As promised, here are some questions that will hopefully be useful when thinking about Moby Dick critically for a comprehensive exam. Most of these questions were given to my 19th Century American Literature class by our professor, and lead to some interesting discussions regarding interpretation (which brings us back to narration issues), the issue of naming the ship “Pequod,” and of course, biblical references. Enjoy!
1. How soon does the subject of interpretation itself become of central concern in this novel?
Pretty much immediately. “Call me Ishmael” could mean a whole host of things. It could be him taking immediate control of the interaction with the hearer of his story and he wishes to establish his own ambiguity. It also could be completely casual. Ishmael could have just picked a name that sounded good to him at that moment. Of course, as an English major I cannot support that last theory simply on the grounds that the Ishmael in the Bible was the illegitimate son Abraham had with his slave Hagar when his wife could not have kids, and Ahab was king that God most hated.
Interpretation comes again very soon after when Ishmael assumes that Queequeg will be a white person, even after he learns that he is out selling shrunken heads. Apparently at the time, it was mostly white people who were peddling heads.
2. What do you think that Ishmael means by “the ungraspable phantom of life?” Why does it seem to be dangerous?
“And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (5)
First, it is not necessarily bad to not be able to grasp it. Second, it can be good and not at all dangerous if we don’t actually grasp it. It may be something to strive for but we never can reach, and there is a reason we never reach it. However, to not even try because of the knowledge that it cannot be reached, would be like not living.
Narcissus decides he must have it and ends up drowning. Interestingly enough, Ahab’s fate is extremely similar. He is tormented by his own “ungraspable phantom” and also ends up drowning when he makes that final reach. This is what makes it so incredibly dangerous.
3. How may the lessons in “The Sermon” be applied to Ahab?
The preacher in “The Sermon” chapter tells the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. Jonah received a message from God to go to Ninevah and tell them to turn from their evil ways. Instead of doing what God said, Jonah ran in the opposite direction and is consequently swallowed whole by a whale (or giant fish, commonly believed to be a whale). Jonah then goes back to Ninevah, preaches God’s word, and because the Ninevites do repent and turn from their evil ways, God has mercy on them.
The main lesson (though not the only one) is that we must fear and obey God. He is all powerful and it is the height of arrogance not to trust what he has for us.
Moby Dick already ate Ahab’s leg once. Maybe it is not in God’s plan for Ahab to go after this whale. Of course, Ahab does go after Moby Dick, and of course, the whale kills him. Moby Dick even bites off Ahab’s first fake leg before finally killing him. Ahab has one single focus and no one, not even God, is going to divert him from it as long as he is alive.
4. Why do you think that Melville names the ship the Pequod?
Naming the ship the Pequod foretells almost unavoidable doom. The Pequot were an Algonquian-speaking tribe of Native Americans who inhabited New England, but were completely obliterated during the Pequot War. There were survivors of that war, but they were basically forced to never mention their former tribe again and join new ones. Melville naming the boat Pequod highlights the future fate of the ship and its crew.
5. What is the significance of the three mates and their pairing with the three ethnically diverse harpooners?
The Native Americans are considered savages on one hand, but they are the ones who first started whaling, until the Anglos and the Quakers took over and almost enslaved the Native Americans into servitude.
Even though the harpooners have all of the skill, the mates in charge are white. Starbuck is in charge of the first boat with Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas. The second boat is lead by Stubb, who chooses Tashtego, a Native American, to be his harpooner. And lastly, the third boat is lead by Flask who chooses Daggoo, a massive African.
Another interesting thing about the harpooners all being men of color is that they each represent a people group that has somehow been exploited or enslaved by white men. The Native Americans were almost wiped out by disease, war, and relocation. The Africans were brought over to be slaves on plantations, as were the people in the South Seas.
What drives the point home even more is the fact that these harpooners have most of the skill and the muscle, but very little power.
These questions helped me go deeper into some of the novels core issues and get beyond the surface issue of the whale chase and Ahab’s insanity (although those are both still very important). And while I am confident enough in these answers to put them in this blog before you, I am going to put out a disclaimer that I could be mistaken in some of the details and may have missed some other very important points that would also be helpful.
After next semester’s M.A. Exam is concluded, hopefully I will be able to see some of the questions that were on the exam. If I am, I will definitely post as many as I am allowed and explore those as well.
Next week: Bleak House.