Biblical Allusions & References in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will describe how Herman Melville references religion by looking at some examples of allusion in ''Moby-Dick.'' We will review how characters' names, characterizations, and themes are introduced using biblical allusions.

Definition

If someone says, 'Your nose is growing,' it has nothing to do with the size of your nose; it means that person thinks you are lying. That is an example of an allusion from Pinocchio, the tale of an animated marionette whose nose grows when he lies. An allusion is a reference to literature or history that is not explained by the author, but that adds meaning to the text based on the background information of the reader. Frequently, authors will pull these references from the Bible. In Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the author makes several biblical allusions and references, including names of characters and references to biblical characters and events. Let's examine some examples of religious references from this novel.

Names

Several of the names of characters in this novel are biblical allusions. For example, Ishmael, the narrator, is a reference to Abraham's illegitimate son who was cast out when his legitimate son, Isaac, was born. Captain Ahab is also an allusion that references King Ahab, an evil king of Israel who worshipped idols, just as Ishmael accuses Captain Ahab of being a 'wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood.'

At the Spouter Inn, the bartender is called Jonah because of his surroundings. Ishmael narrates, 'Projecting from the further angle of the room stands a dark-looking den--the bar…there stands the vast arched bone of the whale's jaw, so wide, a coach might almost drive beneath it… and in those jaws of swift destruction, like another cursed Jonah (by which name indeed they called him), bustles a little withered old man, who, for their money, dearly sells the sailors deliriums and death.'

This is a reference to the Jonah and the Whale story from the Bible. In the Bible, Jonah tries to defy God, but is swallowed by a whale where he lives for three days before the whale delivers him to Nineveh, which is where God told Jonah to go in the first place. Since the bartender looks like he is standing in the mouth of a whale, he is compared to Jonah.

Characterizing Ishmael

In the first chapter, Ishmael's characterization is developed through allusion. Ishmael wants the experience of traveling, but dismisses the idea of going as a passenger because of the expense. He narrates, 'Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance?' In the Bible, Gabriel is the messenger of God that delivers the news to Mary that she would bear God's son. Ishmael is saying that God won't judge him for working on a ship instead of going as a passenger.

Later, as Ishmael pities himself for being stuck in the cold wind, he compares himself to Lazarus. He narrates, 'But what thinks Lazarus? Can he warm his blue hands by holding them up to the grand northern lights? Would not Lazarus rather be in Sumatra than here?' There are two men named Lazarus in the Bible, both of whom suffer on Earth. The first Lazarus is a beggar who stands near the gates of a wealthy man's house in hopes of getting scraps. When they die, the poor man goes to Heaven, but the wealthy man goes to Hell. The second Lazarus is ill. Jesus allows him to die so that he can perform the miracle of raising him from the dead. Comparing himself to either one is hyperbole to describe Ishmael's misery.

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