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Fate vs. Free Will-Round One

Marina Gallo's picture

Marina Gallo

Emerging Genres

Professor Dalke

Paper One

February 23,2008



                                                Fatevs. Free Will-Round One



Fate is something that is questionable in its existence. Some people choose to believe in it, while others ignore the possibility that it rules their lives. Fate is often thought of as that which is predetermined. In “Moby Dick” fate is a common theme that threads throughout the novel. When considering what type of novel this is, fate plays a part as well. Melville can be thought of as an emergence writer because he tries out new things without a purpose. Adversely he makes his two main characters unlike himself. Ahab seems to be a non-narrative foundationalist wanting only to arrive at an end. Ishmael could be either a non-narrative foundationalist or an emergence storyteller. Though Melville is writing using the emergence method, he includes the idea of fate in his story, which shows that it still plays a large part in his thinking and the development of the story.

Melville is a confusing writer. His topics often jump around and one is never quite sure what he is trying to convey to the reader. Despite the fact that Melville’s novel is bewildering at times, fate is an idea and theme that Melville does not use to confuse the reader. This is interesting because he is using emergence as his way of writing. Fate suggests there is some overall purpose or destiny, while emergence suggests there is no purpose. 

The reader first sees the idea of fate appears in the form of Ishmael’s ideas about what brought him to sea to go whaling. He believes the free will of man exists, but is influenced by unseen forces. At first Ishmael believes that he only wished to see the magnificence of whales and the world, but after everything that has happened to him, he now believes the decision was already made for him by a greater force. This was somewhat of a last choice for Ishmael. He appeared ready to commit suicide, but by choosing whaling or having whaling chosen for him, Ishmael is bringing himself to death in another manner. Either way death is upon him, showing the reading that fate has taken control of Ishmael’s life. Even before Ishmael gets to the ship he sees Bulkington in the Spouter-Inn. Although he doesn't realize it, Bulkington will end up on the Peqoud with him; already he is being ensnared in the fate of the ship he hasn't even seen yet. This suggests that not only is Ishmael being led by destiny, but so are the lives of the men who will board the the Pequod.  This display of lack of knowledge about the fate leading everyone along in life reminds the reader of Melville because he is also being led along by fate, yet he tries to write using an emergence method. By writing with an emergence style, yet including so much about destiny, Melville is displaying his true belief that fate exists. Even he cannot escape it in his writing.

Religion is a large part of the novel and along with the many allusions to Christianity come suggestions about fate. Father Mapple’s sermon is one enormous allusion to the fate in everyone’s life. Father Mapple discusses man's inability to escape Fate or defy God's will. In his example Father Mapple shows how Jonah tries to escape his fate, but is captured by a whale. His sermon is related to whaling and the idea of a whale as the punishing force of God.  Because Christianity is used many times throughout the novel, the theme of destiny is brought again and again to the reader’s attention.

What fate the men on the ship are being led to becomes clear early in the novel. Before he even leaves town, Ishmael is imparted with symbols of death and disaster wherever he goes. Between the gallows painted on the sign of the inn in Nantucket, and the name Peter Coffin, to Ishmael it already looks as if bad signs are everywhere. Either the fate of the Peqoud has already been decided, or Ishmael is just seeing things because he is anxious to embark on his journey. Maybe Ishmael even wants to see death, because he is dealing with a depressing part of his life and even though he sees these signals of death, nothing stops Ishmael from continuing on his whaling journey.

Fate is often intertwined with the idea of one’s own free will. Melville frequently depicts a duel theme of free will and fate interacting through Ishmael and Queequeg. Queequeg is shown as passive, allowing Ishmael to make decisions for both men. This makes Ishmael seem as if he is controlling Queequeg’s destiny, where in reality neither men are controlling their destinies. An example of Ishmael acting as Queequeg’s controller of destiny is when Queequeg forces Ishmael to choose the ship on which they will sail. When Ishmael goes to the docks, he picks the Peqoud haphazardly, having rejected two other ships for no other reason than their names. He somehow feels the Peqoud is the right ship. This feeling of fate is showing its face in the lives of both men.

In addition to Ishmael, Captain Ahab is also driven by a feeling of ultimate destiny.  Ahab is driven by something he cannot understand or define and he decides to call it his fate. Ahab is on a quest to avenge Moby Dick because the whale took his leg. It often seems as if Ahab is driven to stand up to the gods and his perceived injustice, and by doing so, he is creating his fate. Yet, one of the largest questions presented by the Melville in the novel is whether or not Ahab is doomed from the start to find Moby Dick and be destroyed by him, or if he could have chosen to go free at any point. Many opportunities are provided for Ahab to turn back, from the pleas of the Rachel, to Starbuck's desperate reasoning. Along with these chances, there is a hint of doom in the air from the very start. The prophecies of Elijah and the many sinister omens that go unheeded, makes Ahab's journey seem inevitable. He clearly believes in fate because his journey is about him being pulled by a force beyond his control.

            The way fate and free will are intertwined is again represented in the chapter where Queequeg weaves a mat, which starts Ishmael thinking. He considers how free will determines the fate to which we are destined, just like each weave of the mat fits with those around it. Ahab dooms himself by his choice to hunt Moby Dick; he is faced with ill omens throughout the novel, but pays them no mind, driven by a force that is evidently out of his control. This also applies to Ishmael because he is also faced with many bad omens, yet chooses to ignore them. This shows that both men realize that though they have a free will that allows them to make decisions in life, both men are led by a greater force.

            Melville is a creative writer in the sense that he adds humor and deep ideas to his writings. It is valid to say that his points are hard to understand or even recognize at times, but the idea of fate is very clear.  He believes that fate and free will interact, but fate takes the upper hand in life. Most people have multiple ideas about life and death and this novel shows the reader that Melville is only human. His ideas are just as mixed up as the rest of the population. He is fighting to find an answer about how fate and free will interact. He seems to have done that well and has shown the reader that there is in fact an interaction between the two things. This gives the reader insight into what kind of writer Melville is. Melville uses the emergence style of writing to prove his theories and bring the world new ideas, even though he uses an unusual and little seen style of writing. Though he jumps around in the novel, Melville makes quite a statement about life and death. 


Mitchell Carson's picture


I only have a moment, so I will use it to ask you a question Anne (understanding full-well that your response was written years ago):

There must be a difference between chance and freewill. At one point in your response you say that we make our own fates but this is only after saying that randomness and contingency make up the "complex play that is life." I must ask you then, does Ishmael/Melville believe that we make our own fates, or does he believe that this world is driven by chance? And how do we distinguish chance from fate anyway?

Anne Dalke's picture

two terms, two judgments?

I think "chance" and "fate" are two different terms used to describe the unpredictability of life; they are two different judgements, if you will, on what happens. If we call it "chance," we see what happens as unmotivated, random (and perhaps we enjoy the sense of open possibility here?). If we call it "fate," we think that it is inevitable (and are perhaps comforted by the sense that there is a pattern, even if we can't predict it ahead of time?).

Lots more along this vein @ /exchange/evolsys/chance10

Anne Dalke's picture

Round Two

You are choosing to wrestle with THE question of Moby-Dick: whether our lives are fated or the result of randomness, whether we have the freedom to shape and order them, or are the victims of some force stronger than ourselves and our will. You end up with the assertion that Melville believes that “fate takes the upper hand in life.” I’m not so sure; I’d say, rather, that Melville puts all these different possibilities into play in his novel, that it’s not always clear what he thinks about the answers, but…if I had to say something clarifying? I’d quote the passage from Chapter 47, “The Mat-Maker”:

…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…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…this easy, indifferent sword must be chance - aye, chance, free will, and necessity - no wise incompatible - all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course…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.

“Chance has the last featuring blow” –sounds to me, there, that, in the complex play that is life, Ishmael is coming down on the side of randomness and contingency.

The other problem (or pleasure, depending on your attitude toward these things!) with Melville is his use of humor. As Jessy said in one of her posts, "Humor makes it possible to make serveral statements at once." So when Ishmael says, in Chapter 1, that

the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way… can better answer than any one else,

why he’s going on a whaling voyage, I’m not sure you can say, straight out, as you do, that he “now believes the decision was already made for him by a greater force.” Or when Ishmael reproduces "the grand programme of Providence”--with his own journey

as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances...
Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States
Whaling Voyage by one Ishmael

—I’m not convinced that he’s not laughing, both @ his own and our failure to do what we want, to “see a little into the springs and motives” of life.

I’m not even sure, either, that Ahab or Melville buy into the belief in fate. That central Chapter 36, “The Quarter Deck,” describes “not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the foregoing things within. For with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on.” To me, this suggests that we make our own fates; what we see outside just verifies what comes from within.

So I’m wondering what your evidence is, for the argument that you construct? You don’t quote the text; you do refer several times to “reality” and to the “kind of person Melville was,” but I don’t see where your data is coming from; are you using an extra-textual source? What is it? You end by saying that Melivlle “proves his theories”, but I’m not sure: what constitutes proof in a fictional world? In a fated world? In a world driven by chance? (For one range of contemporary answers to such questions, see Lisa Belkin, "The Odds of That: Coincidence in an Age of Conspiracy,"New York Times Magazine, August 11, 2002).