by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick Fate and Free Will Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph)
Conversation turning upon whales, the Commodore was pleased to be sceptical touching the amazing strength ascribed to them by the professional gentlemen present. He peremptorily denied for example, that any whale could so smite his stout sloop-of-war as to cause her to leak so much as a thimbleful. Very good; but there is more coming. Some weeks after, the Commodore set sail in this impregnable craft for Valparaiso. But he was stopped on the way by a portly sperm whale, that begged a few moments’ confidential business with him. That business consisted in fetching the Commodore’s craft such a thwack, that with all his pumps going he made straight for the nearest port to heave down and repair. I am not superstitious, but I consider the Commodore’s interview with that whale as providential. Was not Saul of Tarsus converted from unbelief by a similar fright? I tell you, the sperm whale will stand no nonsense. (45.13)
Apart from the delicious irony of this little anecdote, we’ve learned an important thing: ship commanders who don’t respect the power of whales will get their ships destroyed by angry whales. It’s too bad nobody in the novel figures that out this early, or they could save themselves a lot of hassle.
I was the attendant or page of Queequeg, while busy at the mat. As I kept passing and repassing the filling or woof of marline between the long yarns of the warp, using my own hand for the shuttle, and as Queequeg, standing sideways, ever and anon slid his heavy oaken sword between the threads, and idly looking off upon the water, carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn: I say so strange a dreaminess did there then reign all over the ship and all over the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the Fates. There lay the fixed threads of the warp subject to but one single, ever returning, unchanging vibration, and that vibration merely enough to admit of the crosswise interblending of other threads with its own. This warp seemed necessity; and here, thought I, with my own hand I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads. Meantime, Queequeg’s impulsive, indifferent sword, sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly, as the case might be; and by this difference in the concluding blow producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric; this savage’s sword, thought I, which thus finally shapes and fashions both warp and woof; this easy, indifferent sword must be chance – aye, chance, free will, and necessity – nowise incompatible – all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course – its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events. (47.2)
In this elaborate weaving metaphor, Melville tries to reconcile all the different aspects of fate, chance, and free will – like a theologian explaining how men can have free will even though God knows what’s going to happen. It sounds pretty good to us, but it’s awfully complicated, and we’re not sure it really solves the problem of whether or not the Pequod is fated for destruction.
[T]he graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play – this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side. (60.9)
We’re with Ishmael for the beginning of this metaphor: even though whalemen are literally sitting among lines that could strangle them, everyone is symbolically in the middle of the world’s snares. But the logic falls apart when we realize that it’s obviously a lot more dangerous to be in a whaleboat than sitting by the fire at home, and that some whale-lines really should inspire more terror than others. After all, if we accept that things are fated, that still makes some fates way worse than others.