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Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Nature and Man Theme Icon
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.
Nature and Man Theme Icon

The novel centers on man's multi-faceted interaction with nature, whether by trying to control or tame it; understand it; profit from it; or, in Ahab’s case, defeat it. The book implies that nature, much like the whale, is an impersonal and inscrutable phenomenon. Man tends to treat nature as an entity with motives or emotions, when in fact nature is ultimately indifferent to man. The cautious and pragmatic Starbuck is one character who sees the whale as just an animal; he admonishes Ahab for seeking revenge on Moby Dick, saying, “To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” Ahab gives a long reply that suggests he sees the whale, not just as an animal, but as the mask for a higher entity, “some unknown but still reasoning thing… That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” The novel portrays this defiance as both insane and blasphemous, contrasting it with the attitude of Starbuck, who avoids foolish risks and remains aware that he is there to kill whales for a living “and not to be killed by them for theirs.”

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Nature and Man Quotes in Moby-Dick

Below you will find the important quotes in Moby-Dick related to the theme of Nature and Man.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless procession of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, Ishmael notes that the White Whale, Moby-Dick, has haunted him - although it is not clear how Ishmael could have known about the existence of Moby-Dick while living in New York City, unless he had heard about it in legends whispered from sailor to sailor. At any rate, Ishmael tells the reader that Moby-Dick (here described in poetic, mysterious, semi-religious language) has occupied his thoughts even before he determines he ought to try his hand at being a sailor.

Thus Ishmael's understanding of free will, in this opening chapter, seems to reflect Ahab's later conception - that man can only choose so much of his fate, and that a great deal of one's life is set out for him in advance. Ishmael might have chosen another occupation - he might have decided to stay in New York. But something pulled him toward the open sea, to the Pequod and Ahab and the search for Moby-Dick. And even if Ishmael can't identifying what pulled him, he knows nevertheless that it is a strong force. 


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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 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 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 68 Quotes

O, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. . . . retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 334
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another instance in which Ishmael uses a feature of physical anatomy to derive a metaphysical, or philosophical, concept. Here, the layer of fat underneath a whale's skin Ishmael likens to a blanket that keeps the whale warm in cold weather and relatively cool in warm weather. This regulating blanket is the method by which the whale retains an equilibrium, and this enables a whale to roam the entire world, without regard to the temperature of the water in which the whale swims.

Ishmael is clearly taken by this kind of anatomical feature, and wishes that all men would be so capable of adapting to their circumstances. Here, the whale is no longer an enemy of man. It is instead a source of wisdom, of guidance for human life, and even a religious figure to look up to (the idea of "liv[ing] in this world without being of it" comes from the Bible). Ishmael holds up the whale as an example of human adaptability. And in doing so, he points out the frailty of the human body - something that can be so easily defeated by animals, by weather, by the roughness of the seas. 

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 82 Quotes

Perseus, St. George, Hercules, Jonah, and Vishnoo! there’s a member-roll for you! What club but the whaleman’s can head off like that?

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 398
Explanation and Analysis:

Another one of Ishmael's short philosophical essays, in which he takes up a topic related to whaling and its history. Here, Ishmael demonstrates his broad learning and understanding of the Greek and Roman classics, to argue that a great many heroes in antiquity fought and defeated whales. This was a way, he argues, of demonstrating superiority over beasts that tower over human beings. Ishmael notes that it is somehow natural for humans to attempt to conquer beasts of this size, and to demonstrate, therefore, their power over the natural world that surrounds them.

The consequence of this likeness, too, is to raise whalemen in Ishmael's day to the level of Greek or Biblical heroes. Ishmael might do this in part because he wants to aggrandize himself. But he seems also to genuinely believe that Ahab and the crew of the Pequod are engaged in a special and heroic journey on the high seas, something of which not all men would even be capable. 

Chapter 92 Quotes

What then shall I liken the Sperm Whale to for fragrance, considering his magnitude? Must it not be to that famous elephant, with jeweled tusks, and redolent with myrrh, which was led out of an Indian town to do honor to Alexander the Great?

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 449
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael here takes up some features related to the physical appearance and the smell of a sperm whale. Ishmael argues that sperm whales in fact do not smell the way people expect them to, and neither does whale oil. What does smell, however, is a sick whale, but sick whales also produce ambergris, a substance derived from whale oil, and a fragrance of great value on land.

Ishmael then muses on the relation between a sick animal and its ability to produce something so magnificent as ambergris. Ishmael also argues that whale oil itself is miraculous, and by comparing the whale to Alexander the Great's elephant, Ishmael demonstrates that he places the sperm whale at the absolute top of the animal pyramid, as regards its beauty, its inherent valor, and its majestic nature. That the sickness of the whale makes its oil even more valuable is, for Ishmael, merely another reflection of the power and wonder of that animal. 

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 110 Quotes

They asked him, then, whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly. In a word, it was Queequeg’s conceit, that if a man made up his mind to live, mere sickness could not kill him: nothing but a whale, or a gale, or some violent, ungovernable, unintelligent destroyer of that sort.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Queequeg
Page Number: 523
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a very important passage, for here Queequeg echoes a sentiment that Ahab has also expressed in the novel - namely, that a man's living or dying has only to do with one's will, his choice to survive. There are some things beyond man's control, and one of those things is Moby-Dick himself, a beast so large as to be almost godlike. Queequeg and Ahab both recognize that there is some fate to those interactions, and that there is nothing they can do to stop the whale if fate determines that the whale is to defeat them.

But illness is another matter. Queequeg believes in this passage that he has total control over his own body - that he can make it listen to his wishes. This has long been a dream of man, that the mind can triumph over the earthly strictures placed on that mind by the realities of living in a body on earth. Queequeg, for his part, really believes that his own mind can conquer the weaknesses of his body. (It's also notable that while he considers illness to be something easily overcome, a murderous whale is on the same level as a storm or other "act of God.")

Chapter 133 Quotes

Men, this gold is mine, for I earned it; but I shall let it abide here till the White Whale is dead; and then, whosoever of ye first raises him, upon the day he shall be killed, this gold is that man’s, and if on that day I shall again raise him, then, ten times its sum shall be divided among all of ye! Away now!

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 602
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only does Ahab believe that he must be the man to kill Moby-Dick, and that it is fair to risk the lives of many men in order to kill the animal that (he believes) has wronged him; Ahab also vows that he was always fated to be the one to spot Moby-Dick, and that the doubloon he placed on the mast could have only one owner, and that is the man that placed it there.

In this passage, then, Melville displays Ahab's total megalomania, or belief that he, and he alone, is capable of defeating the whale, of spitting in the eyes of fate, of ensuring that order will be restored in the universe after the whale has taken his leg. No man could possibly think in these terms unless he were deluded, and yet Ahab really does think in them. And though he is single-mindedly set in his mission, he nevertheless manages, despite the metaphorical blindness of his obsession, to see the whale and to claim the money he placed before the crew. 

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. 

Epilogue Quotes

On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her tracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 625
Explanation and Analysis:

This Biblical story of Rachel (who is immortalized as the archetype of a mother mourning for her lost children) ties the book together, and shows that, even in the moments where he approached death, Ishmael believed, based on Biblical precedents, that he might be saved. Ishmael is orphaned because the crew of the Pequod, his family, has gone down with the ship. He no longer has Ahab as his leader and father - he no longer has Queequeg as a brother (and possible beloved, in some interpretations). Ishmael is indeed all alone, and he has "escaped" to relate to the reader the story of Moby-Dick, the whale who defeated man's best efforts to kill him.

Thus Ishmael's actions seem to be foretold, as so many actions in the novel have been spoken of by prophets and seers, men who appear crazy to other men, but seem to know the future as the crew of the Pequod does not. Ishmael now, presumably, goes back to land and writes the story of Moby-Dick - the novel the reader now holds in his or her hands.