At various times in college, I attempted to read Moby Dick—I failed every time. My natural inclination was toward poetry, and Moby Dick was a novel…a long novel…with long chapters detailing the specifics of whaling. I couldn’t get through it.
But then, as I was researching Jonah for my master’s thesis, I decided to give it another go. Yes, I know, getting “side-tracked” reading a novel like Moby Dick when one is in the middle of writing a thesis normally isn’t a smart thing to do. In my case, though, it fed my interest in Jonah even more. Not only that, but by the time I got through Moby Dick, I realized just what a work of genius it was. If someone hasn’t done it already, someone should write a book about all the Old Testament allusions throughout the book. What Melville did was a thing of beauty.
As a side note, I am fully intending to go out and watch Ron Howard’s new movie, In the Heart of the Sea, which is supposedly about the real events that inspired Melville’s work. In any case, let’s get to my analysis of the Jonah themes in Moby Dick.
In his highly complex and deeply profound novel, Herman Melville ingeniously weaves together countless biblical allusions and themes. In fact, Yvonne Sherwood considers Moby Dick to be “the most brilliant response to the book of Jonah.” These few posts cannot fully analyze everything that Melville does in his novel, but hopefully they can give a general overview of the overall biblical structure of Melville’s novel.
Melville combines three key biblical themes that run throughout his novel: (1) the theme of punishment and repentance in Jonah; (2) the theme of the unfathomable mystery of God’s sovereignty when it comes to the question of evil and misfortune in Job; and (3) the theme of the destructive and satanic nature of pride, as seen in various biblical texts, such as Genesis 3 and Isaiah 14. Melville’s novel is not simply “Jonah retold.” The Jonah story is adapted, along with these other two major themes, into an altogether new story that explores some of the most profound human questions about life.
Father Mapple’s Sermon
Anyone who reads Moby Dick with a general knowledge of the Bible will pick up on a biblical reference or allusion on virtually every page. Consider the following: the narrator’s name is Ishmael; then there is Captain Ahab; and there’s Moby Dick, the white whale, who echoes Leviathan of ancient Near Eastern mythology. There’s a ship named The Jeroboam that is stricken with an epidemic, and that has on board a crazy man who calls himself Gabriel; he is the one who warns Ahab of death if he hunts for Moby Dick. Then there is the ship The Rachael, whose captain is searching for his son who was lost at sea while they were pursuing Moby Dick. And of course there is the crazy prophet Elijah, who warns Ishmael about sailing with Ahab. These examples only scratch the surface. We will look at Ahab and Moby Dick in later posts, but in this post we will look at Father Mapple’s sermon which was delivered in the Whaleman’s chapel, shortly before Ishmael and his shipmates set sail with Captain Ahab.
Father Mapple’s sermon is essential to the entire novel, in that it sets out the basic dilemma and theme of the entire story. And, not surprisingly in a novel that is all about one man’s obsession with pursing a white whale of mythological proportions on the high seas, Father Mapple’s sermon is on the story of Jonah. Everything about the service, from the opening prayer, to the hymn, to the sermon itself, it intimately tied to the story of Jonah. First of all, Ishmael tells us that the opening prayer of Father Mapple was “so deeply devout, that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the seas.” This no doubt brings to mind Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.
Secondly, the hymn that the congregation sings is a complete parallel to Jonah’s prayer in the whale:
The ribs and terrors in the whale
Arched over me in dismal gloom,
While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
And lift me deepening down to doom.
I saw the opening maw of hell,
With endless pains and sorrows there;
Which none but they that feel can tell—
Oh, I was plunging to despair.
In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints—
No more the whale did me confine.
With speed he flew to my relief,
As on a radiant dolphin borne;
Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone
The face of my Deliverer God.
Thirdly, there is Father Mapple’s sermon itself. The sermon’s theme is simply this: “If we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God exists.” Father Mapple thus holds Jonah up as an example. The story is quite obvious: God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh, but Jonah did not want to go, and thus he obeyed his own will, and thus disobeyed the will of God. Father Mapple proceeds to paint Jonah as a guilt-ridden fugitive from God who has a self-condemning look about him, as he buys his way onto a ship in his attempt to flee. At this point in the sermon, Father Mapple states, “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Not only does this statement relate to his portrayal of Jonah, but it will also relate to two major characters in the novel, which will be discussed later.
The story of Jonah that Father Mapple tells is one known to all: once at sea, God sends a great storm, and Jonah is thrown overboard into the sea, in order to quiet the storm. At that point, Jonah prays to God. Father Mapple’s understanding of Jonah’s prayer, though, does not carry with it the scholarly suspicion of today’s academics. After all, there is a tremendous amount of irony and suspicion surrounding Jonah’s prayer. Does he ever truly repent? Is his prayer simply full of pious words with no real conviction behind them? After all, Jonah’s actions after this supposed change of heart simply do not fit with what we would normally call “repentance.” Father Mapple, though, sees Jonah’s prayer in a different light. Rather, he describes it this way:
“For as sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And there, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.”
Like modern scholars, Father Mapple does indeed notice the lack of typical “repentant language” in Jonah’s prayer. His interpretation of that is decidedly different. He states that Jonah is thankful for, and accepting of, God’s just punishment. Since we do not see Jonah beg for deliverance, Father Mapple suggests that is the sign that Jonah has accepted God’s punishment. This is true repentance. Therefore, Jonah is set up as a model for repentance. Since Jonah “took his punishment like a man” so to speak, God gave Jonah another chance to do what He originally commanded—go to Nineveh, and, as Father Mapple states, “to preach Truth in the face of Falsehood!”
One might note that Father Mapple does not grapple with the problem that Jonah resorts to his old self once God spares Nineveh. Yet his sermon is not a thesis, and Melville’s novel is not an academic essay. It is a work of literature that takes part of the Jonah story and artistically refashions it within his own literary work in order to set up his own themes and theological points.
The Various Ships in the Novel
The theological theme set out in Father Mapple’s sermon is played out within the entire novel, most notably in antithesis with Captain Ahab, but also with the other captains Ahab meets in the course of his voyage. Ahab, who will be discussed in more detail later, is the exact opposite of Jonah, the model repentant. Jonah, after having been swallowed by the great fish, accepts his punishment, and then ends up doing God’s will once God spares him. Ahab though, is the exact opposite. He had lost his leg in a previous encounter with Moby Dick, and has now made it his life’s obsession to take revenge on the white whale that took his leg. In fact, he illegally changes the mission of the ship of which he is captain, The Pequod. Instead of going out whaling, and amassing whale oil, as the owners of The Pequod expect, Ahab uses the ship for his own vengeful purposes.
Unlike Jonah, Ahab, in effect, did not learn his lesson the first time. All throughout the novel we meet other captains who came across Moby Dick’s path, and who learned not to pursue him. The captain of The Jeroboam lost a man while pursuing Moby Dick, and now the ship has an epidemic on board, as if suffering punishment from pursing Moby Dick. Furthermore, there is a crazy Shaker prophet named Gabriel on board who warned the captain about pursuing Moby Dick, and who claimed that Moby Dick was God incarnate. He warns Ahab about Moby Dick, and urges Ahab to think about the man on their ship who was lost to Moby Dick: “Think of the blasphemer—dead, and down there!—beware of the blasphemer’s end!” Yet when Ahab persists on pursuing him, Gabriel points to the sea, and says to Ahab “Thou art soon going that way!” The message is clear: to pursue Moby Dick is to go against God himself. To disregard the omens and warnings is to disobey God; and to disobey God means death.
In addition to The Jeroboam, there is also the captain of The Samuel Enderby, who lost his arm to Moby Dick. When Ahab asks if he continued to pursue Moby Dick, the captain says, “Didn’t want to try to: ain’t one limb enough? What should I do without this other arm? And I’m thinking Moby Dick doesn’t bit so much as he swallows.” The captain of The Samuel Enderby had learned not to pursue Moby Dick; and when he sees that Ahab is bent on doing so, despite having lost his own leg, the captain suspects that Ahab is indeed crazy.
There are other ships that contrast with Ahab: The captain of The Bachelor, a ship returning home from a successful whaling voyage, states he had never seen the white whale: “Only heard of him; but I don’t believe in him at all.” Here is a ship whose purpose was to do what all whaling ships were supposed to do, and thus never pursued, or was pursued by, Moby Dick. Then there is the captain of The Rachel, who lost his son while he was pursuing Moby Dick. This man, because of the loss of his son, has given up pursuing Moby Dick.
Finally there is the crew of The Delight, who lost five men to Moby Dick. When The Pequod meets them, they are in the middle of burying a man at sea. Despite all these warnings though, Ahab persists in his mad pursuit of the white whale. Ahab only obeys his own mad thirst for revenge, and thus disobeys all the signs to relent, and to accept his punishment of one lost leg. Because of his unrepentant spirit, Ahab eventually is killed by Moby Dick, and even drags his entire crew down with him. What we see therefore by looking at the various whaling ships in the novel are examples that illustrate the theme of Father Mapple’s Jonah-inspired sermon.
 Sherwood, “Cross-currents,” 74.
 Herman Melville, Moby Dick. (New York: Bantam Books), 46.
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