Biblical and Mythological Allusions in Moby Dick

Biblical and Mythological Allusions in Moby Dick

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An allusion is a reference to a well-known person, place, event, literary work, or work of art.   Writers often use biblical and mythological allusions to which their readers are familiar.  In Moby Dick, Herman Melville frequently uses biblical and mythological allusions.  With these allusions the reader begins to understand the topic of discussion and is also exposed to the wisdom and knowledge Melville possess.

      The first allusion appears in the first line of the novel.  “Call me Ishmael.” (Melville1).  Ishmael was the biblical son of Abraham and his servant Hagar.  He was disowned in favor of Isaac, Abraham’s son with his wife Sarah.  An angel prophesied to Hagar.  “his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” (Genesis 16:12).  The name “Ishmael” has since become used commonly for an outcast, which is appropriate since he is inexperienced when it comes to whaling and is viewed as AN outcast to the other sailors upon the Pequod.

      Another biblical allusion is of the prophet Elijah and Captain Ahab.  Elijah WARNS Queequeg and Ishmael of Ahab.  Ishmael says he and Queequeg ARE boarding the Pequod because they have just “signed the articles” (Melville 68) and Elijah responds “Anything down there about your souls” (Melville 68).  This conflict between Elijah and Ahab goes all the way back to the bible.  I Kings describes the conflict between King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  Elijah tells Ahab that “in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick they blood, even thine,” (I Kings 21:19), and that “the dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezrell” (I Kings 21:23).  This allusion is significant for foreshadowing the destruction of the Pequod.  In Moby Dick the characters names are not so different than names in the Bible and neither is the outcome of those characters so different.

      Melville not only used a number of biblical allusions in Moby Dick, but he also used many mythological allusions.  He used Greek mythology in describing the tattooing on the Queequeg.  “The counterpane of the patchwork, full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles, and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure” (Melvine 19).  The Cretan labyrinth was the maze, which imprisoned the half-bull, half-human Minotaur.  This adds immensely to the visual imagery of Queequeg.  Being able to imagine this large, black harpoon with a  “Cretan labyrinth of a figure” (Melville 19) the reader has a more appealing and specific picture of him.

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     Another mythological allusion Melville used in Moby Dick is mentioned of the Fares.  Ishmael justifies his boarding the Pequod when he says, “I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage, this the invisible police officer at the Fates, who has constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way…”(Melville 4).  The Fates are the three goddess who control life and human destiny, Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachisis determines its length, and Attropos cuts in off” (Hayford, Parker 7).  Melville creates a much more intellectual statement than if he were to say, “I decided to go on a whaling voyage because I felt like it”

      There are many more allusions in Moby Dick.  Melville effectively shows the reader his intelligence.  The allusions in Moby Dick are to commonly known people and conflicts.  This makes the novel easier for the reader to comprehend. 

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