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by Herman Melville

Moby-Dick Theme of Religion

Moby-Dick was way ahead of its time with respect to its views on religion. The novel shows equal respect for a wide variety of religious traditions and, at the same time, not-so-gently mocks the foolishness of religious extremism.

In this novel, tribal pagans and New England Christians seem pretty similar—and frequently the pagans seem more ethical than some of the Christians around them. In contrast to both this complexly egalitarian attitude toward religiosity and the heavy satire that accompanies some of the religious commentary, the novel also uses a great deal of Biblical symbolism, especially in the names and allegorical roles of characters.

Questions About Religion

  1. How does putting the reader in a position to sympathize with Queequeg allow Melville to create a new perspective on Christian beliefs?
  2. Why does Moby-Dick use so many Biblical references (e.g., Ishmael, Ahab, Job, and Jonah)? What effect to these allusions have on the tone of the novel?
  3. It’s interesting that all of these character names listed above are names from the Hebrew Bible, a.k.a. the Old Testament—why aren’t any of them New Testament references?
  4. How do the religious themes in Moby-Dick affect our understanding of Ahab’s desire for vengeance? (Hint: to whom does vengeance belong in the Bible? See Romans 12:19.)

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Moby-Dick explodes and undercuts all types of religious faiths, showing that pragmatism, moderation, and affection are the only true moral principles—and that unhealthy obsession is the greatest sin.

Even though Moby-Dick mocks Christian hypocrisy, its reliance on Biblical references demonstrates an underlying religious orthodoxy.

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