And here we are, at the climax of the most overtly religious section of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale. Now that the church itself, the pulpit, and Father Mapple have all been introduced, it’s time for the main event!
SUMMARY: Father Mapple gives a sermon on the Book of Jonah.
This chapter starts off with a little taste of the way that Mapple is going to mix in colloquial salty, sailor-ish phrases into his serious religious teachings. He calls everyone from starboard and larboard to come midships, or to gather in the middle of the church, closer to the pulpit.
“Larboard?” you may be wondering, “I thought it was port and starboard”. You would be right, even at the time this book was written, but only just. It was starboard and larboard until the 1840s, when naval captains in Britain got tired of people mishearing and going to the wrong side of the ship. They changed larboard to port, to cut down on that confusion, and the American navy followed suit a few years later. This change was probably just filtering down to merchant ships around the time Melville was writing this book, so it’s hard to blame him.
And, anyway, this book is actually set in the past, having been written by a modern, older Ishmael, so it’s not a mistake even within the fiction!
Fun fact: “Port” isn’t actually much of a change in meaning from “larboard”. It comes from Old English meaning “load board”, or the side of the boat that you load things onto, from the port. “Starboard” comes from “steer board”, or the side you steer from, using an oar, before rudders were invented.
Let’s get into this sermon! It concerns, as you could probably guess, the story of Jonah, from the relatively short Book of Jonah, of the Old Testament of the Bible. The gist of it is that Jonah is ordered by God to go tell the city of Nineveh that they’re acting terribly and God is going to destroy them, but Jonah refuses because he is afraid of what the Ninevites will do it him.
Instead, he tries to run away. This part is wonderfully embellished by Mapple, who really brings life to the sailors and captain of the ship who Jonah books passage with. He emphasizes how guilty Jonah looks, but how he tries to act as though nothing is wrong. There’s a fun bit where the captain suspects him, and so charges him triple the usual rate, and has his suspicions confirmed when Jonah doesn’t even try to haggle. But hey, money is money, so off they go.
You know how this part goes, I’m sure. A storm appears, and will not relent. The sailors cast lots for who to throw overboard to appease the storm, and Jonah gets it. He confesses then and there that he is defying God. Interestingly, the sailors don’t throw him over immediately, but still try to make it through the storm, only finally tossing him as they are on the brink of destruction. Then, the storm goes away, instantly, and Jonah gets eaten by a whale.
In the original text, it actually only says “big fish”, but that came to mean the same thing as whale in Latin, so it’s a whale. We’ll get into some Discourse on whales w/r/t their status as fish or now at a later point.
Jonah finally asks for forgiveness from God, and is spat up on a beach, and goes off to prophesize against the Ninevites.
Mapple draws two lessons from this:
First: If you sin, you have to repent. You have to apologize, and ask for forgiveness, even knowing that some horrible fate may await you. This is one of the sins that Jonah commits, he defies God and then, on the ship in the storm, refuses to repent. That is why he’s swallowed up and taken to the depths of the ocean, until he does finally admit his wrongdoing. And then, even from those same abyssal depths, God hears his plea, and has mercy upon him.
Secondly: It is important to speak truth to falsehood, especially for those who know the truth. Mapple applies this lesson to himself, rather than the congregation. Jonah was told that he was to go tell the Ninevites that they were doing evil, and would be destroyed. But he feared their reaction, and so hid himself away. He was told the truth directly by God, but couldn’t bring himself to tell others. So, it is a great sin to hide your knowledge of the truth, especially as it pertains to God and sin.
Of course, this latter lesson is built on the notion that you know what the truth is, and a major theme of this book is that that’s kind of a questionable business. Ishmael is constantly doubting that anyone can ever know the truth about anything. So this seems like a bit of a moot point, but it applies more to Ishmael’s philosophical opposite, who we have not yet met.
The sermon ends with some bog standard stuff leading off of that, about speaking truth the power and how your reward will be eternal for following the will of God, and so on. Then Mapple simply kneels down in prayer, in the high, lonely fortress of a pulpit remember, and waits there silently until everyone has left.
Something that’s hard to get across with this chapter, and you may not notice even if you read it, is that it is definitely written to be an actual oratory, a speech that you give out loud. It simply flows better if spoken aloud, preferably in a loud voice, perhaps standing or sitting in a huge armchair next to a great roaring fire. Take this passage, and notice the rhythm of it, the ebb and flow, and try saying it aloud to yourself:
Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas. So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,—no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux. At last, after much dodging search, he finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its Captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger’s evil eye.
It’s just great. Honestly, this chapter may be one of the most influential on my own style of writing. I try to simply write how I would speak, most of the time. It works pretty well, keeps the energy up, gives it more of an easy, readable flow.
Oratory was a much more important thing in the 19th century, and before. Many people made their livings going around giving speeches, especially authors. In the ages before mass communication through radio, being able to give a powerful, persuasive speech in person was a very valuable skill. This kind of sermon would be very common, and in fact they were often transcribed and sold later, in printed form.
There are many themes introduced here that will come back many times. The idea of a man struggling to comprehend the will of God is a big one. We see again an idea of disregarding petty physical things in favor of actually important spiritual concerns, although from a very different angle. Mapple says that you’ll have a true, better reward if you do the right thing, and that any physical torment you suffer will be worth it, as opposed to Ishmael thinking that none of this physical stuff even matters at all, as it’s only a small part of his true existence.
This is kind of the introduction, then, of another major theme: Destroying your body in service to another. In this case, it’s in service of God, telling Jonah to go do a thing that might get him hurt, but is scary. We’re going to get some stronger, more direct versions of this once we actually get on a whaling ship.
The style of this chapter is so strikingly different from all the others, it’s definitely one of my favorites. Melville is able to really show off his gift for writing prose here. Try not to skim over it, it’s worth it to take in all that good nautical language.
Ah, that was a fun one. Lots of stuff to talk about there, and I really only scratched the surface. We’re still planting the seeds for a lot of big themes that will only come into full bloom much later in the book.
The next chapter is A Bosom Friend, and is an interesting counterpoint to this one. A bit less on the overt religious themes, and a bit more down to earth and heartwarming.
Until next time, shipmates!
Image credits, in order:
Jonah and the giant fish (1400), Jami al-tawarikh, by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani.
Jonah and the Whale (1621), by Pieter Lastman.
Jonah Cast Forth By the Whale & Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites (1866), by Gustave Dore.