Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Allusions 8 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Explanation and Analysis—Biblical Allusions :

Moby-Dick is packed with allusions to the Bible that reflect both the dialogue that the novel is in with Christianity as well as more generally the scope of Melville’s ambition for Moby-Dick as a novel. Indeed, from the very beginning, the Bible’s presence is clear, with the first extract coming from the book of Genesis. This choice immediately establishes the timelessness and grandeur Moby Dick aspires to have, with the novel starting at the very beginning of time itself. Allusions to Jonah, Gabriel, and Lazarus (among others) are also present in the novel, and they all work to reflect the grandeur of the subject matter and scope of the novel.

The number of biblical allusions in the choice of names in Moby-Dick is also significant. Ahab, Ishmael, Peleg, Bildad, Elijah, and Gabriel, for example, are all biblical names with significance to their characters. The name Ishmael, for example, an allusion to Abraham’s illegitimate son who is expelled by his father, reflects Ishmael’s self-described plight as an “orphan” at the end of the novel. That he is saved by Rachel, an allusion to the wife of Jacob, a biblical figure with associations of motherhood and grief, extends this allusion further. By making these allusions, Melville also hints at the role of predestination in the novel, with many of the characters’ destinies determined by their names. This is made most clear in the naming of Ahab, an allusion to a king of Israel notable in the Bible for his sins and wickedness. As Ishmael recounts, “when that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood.” And indeed the determinative power of this name is explicitly referenced, with Peleg detailing how it has been “said that the name would somehow prove prophetic.” And, indeed, in many ways it does, with Ahab proving himself a sinful and blasphemous leader.

Explanation and Analysis—Fedallah as Devil :

Moby-Dick contains many allusions to the Christian conception of the devil, particularly in descriptions of the Pequod’s “pagan” harpooners. Throughout the novel, these figures are repeatedly associated with darkness and the supernatural in ways that link them to sin and dark magic while also highlighting unfortunately common racial prejudices at the time.

When introduced, Ahab’s harpooners are referred to as “five dusky phantoms that seemed fresh formed out of air.” Here Melville emphasizes their “dusky” darkness while also attributing them with a non-human quality, with them appearing out of the air and having a ghostly “phantom” appearance. The link between the harpooners’ non-whiteness and dark magic betrays problematic racial attitudes and a demonisation of the other. Later on, when at the try-works, Ishmael also refers to their “uncivilised laughter [which] forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace.” The association of fire as well as the verb choice of “forked”—which may reference the devil’s pitchfork—both solidify the novel's problematic comparison of people of color with hell and the devil. 

These devilish allusions are made even more clear in the description of Fedallah, Ahab’s lead harpooner and personal prophet. When introduced, Ishmael’s descriptions of Fedallah again focus on his darkness, with him described as “funereally invested” in “black cotton.” This “ebonness” is broken only by his “glistening white plaited turban” of hair, which is described as “coiled round and round his head.” This choice of the verb “coiled,” which elicits an association with snakes, is significant, as it alludes to the figure of the serpent in the garden of Eden—often seen (by Christians, at least) as a symbolic representation of the devil. Indeed, such associations are spelled out later in the novel, with Stubb telling Flask that he believes Fedallah is the devil, saying the reason you don’t see his tail is because he “carries it coiled away in his pocket.” Moreover, Fedallah’s association with charms and prophecy throughout the novel connects him to dark magic and superstition in a way that is designed to emphasize Ahab’s heathenism. Described as Ahab’s “evil shadow,” Fedallah’s influence over Ahab, who is drawn further and further away from Christianity (to the extent that he baptizes his harpoon in the name of the devil), is depicted as analogous to the devil’s mission to corrupt.

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Chapter 1: Loomings
Explanation and Analysis—Life as a Play:

The idea of life being a play forms an extended metaphor throughout Moby-Dick and reflects man’s inability to fight his own fate. This metaphor also asserts the power of art. Ishmael introduces the metaphor in the very first chapter:

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies [...] yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Here, Ishmael sets forth the idea that all men are like characters in a play, cast for their role by the Fates and unable to control their own narrative. His reflection on the cunning involved in this, with the stagecraft so effective that one can barely detect its machinations, speaks to the ease with which humans can delude themselves that they act by their own will and reinforces the determinative role of fate in the novel.

The comparison of the Fates (an allusion to the three ancient Greek sister deities who functioned as the personification of destiny) to “stage managers” proves significant in the way it characterizes artists as possessing their own quasi-divine power. Just as the Fates appoint Ishmael’s “shabby part of a whaling voyage,” so too does the playwright play god in his art, having the ultimate power to choose the destiny of the characters. This metaphor naturally has metatextual implications on the construction of Moby-Dick itself, with this point reflecting Ishmael’s own power over the events of the novel. That some of the chapters are even written in the form of a play (complete with stage directions) reinforces this implication, as Ishmael effectively serves as the Fates in Moby-Dick.

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Explanation and Analysis—Narcissus:

In the first chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville makes an important allusion to the Greek myth of Narcissus. According to the Greek poet Pathenius, Narcissus, cursed by the gods, falls in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. However, unable to have the object of his desire, Narcissus eventually kills himself.  When reflecting on the entrancing nature of water, Ishmael references this tale:

Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

Here, Ishmael uses the myth of Narcissus to highlight the dangers and magnetism of water while also cautioning against man’s ability to cause his own ruin. This allusion to man’s self-destructiveness is only too pertinent to the novel’s central narrative, in which Ahab’s lust for revenge will prove self-destructive. That Narcissus’s downfall is his own self-obsession (his narcissism) speaks also to the dangers of Ahab’s egotism, which will not only lead to his own death, but also the sinking of his whole ship.

The idea of the “ungraspable phantom of life” also speaks to the novel’s preoccupation with the impossibility of being able to pin down the meaning of life, which the whale (also referred to as a “phantom” in this chapter) will come to represent. Throughout Moby-Dick, Melville emphasizes how the root of the whale’s enchantment lies in its mystery and unknowability. Compared to the sphinx, the whale is described as an unsolvable riddle. Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is thus more than just a pursuit of vengeance; it is also a pursuit of knowledge, a desire to solve life’s greatest mystery. However, his attempt to do this, like Narcissus’s attempt to grasp his own image, can only be done in vain, with the refusal to recognize the futility of such an attempt in both cases proving fatal. 

Furthermore, the idea that human will only ever find their own image in his pursuit for meaning is pertinent to the exploration of subjectivity in the novel, in which every character is shown to interpret signs based on their personal experience. This is made most apparent in the crew’s reaction to the doubloon, with every man on the ship giving their own interpretation of the meaning of its symbolism. Once again, Melville thus alludes to the dangers of the ego, which can corrupt true meaning.

When Ishmael describes the myth of Narcissus as the “key to it all,” he thus warns the reader of the dangers of water, of the ego, and of the pursuit of knowledge.

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Chapter 9: The Sermon
Explanation and Analysis—Jonah and the whale :

Father Mapple’s sermon on the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale foreshadows the sinfulness and ill fate that awaits the Pequod’s voyage while also alluding to Ishmael’s future role as a type of prophet. Father Mapple explains how Jonah was punished for not following the commands of God but was later rewarded when he repented. The tale shares many obvious themes with the tale of Moby Dick itself, with it featuring a voyage, a whale, and ideas of sin and punishment.

Mapple’s references to the captain’s selfish decisions in the tale are particularly pointed, hinting toward the selfish captain Ishmael will soon find himself under, Captain Ahab. The story, a fable that warns of the dangers of following one’s own whims over the word of God, ultimately foreshadows the harm that will come from Ahab’s rejection of Christianity and the championing of his own will. That the tale of Jonah is referenced multiple times throughout the novel also speaks to its intended significance.

Furthermore, Mapple’s emphasis on the nature of Jonah’s repentance, by which he goes on to “preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood,” foreshadows the messenger role Ishmael will eventually have. After all, after surviving the sinking of the Pequod, Ishmael will go on to tell the story of this fated ship far and wide both in the stories he tells others afterwards and also in the writing of Moby-Dick itself. By associating this function of Ishmael with the biblical tale of Jonah, Melville suggests that Ishmael’s role as the Pequod’s prophet is God-ordained, implying that he's destined to be the sole survivor of the ship for this exact purpose. Ishmael’s name, which means “God will hear,” further alludes to this function.

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Chapter 19: The Prophet
Explanation and Analysis—Faust:

When Ishmael and Queequeg sign the shipping papers to commit themselves to the Pequod, Melville makes an allusion to the German legend of Faust, which hints at the ill fate that awaits the shipmates. After Ishmael and Queequeg have signed their shipping papers, they are accosted by the prophet Elijah, who asks if they have just signed onto the Pequod:

“Yes,” said I, “we have just signed the articles.”

“Anything down there about your souls?”

Here, Elijah’s question of whether their contracts included anything about their souls alludes to Faust, a character who strikes a bargain with the devil and signs his soul away in exchange for unlimited knowledge. By comparing Ishmael and Queequeg’s shipping onto the Pequod with that of the selling of one’s soul, Melville immediately makes clear the high stakes that are at play and foreshadows the novel's dark ending. The allusion to Faust, who cooperates with the devil, links the Pequod to dark forces, an implication that foreshadows later revelations of Ahab’s blasphemy—for example, his baptism of his harpoon “in nomine diaboli!” (in the name of the devil). That Faust trades his soul for knowledge also alludes to the novel’s exploration of man’s quest for meaning and the dangers that come with not accepting the limitations of worldly knowledge.

The allusion to Faust goes further still by invoking questions of fate and free will, a theme that is a major preoccupation of both Faust and Moby-Dick. When Ishmael confirms they have signed onto the Pequod, Elijah continues:

“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. Anyhow, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men.” 

Here, Elijah’s speech encompasses the tension that is constantly at play between fate and free will in the novel. While his declaration that “what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be” seems to present a clear fatalistic interpretation, with Ishmael and Queequeg’s doomed fate now secured, this is tempered by his comment that “perhaps it won’t be, after all” as well as his emphasis on the importance of signing, an act that requires agency. Indeed, the stress put on the power of the written word, with it being the signing of their names that binds them to the Pequod, speaks to the novel’s exploration of writing as an act of self determination. Ishmael’s writing of Moby-Dick, most centrally, is presented as a way of claiming one’s own narrative. The allusion to Faust—in which the question of whether it is Faust’s agency in signing the deal or a greater force that is in control is left unresolved—is thus apt for Moby Dick, where the reader must also come to their own conclusion.

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Chapter 117: The Whale Watch
Explanation and Analysis—Macbeth :

Shakespeare was one of Melville’s biggest influences, and many allusions to his works can be found throughout Moby-Dick. One example is Fedallah’s cryptic prophecy of Ahab’s death, which mirrors the prophecy in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. After having a prophetic dream, Fedallah tells Ahab:

“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

Here, Fedallah’s prophecy that Ahab will not die until two “hearses”—one not made by human hands and one made of American wood—have been seen resembles the witches’ prophecy to Macbeth, in which they tell him he cannot be killed by anyone “of woman born” and that he will not be vanquished “until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” Fedallah’s prophecy echoes the witches’ prophecy in its reference to wood, but also more holistically in its cryptic nature and prescription of unlikely conditions that must be met before the hero is defeated. 

Moreover, in both cases, the prophecies are dismissed by their subjects, with both Macbeth and Ahab considering the conditions so implausible that they need not be worried. Indeed, both characters are bolstered by the prophecies, which lend them a sense of infallibility: “Ha! Such a sight we shall not soon see,” says Ahab, while Macbeth confidently proclaims, “That will never be.” However, again in both cases, this hubris proves fatal, with both prophecies coming to symbolic fruition. In Macbeth, the enemy’s army comes to Dunsinane Hill through Great Birnam Wood, where each soldier takes a branch, thus symbolically representing the moving of the wood, and Macbeth is slain by Macduff, who we are told was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped”—that is, he was born by caesarean section and thus not (according to the witches, at least) “by woman." Meanwhile in Moby-Dick, Fedallah’s corpse bound to Moby Dick will prove the first hearse, “not made by mortal hands,” and the sinking Pequod, made of American wood and bringing the crew to its death, will prove the second. By making this extended allusion to Macbeth, Melville makes clear that he has created Ahab based on the figure of the flawed  Shakespearean hero whose hubris will prove his undoing.

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Chapter 135: The Chase. – Third Day
Explanation and Analysis—The Albatross:

The final scenes of Moby-Dick contain many allusions to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem that recounts the long voyage of a sailor. Tashtego’s killing of the hawk before the Pequod is sunk is one example of this, with it alluding to the ancient mariner’s fateful killing of the albatross. Melville recounts how, just before the Pequod is fully submerged, a sky-hawk is killed by Tashtego and pinned to the mast:

And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it. 

Here, Melville emphasizes the impiety of this act, with the hawk depicted as a heavenly creature and Tashtego’s killing as a work of Satan. This parallels the events of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the mariner’s shooting of the albatross is demonized as an unholy act that brings bad fortune to the ship. This comparison thus works to highlight the impiety of the Pequod’s mission and the fatal implications of Ahab’s heathenism. 

Moreover, the final scene contains further allusions to Coleridge’s poem, ultimately aligning Ishmael with the ancient mariner. Ishmael’s lone survival after the sinking of the Pequod in a vortex clearly echoes The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the ancient mariner is also the only surviving member of his ship, which sinks in a whirlpool. This comparison alludes to the idea of the fated storyteller, with both Ishmael and the mariner’s survival necessitated by the need for them to go on and tell the story of their impious ships. In both cases, this role as storyteller is tied up with a Christian ethos, in which it is the prophet’s divine duty to spread the word of God.

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