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Foreshadowing in Moby Dick

Updated on July 5, 2012
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Introduction


Reading Moby-Dick required me to obtain the mindset of an explorer, on a mission to follow an elusive trail for meaning, amidst thickets of forestry. Herman Melville’s lush imagery and tangled prose inspired me to stay lost; yet I was reminded to stick to the plot in spite of the wordy distractions along the way. In Moby-Dick traces of foreshadowing are hidden under blankets of description, leaving readers to peel back layers in an effort to arrive at intended meanings. The moment the table of contents is opened, all one hundred and thirty-five chapters of whaling expedition are listed in chronological order, as if to prepare the unsuspecting eye for a journey aboard the Pequod. One passage in particular held my undivided interest until I was able to reach a relieving epiphany several pages later. I painstakingly discovered that the last sentence of Chapter 60, The Line, holds the disguised foreshadowing of the fate of the Pequod and its inhabitants within the short context of one paragraph.

Foreshadowing in Chapter 60: The Line


Chapter 60 begins as a detailed account of the whale-line used on American ships and the underestimated danger associated with the coiling hemp, if not handled cautiously by crew members. At first, The Line, masks itself as yet another chapter in which Melville familiarizes the reader with a structural aspect of the whaling ship but it turns out that with further inspection the chapter reveals just as much about the nature of death as it is does the composition of the whale-line. The dread of mortality that accompanies the rope description acts as a deterrent from the prose-like writing and leisurely pace which characterize Melville’s writing style. A coiling whale-line that appears harmless to the landsman is described to the reader as a slithering serpent of death that surrounds the oarsman in a life-threatening maze. Melville describes the rope as such an important apparatus, that if even a kink should disrupt the singularly, spiraling whale-line, disaster would ensue in the form of bodily dismemberment.

The passage at the bottom of Chapter 60 invokes a fleeting sense of importance but remains frustratingly vague to the first time reader: “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher . . . you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire”(Melville 306). In the quote, Melville differentiates the wisdom of the philosopher in recognizing the fragility of life on a regular basis from the foolishness of the mortal in failing to recognize how easily and subtley life can be pulled out from beneath ones feet. While the meaning was easily sought, I struggled to understand the reason behind Melville’s choosing to place the subtlety of mortality in the same chapter as the whale-line. Though the hempen line is quick to bestow death upon crew members, so is the mast-head, so why not place the aspect of death in this chapter instead?

Fedallah's Death Prophecy


It wasn’t until I arrived at Chapter 117, that the reasoning behind the strategic placement of such a profound quote presented itself to my restless mind. The moment Fedallah makes his death prophecy, telling Captain Ahab that he can only die by hemp, I was able to link the mention of hemp with The Line Chapter. I retraced my steps back to Chapter 60 where I realized that Captain Ahab would likely die by whale-line despite his foolishly believing that death by hemp would not occur at sea. I was able to arrive at my conclusion once I associated Captain Ahab’s foolishness in hastily misinterpreting the warning held in Fedallah’s prophecy with the mortal man Melville describes in the quote I struggled with previously: “it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life”(Melville 306). A domino effect subconsciously pervaded my thinking and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place one after another. If Captain Ahab was the fool mentioned in the quote then the survivor of the Pequod’s perils must be the wisest man aboard the ship, either Starbuck or Ishmael.

I found the connection made between the deceiving façade of the whale-line’s harmlessness and the deceiving façade of The Line Chapter in foreshadowing the fates of both Captain Ahab and Ishmael, to be tangible proof of Melville’s literary genius. With at least one hundred pages left to spare, I was able to vaguely discover the fates of two central characters in Moby-Dick before reaching the end of the novel. By using foreshadowing offered up by Melville to my own device, predicting an accurate outcome to the story’s ending became completely plausible. The Line Chapter demonstrates to the reader one of many instances in which the skilled use of literary technique, teems beneath the surface of passages held in Moby-Dick and the viable results of digging deeper.

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    • Chelsea Vogel profile image
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      Chelsea Vogel 5 years ago from Bradenton Florida

      Thanks for the recommendation, I'll be reading that! This was an academic essay for Selected Authors in American Literature. To be honest I had to quite literally force myself to sit at my desk and write this essay because I was more interested in Melville's writing style and the fluidity of his philosophical musings than I was in his strategic use of literary technique.

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      quietinstrumental 5 years ago

      I have yet to read Moby-Dick (currently making my slow, bemused way through Ulysses, a mammoth in its own right), but this was well-written and, from what I could tell, quite perceptive. I'd recommend Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden for his analysis of the novel as it relates to cultural/ideological tensions between pastoralism and industrialism (which is the main concern of the book at large; I'd read the whole thing, actually, as it's pretty eye-opening). By the way, is this an academic essay or did you write it for fun?

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