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Exploring the Concept of Fate in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Fate is a tricky concept to define. In one sense, fate indicates an unalterable course that a person takes in life; meaning that the events in a person's life are pre-ordained and cannot be changed. Another view of fate seems to be best illustrated as a fork in the road: fate maps out a series of paths one may take and, depending on individual choices, a person can reach this end or that end. It is difficult to say which idea is right, or if either idea is right. It is possible, after all, that life is simply random and that fate plays no role whatsoever. The many ways to consider fate, I think, is a concern posed in Moby-Dick. In the relationships between Ahab and the whale, and between Ishmael and Queequeg, there can be little doubt that Melville intends for his reader to feel that certain forces are at work, forces driving these characters to a particular end. But to what extent Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg have control over their destinies is somewhat left to the reader to decide. These men, Melville seems to suggest at times, are not without their free will; however, they all seem to place so much stock in the idea of fate that they feel (perhaps wrongly) bound to what they perceive to be a destined course. In consideration of this idea, the following chapters will be scoured for relevant details: XVI ("The Ship"), XXXVI ("The Quarter-Deck"), CXXXII ("The Symphony"), LXXII ("The Monkey-Rope"), XCIX ("The Doubloon"), CXXXV ("The Chase-Third Day"), and the epilogue. The intent here is to highlight instances in the novel where characters-namely Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg-interpret relatively ambiguous portents and then act according to these interpretations; the goal being to address the possibility that the men are placing faith in signs and readings that may have no actual relevance to their lives. Let it be made clear that I do not intend to emphasize any glaring evidence that fate is or is not at work, for I believe Melville so carefully crafted this theme as to allow his reader to choose for him or herself whether or not the Pequod was fated to be destroyed by the whale.
Chapter XXXVI, "The Quarter-Deck," has Captain Ahab emphatically demonstrating his belief in fate, presenting this belief in a way which inspires a sense of purpose in his crew, save Starbuck. "And this is what ye have shipped for, men," Ahab tells the crew, "to chase that white whale on both sides of land and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out" (202). Ahab, in his approach to the subject, first presents the whale as an elusive, even mystical creature, then fills his crew with the notion that they have been chosen for this endeavor; that it is their destiny to kill the white whale. Moreover, Ahab makes a ceremony of this revelation: he issues "an order seldom or never given on shipboard except in some extraordinary case," which is to summon the ship's company to gather on deck. The captain then presents the men with a gold doubloon (which will be expounded on later in this paper) and passes around libations to further mark the occasion. Ahab here plays on fate a bit in order to rally his crew for his own chosen cause. It is seen in later chapters, such as "The Symphony," that Ahab feels he is fated to battle the whale once more. In a moment of self-doubt, he explains to Starbuck that he cannot relent in his pursuit for the whale: "how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the 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" (622). But in sharing his intent to hunt the whale with the Pequod's crew-and especially in his approach to the matter-Ahab is decidedly manipulative. He instills in his men the idea that his fate is theirs as well, when it remains unclear if this endeavor is in fact anyone's fate. Furthermore, Ahab's speech serves to bolster Queequeg and Ishmael's notion that they themselves are being guided by fate.
Just as Ahab believes himself to be bound by fate, the reader can see early on that Queequeg is a man whom believes in pre-destination; and, in time, Ishmael too seems to believe. It is in chapter XVI, "The Ship," where Yojo's insistence that Ishmael choose the ship on which he and Queequeg would work puts into motion a chain of events that ends in Ishmael's life being indirectly saved by Queequeg. In "The Ship," Ishmael explains,
â€¦and Yojo had told [Queequeg] two or three times over, and strongly insisted upon it every way, that instead of our going together among the whaling-fleet in harbour, and in concert selecting our craft; instead of this, I say, Yojo earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship should rest wholly with me, inasmuch as Yojo purposed befriending us; and, in order to do so, had already, pitched upon a vessel, which, if left to myself, I Ishmael, should infallibly light upon, for all the world as though it had turned out by chanceâ€¦ (100).
There are two issues in this passage which suggest the workings of fate. One is the supposition that Yojo had intentionally brought Queequeg and Ishmael together; and the second is that the two friends were meant to board the Pequod for reasons yet unknown. Both suppositions make the strong argument that our heroes are following a set destiny, one which is supported in later chapters, such as "The Monkey-rope," where Ishmael makes the suggestion that he and Queequeg are connected; that one's fate invariably depends on the other. In this particular episode, the monkey-rope itself acts as the symbol of their connection: "for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honour demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake" (376). It may be suggested that, at this point, Ishmael has taken to heart the idea that Yojo had brought he and Queequeg together; our narrator, in this case, uses the symbolic monkey-rope to further illustrate this bond.
The epilogue, therefore, presents what can be seen as the reason for Ishmael and Queequeg's fated relationship. As Ishmael says in the short chapter, "I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman," in effect being spared, like Job, to tell the story of what he had seen. In addition to this statement, the reader sees that Ishmael's life is saved by the very coffin which had been built for Queequeg, and had been subsequently transformed into a life buoy. There is then a powerful suggestion that Ishmael was fated to pass on the story of the Pequod, and that Queequeg was equally fated to help our hero reach his destiny. Indeed aspects of the duo's story-their meeting; their immediate bond; Queequeg's sickness which demanded the production of the coffin-all seem to fit together like puzzle pieces, forming a larger picture.
But these sorts of interpretation, and Ahab's own impression of his fate, are just that; interpretations; and this ambiguous nature of the supposed portents of the novel may very well be Melville making the suggestion that fate is a subjective device, the meaning of which varies from man to man. I believe this point to be strongly hinted at in chapter XCIX, "The Doubloon," where Melville shows the reader differing views of a single object. A series of characters approach the gold doubloon nailed to the mast; and each offer their own interpretation of the coins' illustrations. Ahab, in his monomania, sees himself in the doubloon-"The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; all are Ahab" (499)-while Starbuck sees in the coin a balance of gloom and righteousness. Stubb sees in the coin "the life of man in one round chapter," and simple Flask sees nothing at all (501, 502). As one character comes, another goes, and the interpretations are always different, if only slightly. As so many characters look upon arguably trivial details etched onto the surface of a doubloon and invest in these images significantly contrasting meanings.
Regarding fate, a similar sort of subjective reading appears in Chapter CXXXV, "The Chase-Third Day," as Ahab seems to force Fedallah's prediction to come true in a rather literary bit of interpretation. The captain takes the Parsee's prediction regarding two hearses to a symbolic level, seeing the whale and the Pequod as the portended vehicles. And it is likely that, if Ahab had not shouted "The ship! The hearse!-the second hearse!" the reader would not have picked up on the allusion at all. The "fulfillment" of Fedallah's prediction is one of many cases where fate is seen through a somewhat subjective lens.
In consideration of this and other instances mentioned, it seems reasonable to argue that Melville wished only to raise the question of fate in the minds of his readers, and did not intend to answer the question in any finite way within the text. Characters are likened to prophets, gods and archangels; storms and fires are seen as portents; the white whale itself is considered by many to be an agent of darkness or chaos or even God; but, ultimately, each piece of evidence, and each fatalist interpretation holds a certain ambiguity. Melville, I believe, was aware of this ambiguity, and took pains to write his novel so that one reader may see the ship's crew as being mistaken in its endeavor and another reader may see the Pequod as a brave and daring vessel facing its fate head on.