Jonah makes, by name, 85 appearances in Moby-Dick.  There are no doubt other references that recall him obliquely without using his name. And of course some characters in Moby-Dick bear certain resemblances to Jonah, bringing the total reference count up yet further. In chapter 82, Melville puts Jonah together with the likes of St. George, Vishnu, Perseus, and Hercules, and suggests that as the Hebrew texts predated the Greek, so Jonah must be source material for the Hercules myth (if Hercules, why not also Perseus? Melville doesn’t answer). That first whaler (as Melville would have him) shows up by name in the extracts and eight chapters, generally at ten-to-twenty-chapter intervals. Ishmael aside, Jonah is probably the most consistent presence in the text from beginning to end.

Delbanco points to speculation that the chapter containing Father Mapple’s sermon (all about Jonah, recall) was a late addition to the text. If so, then such an addition would seem to suggest that Jonah serves a more important role in the text than merely that of a convenient Biblical reference. The lesson of Father Mapple’s sermon is fairly simple, if eloquently illuminated by that dramatic man. It is “a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” But that’s the story and not the lesson; the lesson is that willful disobedience of God’s command simply will not do. In addition to declining to obey God, Jonah had the gall to try to flee bodily from that omnipresent, omniscient deity.

Yet in the end, after his sojourn in the belly of the whale, Jonah repents of his hubris. So too, Mapple says, may people repent. “Sin not,” he says, “but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”

Now, let’s stand Jonah up for a moment next to Ahab. Both are prone to hubris. Both would meddle with a thing greater than themselves. They both sleep (surprisingly) through calamitous storms. Melville writes at more length than seems necessary about lamps in the cabins of both men. Shipmates come very near to ousting both, though each ultimately ousts himself (Ahab insisting that Starbuck stay aboard the ship; I see this as an echo of Jonah’s allowing himself to be cast away in order to spare the lives of the men he has shipped with). Melville highlights the Biblical detail of weeds wrapped around Jonah’s head, and he kills off Ahab by lashing him to Moby Dick by the hempen line. The ever-present contrast between land and ocean in Moby-Dick is present in the short book of Jonah as well.

But where Jonah flees the infinite, Ahab pursues it. As Jonah (in Father Mapple’s telling) sleeps in his cabin, the whale that will swallow him makes its way toward the ship, while Ahab, in his cabin, plots a course willfully in line with the course of the whale he pursues. Jonah flees his destiny, while Ahab strives to force his destiny.

Is this the lesson of Moby-Dick? That you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Melville surely writes a great deal about fate and predestination, not least of all at the end of the chapter entitled “The Symphony,” worth quoting at length:

What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths

Note how the beginning of Ahab’s speech echoes the sense of part of Father Mapple’s sermon:

As with all sinners among men, the sin of [Jonah] was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God — never
mind now what that command was, or how conveyed — which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do — remember that — and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavors to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.

It is disobedience to yourself that’s hard. Ahab knows not what drives him so. Jonah knows what drives him but disobeys it so that he can be obedient to himself. Both men meet a whale; only the one who repents comes back alive.

It’s interesting to me that Father Mapple leaves off the second half of Jonah’s story. I suppose it’s not especially nautical. Having landed at last in Nineveh, Jonah goes to preach God’s wrath and promise of destruction to the inhabitants of that vile land. To his surprise, they repent. When God decides to spare them, Jonah goes a bit emo and declares that in a world in which God can repent of the evil he had promised, he (Jonah) would rather die than live. He then goes off to pout in the sun. God makes a plant grow to give him shade. Then God sends a worm to kill the plant so that Jonah is miserable again. Jonah once again wants to die. The lesson God seems to want to teach Jonah here is that just as he (Jonah) pitied a plant that grew overnight and was killed (I figured he was just angry because God took away his shade), so God pitied the people (and the cattle) of Nineveh.

Consider this brief passage, as Starbuck seems to be on the verge of convincing Ahab to turn the ship around in “The Symphony”:

But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.

Like Jonah’s tree, Ahab — on the cusp of a sort of redemption — is blighted at last. The long passage I quote above in which Ahab waxes philosophical on self-knowledge (ahem, apples) and fate immediately follows this simile, just one more entanglement with the story of Jonah.

Melville points out time after time that people are bound together as members in something like a joint-stock company. Even when you think you’re merely following your own nose, you’re so wrapped up within the warp and weave of the fabric of society that you can’t avoid either being touched or touching the lives of others. Trying to run from God? Maybe you’ll get your ship’s crew wrecked. Planning a monomaniacal chase and revenge killing of a storied and apparently malicious whale? Might want to think for a moment about how it’ll affect those who ship with you. Or: Want to enact Manifest Destiny by fighting a war with Mexico? Maybe you should consider the thousands who’ll die in the conquest. (Of the Mexican-American War, Emerson said “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man who swallows the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” Melville, Delbanco tells us, harbored similar thoughts.) Or: Figuring on passing a law that would allow slave owners to hunt men down like prey and drag them home? Well, you get the point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s