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.”
Nature and Man ThemeTracker
Nature and Man Quotes in Moby-Dick
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Thus we see how that the spine of even the hugest of living things tapers off at last into simple child’s play.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.