The Prophets and Fate of the Pequod

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The Prophets and Fate of the Pequod

Emily Feenstra

Ishmael decides to go on a whaling voyage, meets Queequeg at an inn, and decides to board the Pequod instead of the Devil-Dam or the Tit-bit. The crew agrees to join Ahab on his quest to hunt Moby Dick, and ignores, or tries to ignore, all bad omens they encounter along the way. The captain of the Rachel looses his child, and pleas for Ahab's help in finding him, thus giving Ahab an opportunity to change his course. The characters, the voyage, the entire plot of Herman Melville's Moby Dick seems to be set up by chance. Is it fate that the characters should end up on the Pequod? Is it fate that the Pequod should end in doom? Or is it a decision? There are numerous moments of prophecy, in which only bad ends are predicted, but is that to say that fate itself caused the Pequod's bad end? The driving force in the story seems somewhat unexplainable, surrounded on all sides by "what ifs." The prophecies embedded in the story provide predictions of the Pequod's bad end without revealing its exact fate, while fate itself is used as an irrelevant excuse for the actions that lead the characters to their end.

The first, and very framing, prophecy of the story occurs directly after Ishmael and Queequeg have signed on the Pequod, when they meet Elijah. After learning that Ishmael and Queequeg have already signed aboard the Pequod, Elijah declares, "what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won't be, after all...Some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose...God pity 'em!" (126). Elijah seems to predict the fate of the Pequod. Declaring that God should pity the sailors who board the ship is to say that something terrible should befall the voyage. Elijah makes a prophecy, thereby predicting fate. But his prophecy is very vague, and could mean any number of things, from mutiny, to a bad storm, to the suicide of Captain Ahab. Conversely, fate has no wiggle-room. Fate simply is, and always will be. Elijah's prophecy thereby acts as an ambiguous prediction, creating an ominous sense for the future of the Pequod.

Fedellah, likewise, provides a prophecy. He tells Ahab, "Hemp alone can kill thee" (572). Ahab takes this to mean that only the gallows can kill him, and declares that he is immortal. Because his prophecy is so ambiguous, much like Elijah's, it is misinterpreted. Being killed by hemp could mean being killed by the gallows, true, but one could also be strangled to death by a murderer, fall off a cliff from a hanging rope, or be killed in any other number of ways. Like Elijah, Fedellah's prophecy holds true, but is so vague that it could have proven true in a number of circumstances. The reader realizes the gallows are unlikely to be the death of Ahab, but still can't understand how hemp will. Both prophecies predict the ultimate fate of their subjects, but their subjects fail to see it because of their ambiguity. As Fedellah predicts, in the end, Ahab is killed by hemp, but not the hemp of the gallows.

Chapter 99, "The Doubloon," offers a unique glimpse at how the sailors view prophecies. One day, a few members of the crew look deeply at the gold coin, trying to read meaning into it. Ahab sees the coins as the world, where "man should live in pains and die in pangs" (500). Starbuck sees the coin as a religious symbol, telling him that "in this vale of Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the son of Righteousness still shines a beacon of hope" (500). Ahab and Starbuck hold very different, almost contrasting views, of the same object. One sees it as the inevitable suffering of the world, and the other as a symbol of hope in a time of darkness. As the scene goes on, Stubb sees it as a zodiac sign which predicts sleeping with the fish, Flask sees nothing but money, and most strangely, the Manxman sees it as a sign that Moby Dick will be caught in a month and a day (500-502). For each person, the doubloon takes on a different meaning. Perhaps it is Ahab's fate to suffer in life, Starbuck's fate to keep hope in times of darkness, and Stubb's to die at sea. Flask's inability to see beyond the monetary value of the coin carries little importance, and it is never revealed whether or not the Manxman's prophecy is correct. For a third time, prophecy is used to predict the fate of the Pequod. In a sense, they all combine. The crew dies drowning in pangs, sinking to join the fish at the bottom of the sea, while never losing hope in killing the whale. But the prophecies the crew makes from the doubloon are ambiguous enough to not predict the exact fate of the Pequod.

Fate itself is what Ishmael and Ahab blame for their actions. Soon after the narrator declares that he is to be called Ishmael, he explains his decision to go on a whaling voyage. This he ascribes to fate. Ishmael explains, "But wherefore it was that...I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who...influences me in some unaccountable way-- he can better answer than anyone else" (31). The book begins with what Ishmael believes is an act of fate, fate that he should end up aboard the Pequod. However, it is important to have a clear understanding of fate. By definition, fate is something that is "unalterably predetermined" (Fate). A life experience might be fate, such as a devastating storm, a fatal accident, or the birth of a child. A decision cannot be fate; it is a choice. Here, Ishmael makes a decision to board the Pequod. It might be fate that he survives the voyage, but his decision to board the Pequod is not fate; rather, it is simply a decision. In fact, there is a reasonable explanation behind his decision. Ishmael could easily have decided to go on yet another merchant trip, but instead decides to go whaling. Considering his description of a "damp, drizzly November" in his soul, and the decision to go to sea as a "substitute for pistol and ball," he is probably leaning towards suicidal, and looking for a way to encounter death without having to directly implement it (27). Whaling, being incredibly dangerous, is a sensible substitute. Although fate plays its hand in Ishmael's survival, it is not involved in his boarding of the Pequod, despite Ishmael's own explanation.

For Ahab, fate becomes a complicated and convoluted idea. The question is, is it his fate to hunt Moby Dick, or is it simply his fate to die at sea? Ahab believes the former, but I believe in the later. As Starbuck tries, for a second time, to convince Ahab to stop the hunt, Ahab replies, "'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before his ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fate's lieutenant; I act under orders" (641). Somehow, Ahab has decided that it is his fate to hunt Moby Dick, and that nothing can change that. No one can convince him otherwise, not even poor Starbuck, try as he might. But what Ahab believes is his fate could easily be changed. Starbuck could have shot him, the crew could have mutinied, he could have been tied up and physically forced to stop the hunt. If his fate were to hunt the whale, it could not be stopped by any human interaction. Granted, he is not stopped, but he could have been by a single person. Fate is unstoppable, unalterable. Ahab's hunt is alterable, and therefore it is not his fate, but his decision.

With Ahab, there is also the question of madness. He is consumed by his revenge; nothing matters to him but the death of Moby Dick. The first time Starbuck confronts Ahab about the insanity of the hunt, Ahab response, "What is it...commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing...myself. Is Ahab, Ahab? Unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. Fate is the handspike" (622). In this passage, Ahab himself wonders what is causing him to proceed with this hunt. In this moment, he seems to realize the illogic of hunting Moby Dick, of being consumed by revenge, and notes that any sensible man would stop the hunt and return to his "natural lovings and longings." Because he cannot understand himself, he blames his actions on God, and the fate that God must have in mind for him. However, I believe Ahab has simply let the revenge consume him. No god is controlling him, and no Moby Dick fate is his. He is killed hunting Moby Dick because he chooses to hunt Moby Dick. His fate may have been to die at sea, but this could have happened in the event of a storm, an accident on ship, a shark, or even murder. Being killed by Moby Dick is a means to his fate that Ahab chooses.

Through these prophecies and reflections on fate, Melville creates an ominous story, full of loose ends and unanswered questions. The prophecies provide allusions to the fate of the voyage and its crew without spoiling the story. Rather, they enhance the story with insight into the different perspectives of outsiders, Ahab, and the crew. With these prophecies, we can better see Ahab for what he is: a crazy old man consumed with revenge. Because these prophecies are so ambiguous, nothing is given away as to the fate of the individuals or the true ultimate fate of the ship. Ishmael and Ahab believe that fate is controlling them, and believe so to a fault. Ishmael abandons logic for fate, while Ahab declares himself unaccountable for his actions, acting as a puppet of God's intended fate for him. This belief in fate is what drives the Pequod to its watery end, an end that could easily have been avoided with the implementation of a bit more logic.

Works Cited
"Fate." Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language.
Deluxe ed. 2001.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Barnes and Noble, Inc.: 2003.

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