Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick

Limits of Knowledge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Nature and Man Theme Icon
Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
Madness Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Moby-Dick, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon

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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Limits of Knowledge ThemeTracker

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.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:
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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia dese

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:

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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:

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim