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Religion Theme Analysis

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Religion is a major point of reference for Ishmael. In New Bedford, before the voyage, he visits a “Whaleman’s Chapel” and hears a long and heated sermon, delivered by the stern Father Mapple, that centers on the story of Jonah and the whale. The sermon recounts Jonah’s futile attempt to flee God, and suggests that the harder Jonah tries to escape, the harsher becomes his punishment. Father Mapple emphasizes that, after being swallowed by the whale, Jonah does not pray for deliverance, but accepts his punishment. Only then does God relent and bring Jonah to safety. After being saved from the whale and the sea, Jonah goes on, in Father Mapple’s words, “[t]o preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood.” Jonah’s preaching parallels Ishmael’s eventual telling of his own whaling story, when he becomes (whether through luck, fate, or divine intervention) the lone survivor of the Pequod’s wreck.

Although heavy with references to the Bible and Christianity, the book does not espouse one religion, instead suggesting that goodness can be found in people of any faith. After striking up a friendship with Queequeg, Ishmael quickly becomes tolerant of his new friend’s religion, even going so far as to participate in Queequeg’s ritual homage to a carven idol—a practice explicitly forbidden by Christianity. Religious tolerance is also a notable part of life on board the ship, with so-called heathens and Christians working side by side.

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Religion ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Moby-Dick related to the theme of Religion.
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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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. 

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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.