Mapple kneels in the pulpit, illustrating the message of his sermon, by praying for redemption, as Jonah did at the bottom of the sea in the belly of a whale. After completing the devout prayer Mapple breaks into a mariners hymn, which is a petition to the worshipers, and a plea for repentance. Melville believed “the primal truth” was represented by … elemental and undisciplined energy. We are therefore allowed only glimpses of Melville’s, God, as he is imagined in various guises throughout the book – e.g., the Old Testament God invoked by Father Mapple; the “great democratic God”….”(Bloom, Bender 100)

Righteous Father Mapple opens the sermon with a call to hear the word of the Lord. “And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”, but first speaks to the congregation in a way that seems like he is justifying the ways of God. The ensuing sermon offers a clear insight and functions as an interpretive key to the central thrust of the tale. “Melville undoubtedly intended that Father Mapple’s sermon should be the vehicle for the central theme of Moby-Dick”(Vincent 70) Mapple relates the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale using language and images cogent to the assembled seafaring congregation. Among these “Melville attempts…to establish the profoundest meaning of the concept of “self”. (Vincent 71) The lesson leads us to understand there are many selves that make up the one all encompassing “self”, and thus provides an additional connection between the sermon and the doomed voyage. The “self” is the ship, the Pequod, and the selves are the crew.

Detailed in the sermon are Jonah’s attempt to flee from God’s command by try to sail to Tarshish, and his self imposed entombment in his cabin. A conscience ridden Jonah attempts to rest in his berth, but his soul is tormented and he cannot sleep. One critic notes that “…this fear of God is the beginning of his deliverance”(Percival 60) Melville has incorporated this lesson to the reader, through Father Mapple’s sermon to the worshipers. Jonah learns salvation comes from faith rather than good deeds. “This lesson does indeed emphasize passive submission to the will of God, and it is equally true to say that it is a traditional Christian doctrine.”(McSweeney 86) The resonant biblical rhythms in Father Mapple’s words support Melville’s great use of diction and imagery. “If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists” (Roberts 23) The sermon as well as other speeches in Moby Dick are in lecture or instruction form.

This literary device is utilized to reveal Melville’s ordering of nature. Father Mapple’s presentation transposes the reader from the Chapel in New Bedford, to the spiritual realm of God. The duality of nature theme is exposed in numerous insights. Godly Father Mapple asserts “on the starboard hand of every woe, there is sure delight; and higher the top that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep.” The novel repeatedly demonstrates… “that each creature conceals a “remorseless fang” within a “velvet claw.” (Bloom, Novak 129) Upon completion of his message, Father Mapple communes with God, before discussing the lesson with the congregation. “The combination of deep natural reverence and equally deep Christian faith” give him “…powers of spiritual (or symbolic) perception.”(McSweeney 39)

Father Mapple conveys the lessons to be gleaned from his sermon to the worshiping flock. The first lesson is the greatest selfhood maybe won only by the annihilation of self. “Ishmaels admiration…for independence of the soul requires us to see a close parallel between him and Jonah who was divinely appointed to be a …speaker of true things.”(Gilmore, Smith 31) God requires his believers to speak the truth in the face of falsehood and bids us to obediently follow his commands. The second lesson is addressed to the assembled congregation and the pilots of the world. “This lesson also adumbrates a Christian doctrine – the Puritan conception of the leader who consciously acts as the instrument of God.”(McSweeney 87) Melville writes ” Woe to him who this world charms from Gospel duty.” Father Mapple insists the personal will must be subservient to the will of God and personal self must be submerged to the divine self. A Christian’s call to action is repentance, and Mapple contends a believer’s greatest reward is the reward of service to God, rather than the secular world. “Every anointed prophet of the lord will become an outcast driven forth for the crime of uttering the truth.”(Gilmore, Smith 32)

The story of Jonah provides symbolism for Captain Ahab. Ahab’s hubris is the antithesis of Jonah’s submission. “…Jonah’s fuge,(sic) is repeated in the flight of Ahab’s.”(Vincent 72) The characters are ironically contrasted. Jonah seeks repentance, whereas Ahab is self -possessed. Ahab is destroyed by the white whale because of his arrogance, whereas Jonah is saved by a whale after his humble prayer of repentance. Jonah salvation is the result of his surrendering of his “self”, whereas Ahab refused to yield to any man, beast, or even to God. . “…the Moby-Dick universe in which the Ahab-world is, by the necessity of life-or the declaration of independence…” (Bloom, Olson 30) Submission of our will to God is difficult for mortals as we are called to forgive; yet forgiveness was totally alien to hard hearted Ahab. “Consequently, we see later that Ahab is the type who will assert his own nature above all other things, ultimately causing his downfall.” (Roberts 23) Ahab’s relentless pursue of the white whale cost him his command, his crew and eventually his life. Ishmael alone survives by clinging to Queequeg’s coffin, and lives to tell the universal tale of good verses evil.

In conclusion Father Mapple’s sermon illustrates the duality of man and provides a parable for Captain Ahab’s command of the Pequod’s tragic voyage. Upon leaving the church Ishmael does not recall Father Mapple, nor the sermon, because he is in an “in-out” world of romantics, not in the “up-down” world of Christians. The main message in these chapters is that “…to be reborn one must forget self in the service of God- thus, and only thus, may happiness (delight) be found, the truest selfhood attained.” (Vincent 74)

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