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Limits of Knowledge Theme Analysis

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Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
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Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Moby-Dick, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
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One of the novel’s primary themes is that neither nature nor human life can be understood perfectly. At times during the voyage, the Pequod’s crewmembers reflect, with feelings ranging from cheerful resignation to despair, on the uncertainty of their fate. This uncertainty parallels the doubts of religious faith. Ishmael notably remarks that “our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.” The implication is that complete knowledge of oneself and of God comes only in death. Ignorance is a condition of human life. Human ignorance is also represented by a lack of knowledge, among the Pequod’s crew at sea, about the world beyond its sight: the vessel must rely on encounters with other ships to gather news and information, as well as to gather clues about where Moby Dick might be.

In this way, the Pequod’s doomed pursuit of Moby Dick symbolizes man’s futile pursuit of complete knowledge. In explaining life at sea and the nature of whales, Ishmael’s narrative teems with detailed references to scientific, religious, historical, and literary texts relating to the whale and whaling history. However, Ishmael also emphasizes that the whale is “the one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last,” and that the only way to know what a whale is really like is to go whaling oneself—a dangerous, often fatal enterprise. The whale, in its ultimate mystery, represents the limits of human knowledge.

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The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Limits of Knowledge appears in each chapter of Moby-Dick. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Limits of Knowledge Quotes in Moby-Dick

Below you will find the important quotes in Moby-Dick related to the theme of Limits of Knowledge.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Call me Ishmael.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most famous sentences in world literature. Ishmael is the narrator of Moby-Dick, and for the first part of the novel he is also the most important character -  a young man who, deciding to make his fortune on the sea, signs on to a whaling voyage with the notorious Captain Ahab. As the novel goes on, Ishmael's narrating position fades slightly to the background, and new chapters occupy the middle portion of the book - including extended meditations on whale anatomy and the nature of the whaling industry. It is not clear whether Ishmael, too, is the narrator of these sections, or whether another, unnamed narrator supersedes him (perhaps Melville himself).

It is also interesting to note that Ishmael does not directly say that Ishmael is his name - rather, he notes only that the reader can "call" him that. In the Hebrew Bible, Ishmael was another son of Abraham, born of the slave girl Hagar, and he was passed over in the family's succession in favor of Isaac. Whether this Biblical background bears on Ishmael the character is for the reader to decide. 


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Chapter 8 Quotes

The pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes from one of the many, many "extended metaphors" in the novel, or moments where the narrator uses a comparison, over paragraphs and paragraphs, to describe another person, thing, or event in metaphorical, rather than literal, terms. Here, the pulpit (from which a religious preacher delivers sermons) is explicitly compared to the prow of a ship, pulling man's way through the world. The church in which Ishmael sits, before heading out on his whaling voyage, is a church visited by men on their way out to sea, and so the church becomes a boat, and the boat a church - these two are joined in the minds of all sailors. 

In the case both of the ship and the church, the power of God to direct those on board is unquestioned. God is the entity causing the breeze to blow or to stand still, and God is the entity protecting the church from crises within it and outside it. God is, in each case, something like the weather, both preserving or damning those inside the ship or church.

Chapter 16 Quotes

I have forgotten to mention that, in many things, Queequeg placed great confidence in the excellence of Yojo’s judgment and surprising forecast of things; and cherished Yojo with considerable esteem, as a rather good sort of god . . . .

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Queequeg
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael describes at great length Queequeg's religious rituals, which at first he finds utterly confusing and strange. Queequeg does not worship a Christian god, but instead places all his faith in Yojo. Ishmael later realizes that Yojo satisfies, for the harpooner, the same logic as does the Christian god - that if, in other words, Christians place their lives in the hands of divine providence, so too do practitioners of other faiths. As Ishmael comes to meet different people from different walks of life aboard the Pequod, he is less likely to judge them as being odd or deviant for following a religion that is not his.

Coupled with this, too, is something else Ishmael realizes about the Christian faith - namely, that even those who practice it, like the Quakers from whom the Pequod is leased, can be immoral, or can follow rules that are not in line with those described in the Christian Bible. 

Chapter 19 Quotes

Ye’ve shipped, have ye? Names down on the papers? Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all.

Related Characters: Elijah (speaker), Ishmael, Queequeg
Page Number: 102
Explanation and Analysis:

There is a great deal of prophecy in Moby-Dick: of predicting, or attempting to predict, the future based on information available in the present. Here, the prophet who stands near the Pequod seems to understand that the ship is headed for danger. The question, of course, is how this prophet (called Old Thunder by some, but also Elijah, the name of a famous Biblical prophet) can know this at all. There is a logical explanation: perhaps Old Thunder has heard from friends in the area that Ahab is a man possessed, and that the captain will stop at nothing to kill the white whale, even if it means killing his entire crew.

But Ishmael, and Melville, hold out for the possibility that there is another motivating factor - that Old Thunder really is in tune with the future, and that he can predict, as can Pip later in the novel, what is to come to pass. In this the novel echoes the nature of Biblical prophecy, in which characters emerge in the Bible's narrative to foreshadow events in later books and epochs. 

Chapter 23 Quotes

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Bulkington
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

There are numerous interesting plot-threads bound up in this one quotation, itself taken from a very short chapter. Bulkington, as a character, perhaps featured more largely in drafts of the novel, but in the final version, as published, he is almost a stub of a character - a potential for drama never realized. Ishmael does note that Bulkington dies with the rest of the crew of the Pequod. He also notes that Bulkington was a man of adventure, someone ready to take the voyage that might result in his own death.

This is what causes Ishmael to rhapsodize about the nature of chance and risk-taking in a man's life. This aligns with the old adage, that a boat is safe in the harbor, but that boats are made to be taken out into the high seas - toward adventure. If that boat finds its demise there, then that peril was built into the very concept of the boat as a vessel, as a conveyance to another realm. 

Chapter 36 Quotes

It’s a white whale, I say . . . a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Ahab takes it upon himself in this section to explain, at least in part, what is so special about Moby-Dick. The whiteness of the whale, which will be described at other moments in the novel, is striking to Ahab - it is a reminder of how special that whale is. But it is not this alone that makes the whale Ahab's enemy. That, of course, has to do with Ahab's attempt on a previous voyage to kill Moby-Dick - an encounter that ends with Moby-Dick biting off one of Ahab's legs.

Starbuck and other characters will later beg Ahab to end his quest, which they consider foolish, to kill the animal that maimed him. They say this because revenge against an animal is, for them, fundamentally different from revenge against a human. Animals, they note, do not intend the violence they cause - it is simply in their nature. Moby-Dick does not hate Ahab - he merely wants to eat him, or keep from being killed himself. But, for Ahab, Moby-Dick's violence demands violence in return - an eye for an eye. Furthermore, Ahab seems wedded to the very idea of Moby-Dick as an horrifying, unbeatable force, a terrible challenge for Ahab to struggle against. It is not just hate, but also pride and even longing that drives him.

Chapter 41 Quotes

For one, I gave myself up to the abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest ill.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Moby Dick
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

This, in Ishmael's words, is the reason why he goes along with Ahab, at least in the beginning, on that man's quest to find and kill Moby-Dick, and to avenge the violence the whale has done to him. Ishmael, of course, has no bone to pick with the whale - it is his first voyage, and he has a hard time even understanding how Ahab could hate a "brute" with such force. But Ishmael also notes that he was susceptible to the desires and the rage of others in the crew. At least in the early part of the voyage, the other sailors also want to kill Moby-Dick, perhaps as a way of showing support for their captain, whom they love and fear. But as the novel goes on, this desire on the part of the crew to capture the whale, and therefore help their leader, goes by the wayside - the characters begin to wonder whether Ahab isn't insane, and whether the quest to kill the whale isn't the quest of a madman. 

Chapter 42 Quotes

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation? . . . Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color . . . is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows . . . ?

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous chapters and passages in the novel. Ishmael wonders what exactly it is that makes Moby-Dick so special - and lands, as this passage indicates, on his color, and on the particular "terror of whiteness." White, according to Ishmael's logic, can be presence or absence - it can mean purity or lack of all characteristics - and it can belong to good or to bad things. What Ishmael settles on, at least in part, as that white connotes something special, apart from and beyond normal life - something worth pursuing, but also terrifying in its blankness and emptiness.

Ishmael also wonders why it is that Ahab has chosen to follow this white whale across the world. It is at this point in the novel that Ishmael realizes the whale might perhaps be secondary to Ahab's goal - that the whale might stand in for something larger than an animal, or revenge. The whale could, for example, be God himself - something divine and unreachable. Or it could be a goal toward which all humans strive - immortality, or the defeat of death. 

Chapter 52 Quotes

Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only thought numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

Another opportunity for Ishmael's musings. Many important parts of the novel are the talks (or "gams") that occur between crews of boats passing each other on the high seas. Here, the Pequod falls in line with the Albatross, which is headed back for home, and whose nearly starving, nearly mad crew marvels at the Pequod's mission to sail around the world. It is only when Ishmael sees the Albatross and its crew that he realizes, fully, the difficulty of the enterprise in which they are engaged - and the terrible things that might befall the Pequod's crew after many months at sea.

These conversations between boats serve as the "messaging system" in a novel where letters, let alone vocal messages, cannot be exchanged between characters who spend many months or years at a time on ships. When the Pequod is out on the high seas, its crew is starved for human contact, and this makes interactions with ships like the Albatross all the more valuable, even if the Albatross's crew seems half crazed. 

Chapter 54 Quotes

So help me Heaven, and on my honor the story I have told ye, gentlemen, is in substance and its great items, true. I know it to be true; it happened on this ball; I trod the ship . . . I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Steelkilt, Radney
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

This is an important passage in the novel, because it indicates the time in which Ishmael is currently narrating the tale, and hints at Ishmael's fate. After all, we now know that, at this point, Ishmael must survive the voyage of the Pequod to find Moby-Dick - for how else would Ishmael be able to relate to the reader something that happens after Ishmael has been on that boat with Ahab and his crew?

The function of time in Moby-Dick, therefore, is highlighted in this scene. Ishmael is a conduit for the reader - he siphons off the story of Ahab and his men and presents it to the person holding the novel in his or her hands. But Ishmael also seems not to be bound by certain physical considerations, as others in the novel are - he does not, in short, go down with the ship. He is free to tell his tales to future generations - something not possible for Ahab or Starbuck. 

Chapter 60 Quotes

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Rope (the Line)
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

Another important metaphorical passage in the novel. Here, the "line" (or rope) can represent many things. It can be the lines of the novel itself - the words that Ishmael has relayed to the reader, and which contain the story of Ahab's journey and his attacks on Moby-Dick. The line can also be the rigging of the Pequod, which literally holds the men together, draws them into a common goal of keeping one another afloat. This second line, as Ishmael mentions, can be dangerous, as it can "catch" a man who's not looking and drag him overboard.

This leads to the third kind of line drawing men together in the text, the lines of fate, the web in which all men and women are born, and in which they die. Ishmael seems, as the novel progresses, to ascribe more and more to the idea of a blind fate that has arranged for the lives and deaths of all people. He believes that, by embarking on the Pequod, he has entered into one of these networks of fate, even if he does not know, while the voyage is happening, whether or not he will survive. 

Chapter 71 Quotes

Think, think of thy whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!

Related Characters: Gabriel (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel, like Old Thunder, is another one of the novel's prophets - a person who, though seemingly a normal human, has also taken on a religious quality that enables him, or so he claims, to see into the future, and to predict events that others might not be aware of. Here, Gabriel (another Biblical name, that of a messenger angel) warns that Moby-Dick is more powerful than any man - that no one would be able to defeat the white whale alone, and that perhaps only a beneficent fate could make such a battle even something a man might be able to live through.

Thus Old Thunder and Gabriel both believe that Moby-Dick is himself a god-like figure, one whose power is so far superior to man's that there is nothing a man can do to save himself. Gabriel, like Old Thunder, urges the men around him to consider man's relationship to the divine - that God is the master of all things, and that if God has sent this whale in his stead to rule the waters, man must respect the overwhelming force of that animal. 

Chapter 75 Quotes

The Right Whale I take to have been a Stoic; the Sperm Whale, a Platonian, who might have taken up Spinoza in his latter years.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 367
Explanation and Analysis:

This chapter demonstrates the philosophical values that Ishmael ascribes to the animals he meets. Of course, the Right Whale could no more be a Stoic, or the Sperm Whale a "Platonian," than could any other non-sentient creature be a representative of any philosophical school. Ishmael notes this in part to demonstrate his own education, which, as he notes earlier, he has picked up himself, without formal schooling. (Indeed, Ishmael might have had a great deal of time to read on the whale boat, although he does not talk explicitly about this reading).

The notion that non-human actors in the novel might think and behave like humans is an important one. For it is this idea that motivates Ahab in the first place, causing him to ascribe to Moby-Dick a bloodthirstiness that might not, in fact, be a part of the animal's make-up - for as Starbuck argues, Moby-Dick probably bears no grudge against Ahab at all. It is Ahab, like Ishmael, who believes that the animals of the deep should be treated like humans on land, as rational, thinking beings. 

Chapter 99 Quotes

Cook! ho, coo! and cook us! Jenny! hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, Jenny, Jenny! and get your hoe-cake done!

Related Characters: Pip (speaker)
Page Number: 475
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, each of the characters take turns checking out the doubloon that Ahab has nailed to the center mast of the Pequod. This doubloon is reserved for the person in the crew who sights the white whale first - it is designed as an extra reward, for the crew is already as excited as Ahab, or nearly so, to find the whale and to kill it. 

When others see the doubloon, they speak their thoughts aloud in an aside to the audience, as though they were characters in a play (and, indeed, there are entire chapters of the novel that are rendered as dialogue in a play, as though Ishmael has constructed the scenes in this way for the reader better to understand them). Here, when Pip speaks aloud, however, he does not say anything comprehensible to the average listener. Instead, he remarks obliquely just how valuable the doubloon is - and how wondrous it would be to spot the whale and to kill it. 

Chapter 100 Quotes

He’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me.

Related Characters: Boomer (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 482
Explanation and Analysis:

Boomer, the speaker of these lines, is the captain of an English vessel called the Samuel Enderby. Boomer excites Ahab, when the ships stop to speak to one another, by saying that he has in fact encountered Moby-Dick. At this point, Boomer emerges as a foil to Ahab, for he too is a man who has wrestled with the white whale. Boomer has lowered boats against Moby-Dick, and, falling off his boat, tore his arm, and a ship doctor then amputated it. Boomer feels that he has "given enough" to the white whale, and vows to go back home and preserve his life.

This, of course, is what separates Boomer from Ahab, and makes the two men mirror images of one another. After his encounter with the white whale, Boomer realizes the limits of his own human strength, and feels he has given his best to the fight - that he is simply not strong enough to defeat the whale. Ahab, however, has vowed after his first encounter with Moby-Dick to stop at nothing in trying to kill him. 

Chapter 103 Quotes

Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 495
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael spends a great deal of the novel marveling at the size of the sperm whale, at its majesty in the water, at how it resembles the Biblical "fish" in which Jonah sat for three days. Ishmael spares no amount of description in arguing that these whales are larger than life, that there is nothing man can do to stop them except to pray that the whale itself folds under the battle with the harpooneers.

And yet Ishmael also notes that there are parts of the sperm whale so small as to nearly vanish. These parts show that the whale has some relation to human scale - that it is, after all, a living thing, that it is mortal, that it can be killed. Even though whales, in Ishmael's telling, are godlike creatures, they are ultimately not gods - for they are built according to the same laws that structure human life. 

Chapter 109 Quotes

Oh, Life! Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this block-head for a bone to stand on. Cursed be that mortal interindebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books.

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), The Pequod’s carpenter
Page Number: 514
Explanation and Analysis:

Starbuck has reported to Ahab, just before this quotation, that the oil casks in the Pequod are leaking, and that a ship's carpenter will have to inspect them to ensure that the oil collected from the whales they have already killed will be preserved. When Starbuck realizes that Ahab cares nothing for this oil - that the voyage is entirely for the purpose of capturing and killing Moby-Dick - he is afraid that the captain has lost his mind, and that he is willing to endanger his entire crew in order to satisfy this one objective. Starbuck tells Ahab that he must worry about himself, that his own bloodlust could result in the death of many men.

Ahab, for his part, recognizes in the quote that there are physical constraints on him - that if, for example, the boat were to leak and sink before reaching the white whale, then Ahab's entire mission would come to naught. This is difficult for Ahab to stomach, because his pride and his belief in his own force and mission is unmatched. 

Chapter 135 Quotes

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 624
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only has the white whale defeated Ahab, despite Ahab's best efforts to kill him. Not only has the whale defeated the entire crew, the group of men Ahab has marshaled to aid in this attack. The white whale has, in fact, obliterated all remnants of the Pequod, all evidence that the boat even existed and once sailed the sea. These things are gone completely when the boat sinks and is sent to the bottom of the ocean.

The narrator, or Ishmael, in this scene thus relates how completely man is at the mercy of nature. Despite all Ahab's ravings and the power of his will and hate, there was nothing he could do to stop the boat from sinking, to prevent nature from taking over the scene and rolling the waves once more over the boat. For all his yelling that he controlled fate, fate has mastered Ahab here - and the rest of the crew along with him.