Chapter 19: The Prophet

Today we’re going to take a look at… The Future! Or, at least, those who claim to have knowledge of the future, and those who really do, in some sense.

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This chapter is another fun one. Some good dialogue, and some more legend-building for the mysterious captain of the Pequod. It’s funny, there isn’t actually very much dialogue in Moby Dick, but what is there shows that Melville is very skilled at writing it. Goes to show that this book is odd not because he’s covering up for his faults, but because he’s trying something new.

SUMMARY: Queequeg and Ishmael meet a mysterious smallpox-scarred man as they leave the Pequod. He speaks knowingly about the ship and Ahab, and indicates that it may be doomed to some sort of horrible fate, along with those who travel in it. Ishmael is skeptical, thinking that he’s just trying to scare them. Still, he is shocked to learn that the mysterious prophet’s name is Elijah. As they leave, Ishmael suspects they are being followed by Elijah, but it turns out not to be the case.


Boy oh boy, there is a lot to tackle in this one. This is one of my favorite chapters in the book, certainly one of the more memorable. Elijah is a real character, it’s always fun when people get the better of Ishmael. And I like that Ishmael ultimately decides that Elijah is just messing with them. He says what I always think whenever some sort of mysterious prophet shows up in fiction: “It is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.”

But first, we get some more fun myth-making for Captain Ahab:

But nothing about that thing that happened to him off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead for three days and nights; nothing about that deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa?—heard nothing about that, eh? Nothing about the silver calabash he spat into? And nothing about his losing his leg last voyage, according to the prophecy. Didn’t ye hear a word about them matters and something more, eh?

We never get any more detail about what these mysterious incidents actually are. It’s all just about building up Ahab into a real figure of myth, like the reference to him fixing his harpoon on stranger things than whales a couple chapters ago.

What makes it so effective is that it’s juxtaposed with the very straightforward and simple approach that these New Englanders have to every other aspect of their profession. Killing giant monsters in the ocean, sure, that’s just business. But Captain Ahab, well, he’s really something special! He’s someone you can only discuss in hushed tones, trading bits and pieces of tales and gossip. He’s the kind of person who there are actual prophecies about, made by mysterious native americans when he was just a baby.

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This is a good time to circle back around to that, which was mentioned back in The Ship, I believe. The “old squaw Tistig” made a prophecy about Ahab, who was named that by his crazy old mother. She said he would come to a bad end, just like his namesake. His past is shrouded in a kind of Gothic mystery and malaise. The stuff of heroes, but of the darker, more byronic sort.

Which is to say that he’s an example of a very popular archetype in 19th century literature. Your Heathcliffs, your Victors von Frankenstein, your Edmonds Dantes, and so on. A tragic man of many faults, but still capable of great deeds in spite of it, and carrying a kind of terrible gravity.

Ahab, though, is this trope taken to an almost absurd degree. He is so incredibly mysterious and tragic and foreboding, before he’s even appeared on the page! Any time his name is mentioned, you can just imagine thunder cracking the background and the speaker taking on a more dramatic tone.

That’s primarily what this chapter is about, building up that legend even more, with mysterious scarred beggars now adding to the aura of mystery. But also, we’re setting up some prophecies for the voyage, the fate of the ship and those who sail upon it. Nothing very direct, because Elijah is more of a classical prophet, but we get some definite inklings that things are not going to end well.

I probably don’t have to tell you, at this point, that Elijah is a biblical name. He’s one of the more famous prophets of the old testament, featuring there and in the Talmud, and the Quran. Indeed, his name is synonymous with “biblical prophet” in a way that few others are. He prophesied against King Ahab (!) who favored worship of the Babylonian god Baal.

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Elijah is also famous for never dying, but being taken directly into heaven by God when he was still alive. Thus, having a mysterious beggar called Elijah is very effective because it brings the possibility that it is, in fact, that Elijah, having a sojourn down on earth to go around and do some more prophesizing.

Now, generally speaking, in works of fiction, I hate prophecies. They’re just a cheap way to set up a mystery to drive fans crazy. In particular, in fantasy works they often end up getting a lot of narrative focus that feels undue. Rather than paying attention to themes or character motivations or critical analysis or anything like that, people gravitate towards solving the riddle of a prophecy. Fitting the right tabs into the right slots so everything hangs together, and the prophecy can turn out to be true.

There is a prophecy along those lines in this book, but we’re not gonna see it for a very long time, and it doesn’t actually involve Elijah. This guy is acting more like his namesake, a biblical prophet, someone who can speak with god. Which is to say, someone who knows what’s going on from a wider perspective. We get the sense that Elijah wanted to catch Ishmael and Queequeg before they were formally signed on to the voyage of the Pequod, but now that they are it’s too late to change anything.

The voyage is doomed. We’ve already had some intimations of this from the way future-Ishmael writes about it. Elijah speaks about it in an off-hand way, along with all the other mysterious things he knows about Ahab. He has to remind himself that not everyone has the same insight that he does.

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Ishmael finds him very annoying, and frankly I sympathize. Characters who act like they know what’s really going on, but refuse to just take a minute and explain, are incredibly irritating to me. The primary example I always go to is Lost, with the Others on the island. They always acted like they knew all sorts of secrets and hidden truths about what was happening on the mysterious island at the center of that show. But, ultimately, it seems that they didn’t.

There’s a way of writing these things that can be very annoying, where it seems like information is simply being hidden away for no reason. But it’s not as much of a problem in Moby Dick. Spoilers, but Elijah is not going to be sticking around. And the biggest thing that he’s hinting at is something we already know, that the Pequod is doomed and Ahab is the cause. The rest is all window dressing.


That’s all for today. Will we meet this great and mysterious captain of the Pequod any time soon? Surely, the most famous character in the book must show up within the first twenty chapters!

Ha ha, no no no. It will be quite some time before Old Thunder makes a proper appearance. For now, we must be satisfied with the shadows he leaves ‘pon the wall.

Until next time, shipmates!


Image Credits:

Statue of Saint Elie, Aleppo, Syria (1827), by Bernard Gagnon.

Elijah Destroys the Messengers of Ahaziah (1866), by Gustave Dore.

Elijah window from St. Matthews German Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Icon of the Prophet Elijah (1200), by Stephanos.

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