Themes in Moby-Dick
Never Trust Signs of Destiny
There are many references to destiny, or fate, throughout Moby-Dick. The illumination of the Pequod during the electrical storm, near the novel's end, appears to Ahab to be a sign that his dreams of catching the great white whale will finally be realized. When the sailor falls from the topmast right after the storm, though, the sailors look at this as a sign that the journey will be fatal, no matter what anyone does. This is why so few of the men will stand up to Ahab and refuse to chase the whale -- Starbuck is the only notable exception.
In Chapter 99, Ishmael tells the reader about the various ways that the sailors have interpreted the gold doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast, as a reward for the first one to spot Moby-Dick. The vast differences among the different interpretations show the tendency that people have to come up with the explanation most convenient or desirable for them when encountered with situations like this.
Writing Prompt: If you had to describe your own destiny in life right now, how would you describe it? In other words, what do you think will be in your obituary -- or on your tombstone?
Anti-Transcendentalism: The Limits of Humanity
Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; in fact, he even dedicates the novel of the great white whale to Hawthorne, because he loved the book so much. Both authors had a strong reaction to the Transcendentalist movement led by such writers as Henry David Thoreau, who thought that people would ultimately do good, if restrictions were taken away from them. Hawthorne takes a big swipe at that notion in the opening of The Scarlet Letter, where he writes that the first two things a new town needs to build are a graveyard and a jail, because the only two certainties in life are death and evil.
If you look at the outcome of Moby-Dick, it is clear that Melville harbors similar notions of the "possibilities" inherent in each of us. Despite Father Mapple's rousing sermon, and despite Starbuck's common-sense urging for Ahab to give up the fatal quest for the whale, Ahab never gives in. As a result, his life has a brutal end that was completely unnecessary. Melville's view is that, given ultimate freedom, people will ultimately do wrong. There may be bright moments, but the ultimate trend will be downward.
Writing Prompt: What is the purpose of laws in a society? If there were suddenly no laws, what do you think would happen in your own niche within society?