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 ...1
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