Study Guide

Moby-Dick Religion

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 7: The Chapel

But somehow I grew merry again. Delightful inducements to embark, fine chance for promotion, it seems – aye, a stove boat will make me an immortal by brevet. Yes, there is death in this business of whaling – a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (7.7)

Very early in Moby-Dick, Ishmael calls our attention to two very different kinds of peril: dangers to the body and dangers to the soul. He thinks that risking his life on a whaling voyage is okay because even if something destroys his ship, it can’t destroy his immortal soul. Seems like we’re being set up here for someone or something else in the novel to say, "Oh yeah? That’s what you think."

Chapter 9: The Sermon
Father Mapple

"But WHAT is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God – never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed – which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do – remember that – and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists." (9.6)

Father Mapple reminds the reader of a seldom-remembered fact about the Biblical prophet Jonah. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale not just for his sins, but specifically because he refused to do God’s bidding. Father Mapple reminds us that obeying God isn’t just difficult; sometimes it will actually rub us the wrong way. We’ll have to be on the lookout in this novel for someone who chooses to obey himself instead of God...

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth – pagans and all included – can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? – to do the will of God – that is worship. And what is the will of God? – to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me – that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. (10.9)

It’s hard to say whether Ishmael’s reasoning here is laughable or laudable. His open-mindedness is great, but he reasons himself around to doing something that’s specifically prohibited in his religion. And he does it in just a paragraph or so. This may be taking religious tolerance to an absurd extreme— but it might also be an example of how every religion gets the job done in the end.

Chapter 17: The Ramadan

I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan; – but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. (17.1-2)

Here, Ishmael’s attitude toward religious observances once again presents a problem. On the one hand, Ishmael seems aware of the limitations of all types of fanaticism when he says "we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head."

He’s also strikingly modern when he suggests that all religions should be respected. And yet, the fact that he still refers to "pagans and what not" as "half-crazy" shows that he can’t quite kick his prejudices. The fact that he’s as willing to respect the beliefs of ants as he is of other people is a little bit insulting to other people.

After all, I do not think that my remarks about religion made much impression upon Queequeg. Because, in the first place, he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view; and, in the second place, he did not more than one third understand me, couch my ideas simply as I would; and, finally, he no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety. (17.29)

Turning the missionary dynamic around and making the pagan tribesman into the one frustrated because the other guy doesn’t understand his religious customs makes us see proselytizing in a whole new way.

Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person’s religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don’t believe it also. But when a man’s religion becomes really frantic; when it is a positive torment to him; and, in fine, makes this earth of ours an uncomfortable inn to lodge in; then I think it high time to take that individual aside and argue the point with him. (17.25)

Ishmael’s willing to go along with any reasonable behavior based on a faith—as long as it doesn’t become inconvenient or uncomfortable. Faithful people probably think he’s missing the point.

Chapter 18: His Mark

"I don’t know anything about Deacon Deuteronomy or his meeting," said I; "all I know is, that Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational Church. He is a deacon himself, Queequeg is."

"Young man," said Bildad sternly, "thou art skylarking with me – explain thyself, thou young Hittite. What church dost thee mean? answer me."

Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied, "I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in THAT we all join hands." (18.10-12)

Partly, this quote is just funny, because Ishmael is showing how he can use dubious logic in order to get around Captain Bildad’s religious scruples. But there’s also a little home truth here: to Ishmael, the bond of our common humanity is more important than going to exactly the same place together one day a week.

Chapter 26: Knights and Squires

That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality! (26.5)

Although Ishmael is often sarcastic or impious about religion, he also has moments in which he seems to feel the transcendent power of God. At this moment, he taps into that feeling of divinity in order to explain that tragedy and democracy aren’t incompatible—an important point for an American author of a tragic novel!

Chapter 41: Moby Dick

[I]t cannot be much matter of surprise that some whalemen should go still further in their superstitions; declaring Moby Dick not only ubiquitous, but immortal (for immortality is but ubiquity in time); that though groves of spears should be planted in his flanks, he would still swim away unharmed; or if indeed he should ever be made to spout thick blood, such a sight would be but a ghastly deception; for again in unensanguined billows hundreds of leagues away, his unsullied jet would once more be seen. (41.13)

Even though the description of Moby Dick as immortal and omnipresent is given as a summary of different sailors’ superstitions, it highlights how easy it can be to read the White Whale as an allegorical stand-in for God.

Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin
Captain Ahab

Ahab seized a loaded musket from the rack (forming part of most South-Sea-men’s cabin furniture), and pointing it towards Starbuck, exclaimed: "There is one God that is Lord over the earth, and one Captain that is lord over the Pequod. – On deck!" (109.15)

As the novel moves toward its fateful conclusion, Ahab finally says the very thing that we (and Starbuck) have been worried about: that he’s setting himself up in opposition to God. It’s too bad Ahab wasn’t there to hear Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah and how obeying God means disobeying yourself.

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