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.
Limits of Knowledge ThemeTracker
Limits of Knowledge Quotes in Moby-Dick
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.
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 . . . .
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!
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.
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 . . . ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.