Moby-Dick is the great American novel—an epic of the voyage of life, the story of man’s folly. It is also the story of man’s rebirth from the ways of death to the way of life, and if read as such, Moby-Dick is a very great Christian novel.
Surely no other work of prose fiction contains such a profusion of Christian imagery so concretely identified. The acts and rites of the Church, the dual responsibilities of man-to-God and man-to-man: Herman Melville has given them all, yet wholly and artistically in the language and lore of whaling and the sea.
Early in the novel the vagabond-narrator Ishmael attends a worship service in New Bedford. Ishmael is a Presbyterian by claim, but he is not a practicing believer. He finds the sociality of the pagan Polynesian Queequeg preferable in its simplicity to the profound doctrine of Calvin and Knox. But he goes to church nonetheless on this December morning because he is afraid: he is about to embark on his first whale-hunt.
Melville devotes three chapters to description of the chapel and the service. The preacher is Father Mapple, an old seaman himself, and Chapter IX records his sermon on Jonah. It is the greatest sermon in imaginative literature (see excerpts on page 11).
No other passage in Moby-Dick has stirred quite so many differing patterns in the reflecting pool of criticism as has “The Sermon.” There are critics who think they see in the sermon some degree of contrast between what the preacher says and what Melville would have his readers believe. This camp is headed by Professor Lawrance Thompson, who, in his book Melville’s Quarrel with God, speaks of Father Mapple’s sermon as “the deceptive equivocation and the sneer at Christian doctrine.” There are also critics who regard the sermon merely as an extraordinary example of Yankee oratory. So Lewis Mumford exclaims, “What a preacher, and what a sermon!”
Then there are those critics to whom Chapter IX becomes a key with which to unlock the doors of mystery, or a compass by which to steer through the stormy pages that follow. Howard Vincent writes that “Melville undoubtedly intended that Father Mapple’s sermon should be the vehicle for the central theme of Moby-Dick.” W. H. Auden agrees, declaring that “Father Mapple’s Sermon … is not, as has sometimes been said, a magnificent irrelevance, but an essential clue to the meaning of the whole book.” And Professor Randall Stewart concurs with these opinions when he says:
One remembers, upon reaching the end of the book, Father Mapple’s sermon (in Chapter IX), and looking back, one sees its importance more clearly than before. For Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah gives us a yardstick by which to measure the sin of Ahab.
Clearly the reader of Moby-Dick must choose one of these alternatives or else construct a meaningless fourth—that Melville was merely padding his novel with a sample of New England rhetoric. Obviously this essay claims for “The Sermon” a lasting significance throughout Moby-Dick; indeed, a lasting significance in literature.
What makes it a great sermon? In the first place, the preacher directs his remarks to his audience in a deliberate attempt to establish a relationship between the story and his listeners’ experiences. “What a pregnant lesson to us in this prophet!” he cries. To increase the effectiveness of his delivery and to impress more deeply the importance of the lesson upon his audience, Father Mapple employs a contemporaneity of speech that removes the narrative from its ancient setting to show its current application. The crew of Jonah’s ship are “Joe,” “Jack,” and “Harry.” The interview between the Captain and Jonah is conducted in the American idiom of the time. “ ‘Point out my state-room, Sir,’ says Jonah now. ‘I’m travel-weary; I need sleep.’ ”
A Double-Stranded Lesson
Secondly, Father Mapple declares the message of the Jonah story to be “a two-stranded lesson,” that is, a double-significance bound tightly and intertwined: “a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.” Here we come upon the parallels between the biblical account and the drama of Moby-Dick. Jonah’s example serves to enlighten all men, including Ishmael and Queequeg, members of the congregation that Sunday morning. To each one Father Mapple addresses the lesson:
“Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.”
But that second strand of the lesson relates specifically to the interwoven thread of experience that ties together Jonah, Father Mapple, and Captain Ahab. Consider first the direct resemblances between the Hebrew prophet and the Yankee skipper.
Both are unhappy men with their slouched hats and guilty eyes. Father Mapple calls Jonah “a miserable man … most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God.” Ishmael records that “with slouched hat, Ahab lurchingly paced the planks,” looking like a moody, stricken man “with a crucifixion in his face.”
When Jonah seeks to crown his escape from God by adding the privacy of a locked door to his perquisites, “the Captain laughs lowly to himself.” There is in that laugh the evil suggestion of imminent disaster, and its similarity to “the low laugh from the hold” of the “Pequod” that presages the role of Fedallah in Ahab’s tragedy is frightening.
Hidden away in his cramped bunk beneath the waterline of the ship, Jonah watches the lamp remain steady in spite of the heaving of the ship. “ ‘Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!’ he groans, ‘straight upward, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!’ ” Thus Father Mapple characterizes the remorseful prophet. So too are all the chambers of Ahab’s soul, “tied up and twisted; gnarled and knotted with wrinkles.” Not so the warning, burning masts of his ship. Like Jonah’s steady lamp, they stand straight; the corpusants at their tips blaze upward in a blinding apocalypse of doom. “God’s burning finger has been laid on the ship,” Ishmael discovers. “His ‘Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin’ has been woven into the shrouds and cordage.” But even as the great masts burn like candles, and in spite of the Christian mate Starbuck’s condemnation—“God, God is against thee, old man; forbear! tis an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued!”—Ahab rededicates himself and his entire crew to their iniquitous quest.
“All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that ye may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!” And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame.
Jonah’s conscience appalls him, Ahab’s is quenched. There a difference between the two lies.
Father Mapple tells the audience that, in his greatest moment of need, Jonah cried “ ‘out of the belly of hell’—when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones.” Jonah’s prayer stands starkly in contrast to Ahab’s curse at a similar time of need: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee, … thou damned whale!”
One Restored, One Doomed
The greatest distinction between Jonah and Captain Ahab is apparent in Jonah’s restoration and Ahab’s doom. For Ahab there is the shattering realization that he has failed. “Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief,” he despairs. The reader gropes to find Ahab’s meaning: perhaps he suggests that his most noble moment, since the avenging act upon Moby Dick has never been consummated, was the instant of Ahab’s dismembering. If so, Ahab is conscious in his final speech of having had his closest communication with Supremacy in the initial confrontation. All his subsequent suffering and self-denial have not elevated him above the psychical apex he once reached at the Season-on-the-Line.
But because Jonah’s conscience was not seared, and because he “prayed unto the Lord his God, ‘salvation is of the Lord,’ ” Father Mapple’s peroration can sound its exultant peals. As if prefiguring the depths of Ahab’s “topmost grief,” the preacher reminds his seafaring congregation that God’s delight is higher than man’s woe, even as the pinnacle of the ship is higher above the water than the keel is below. The regenerated prophet is portrayed as possessing “delight … a far, far upward, and inward delight,” and with this delight an unmitigating sense of purpose that reveals something of the New England independence-from-men and dependence-upon-God that typifies such widely diverse philosophies as those of Edwards and Emerson. “Against the proud gods and commodores of this earth,” Jonah “ever stands forth his own inexorable self.” Therefore “delight,—top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven.”
Excerpts From ‘The Sermon’
Father Mapple … slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’
“Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billowlike and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; seaweed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God.…
“Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an annointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things, and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along ‘into the midst of the seas,’ where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and ‘the weeds were wrapped about his head,’ and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet—‘out of the belly of hell’—when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up towards the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and ‘vomited out Jonah upon the dry land;’ when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten—his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean—Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it!
“This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts dishonor! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!”
He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm—“But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,—top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath—O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing; I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?”
He said no more, but slowly waved a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place. [Moby-Dick, L. Mansfield and H. Vincent, eds., Hendricks House, 1952. By permission.]
The contrast between Jonah and Ahab at this point is strikingly clear. How many citations could be amassed from the text of Moby-Dick to show Ahab’s unflinching refusal to give his allegiance to anyone but himself! Yet even he realizes the contradiction of fact.
“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before the ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.… Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump, leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. Tis Ahab.”
Another set of comparisons exists, that between Ahab and Father Mapple. Here the contrast need not be quite so hypothetical, for both are flesh-and-blood contemporaries, men who have sailed the same seas, perhaps in the same ships. But one has retired from the sea; the other ought to have retired. One has committed his will to God’s use, while the other has sanctified that will unto himself.
There can be no doubt that Melville wished his readers to see in the personality of Father Mapple a character such as Ahab might have been, had he left the sea after his crippling to follow “his humanities.” In fact, it could well be argued that Melville is implying in the parenthetical paragraphs describing the preacher in action that Father Mapple was once himself a Jonah/Ahab. His demeanor is that of a man relating a confession from the inner core of his soul. He is no mere story-teller, embellishing a fish-tale. Throughout the chapter he is depicted as increasingly engrossed in his message.
His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell. He … seemed communing with God and himself.
But again he leaned over towards the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words.
He drooped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm.
We may rightly suppose that Father Mapple, like Jonah, “when the word of the Lord came a second time,” had responded to do the Lord’s bidding, as a man who realizes his own position as a sinner before God and senses both God’s hands pressing upon him. Ahab had never acknowledged his obligation because Ahab, though smitten by fire and disabled by the Whale, had never learned the greatest lesson to come out of Father Mapple’s sermon.
“As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because 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. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai 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.”
Melville, through the lips of Father Mapple, has caught in that last sentence the essence of the struggle that faces every man—the conflict between flesh and spirit that Jesus Christ taught when he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Moreover, it is the conflict that Christ himself experienced in Gethsemane. And it is in the spirit of consecration expressed through the Saviour’s prayer, “Not my will, but thine, be done,” that Father Mapple is last seen.
He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place.
The sermon is ended but its significance lasts, and its effect is powerful, whether in or out of the book.
Now as I sat down at my morning meal in the house where I do dwell, I did look down upon a table spread with the good fruit of the earth. But I was weary and ill at ease and could not eat. There was food for my body, but my soul was desolate. The girl friend, who knows me perchance all too well, did then say: “Thou needest not tell me what ailest thee; it is thine old ailment. Thou hast again said all that thou knowest on the Sabbath Day and there is nothing left for thee to say on the coming Sabbath. Thou hast thy Monday morning blues.” Then I did reply, “Thou speakest wisely. My head is as a barrel, and I have come to the bottom of my barrel. I must flee to the hills and hide my hoary head in shame, even if perhaps the whole world doth perish with me.” But the girl friend hath a way with her. Whenever I dance around in holy glee as if I were God’s personal secretary, she soon bringeth me back to earth. She steppeth on my toes to remind me that I too have feet of clay. But whenever I am in the depths of despair, she lifteth me up on a rock that is higher than I. “The whole world will not perish if thou ceaseth thy preaching,” she said. “One higher than thou is in charge of things. Thou thinkest that thou art a little god. Thou speaketh too much of what is in thine own mind and not enough of what is in the mind of God. There is enough light in his Word to sustain thee for thy threescore and ten years. Forget thyself, open thy mind, hear His voice, and new truth will come pouring in as in the sound of a rushing wind.” Then I did sit down and eat a good hearty breakfast of ham and eggs, and I did say to the girl friend, “Thou art a good egg, and I have been acting like a ham. Thou speakest so wisely, forsooth; can it be because thou hast been listening to such good sermons during thy lifetime?” The girl friend thereupon did heave a deep and heavy sigh.—The Rev. DOWIE G. DEBOER, Brimfield, Massachusetts.
D. Bruce Lockerbie teaches literature and composition at The Stony Brook School. He received the A.B. and the M.A. degrees from New York University, and is chairman of the English Department at Stony Brook.
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