Study Guide

Moby-Dick Fate and Free Will

By Herman Melville

Fate and Free Will

Chapter 1: Loomings

[D]oubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:


Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces – though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. (1.11-12)

So here’s what Ishmael claims: I went on my voyage on the Pequod because it was fate. And because I was interested in whales. But mostly because it was fate. And because I chose to find out more about whaling. Hmm, contradict yourself much there, Ish?

Chapter 38: Dusk

My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it. Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut. Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries; – aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office, – to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it. Yet is there hope. Time and tide flow wide. The hated whale has the round watery world to swim in, as the small gold-fish has its glassy globe. His heaven-insulting purpose, God may wedge aside. (38.1)

Very early in the novel, Starbuck realizes—or decides—that it will be his fate to help Ahab with his sacrilegious revenge quest, even though he knows it’s wrong. It’s possible that he has a flash vision of his future, in which he discovers what his role in this story is going to be. But it’s also possible that, at this moment, he abdicates all responsibility for his actions and hides behind "Destiny."

Chapter 39: First Night-Watch

Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Hem! clear my throat! – I’ve been thinking over it ever since, and that ha, ha’s the final consequence. Why so? Because a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always left – that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestinated. [. . .] Well, Stubb, wise Stubb – that’s my title – well, Stubb, what of it, Stubb? Here’s a carcase. I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing. (39.1)

Stubb abdicates responsibility for the fate of the Pequod even more obviously than Starbuck does. What will be will be, thinks Stubb... so I might as well enjoy myself. What a cop-out!

Chapter 45: The Affidavit

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.

Chapter 47: The Mat-Maker

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.

Chapter 60: The Line

[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.

Chapter 72: The Monkey-rope

So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. Therefore, I saw that here was a sort of interregnum in Providence; for its even-handed equity never could have sanctioned so gross an injustice. And yet still further pondering ...I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you nap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would, sometimes he jerked it so, that I came very near sliding overboard. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had the management of one end of it. (72.4)

In this passage, we begin to understand that the complex webs of fate aren’t just random lines, the interconnections between different people. You can control your own fate to the extent that you can move your end of the line, but because you’re interdependent on others, they can affect you in the same way, and that can feel like predestination... or at least something out of your control.

Chapter 102: A Bower in the Arsacides

Through the lacings of the leaves, the great sun seemed a flying shuttle weaving the unwearied verdure. Oh, busy weaver! unseen weaver! – pause! – one word! – whither flows the fabric? what palace may it deck? wherefore all these ceaseless toilings? Speak, weaver! – stay thy hand! – but one single word with thee! Nay – the shuttle flies – the figures float from forth the loom; the freshet-rushing carpet for ever slides away. The weaver-god, he weaves; and by that weaving is he deafened, that he hears no mortal voice; and by that humming, we, too, who look on the loom are deafened; and only when we escape it shall we hear the thousand voices that speak through it. For even so it is in all material factories. The spoken words that are inaudible among the flying spindles; those same words are plainly heard without the walls, bursting from the opened casements. Thereby have villainies been detected. Ah, mortal! then, be heedful; for so, in all this din of the great world’s loom, thy subtlest thinkings may be overheard afar. (102.8)

It’s fascinating that the weaving of the world’s fate by God seems to preclude the possibility of actually hearing words, listening to people around you speak, or being able to talk to God himself. The process of working out where the world is going prevents anyone from actually communicating while it’s happening.

Chapter 132: The Symphony
Captain Ahab

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. (132.17)

Even Captain Ahab himself doesn’t really understand what’s driving him. Is he pressed onward by his own desires? By God’s decisions? After all, if you believe in God, then isn’t God responsible, directly or indirectly, for everything everyone does? And, if so, does that mean nobody is responsible for their own actions? Surely not. But Ahab doesn’t seem to be trying to claim that he isn’t responsible for what he does—he seems scared that he might not be.

Chapter 134: The Chase – Second Day
Captain Ahab

Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine. (134.43)

In the previous passage, the question "Is Ahab, Ahab?" implied that the presence of a divinely ordained destiny or fate would mean that Ahab isn’t Ahab—that he’s just an extension of God’s will. But in this passage, a complete reliance on Fate goes hand-in-hand with the assertion that "Ahab is for ever Ahab." So the real question is, are we more ourselves when we behave the way we’ve been programmed to by fate, or when we defy destiny and act in unusual ways?