Elijah in Moby-Dick: Prophecy & Quotes

Instructor: Richard Pierre

Richard has a doctorate in Comparative Literature and has taught Comparative Literature, English, and German

In chapter 19 of 'Moby-Dick', a mysterious figure, Elijah, prophesies doom for all who join Captain Ahab aboard the 'Pequod'. This lesson explains the significance of Elijah's prophecy, and analyzes quotes related to it.

The Encounter with the Strange Man

Chapter 19 is only a few pages long, but it has great significance for Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. At the beginning of chapter 19, narrator Ishmael and shipmate Queequeg are walking quietly along the wharf when a strange, shabbily dressed man asks them if they belong to that ship. Remember when your mother told you never to talk to strangers? At first, Ishmael takes this approach and doesn't respond, only looking at the man's ratty clothing, smallpox-scarred face, and outstretched finger. The man repeats the question before Ishmael finally asks if he means the Pequod.

The Warning About Captain Ahab

The men start a conversation about the boat and its captain, Ahab. When Ishmael tells him he and Queequeg have just signed a contract to work on the Pequod, the man asks Anything down there about your souls?, suggesting that to work on that ship for Ahab is to sign your soul away. The man tells them, perhaps ironically, not to worry about it, since A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon. Anyway, he tells them, Ahab, or Old Thunder, has enough spirit to make up for everyone else. The mysterious man insists that although he is a good ship's captain, Ahab is a harsh man with a dark past: drifting near death for three days off of Cape Horn, getting into a deadly fight with a Spaniard, and losing his leg to a whale on his last voyage.

Final Chase of Moby-Dick
Image of a whale chase

Ishmael brushes off the man's warning as meaningless. After all, he looks a little crazy. Imagine if a stranger leapt out from a dark alley as you were walking along, happy as a clam, and told you that you were doomed. Would you pay it much mind? When Ishmael starts to walk away, he finally learns the mysterious man's name: Elijah.

Elijah the Biblical Prophet

As told in the Books of Kings in the Bible, Elijah was a prophet in ancient Israel. He lived during the rule of--get this--King Ahab. Ahab was called a wicked king for worshiping the idol Baal instead of the God of the Israelites. The prophet Elijah warned King Ahab that doom was to follow if he didn't mend his ways. Ahab resists, and sure enough, years of drought and pestilence follow.

Elijah the Prophet
Portrait of Elijah the Prophet

By naming the mysterious man in chapter 19 of Moby-Dick Elijah, and having him warn Ishmael and Queequeg about Captain Ahab, Melville's novel demonstrates a clear use of allusion, or a reference in one work to another. The connection between the Biblical Elijah and the Elijah on the wharf gives some legitimacy to his prophecy, which might otherwise seem like the rantings of a crazy man. King Ahab met his downfall because of greed and devotion to a false god, so perhaps Captain Ahab's undoing will come because of his unwavering pursuit of the whale. So Ishmael and Queequeg should high-tail it, right?

Evaluating the Prophecy

The problem is Ishmael and Queequeg don't yet really know about Ahab's madman-like tendencies. Elijah's vague prophecy isn't much to go on, either. When Elijah asks them what they know about Ahab, he seems surprised when they admit that they haven't heard much about the captain's past. Yet he doesn't tell them much about it, either, only responds by saying, No, I don't think ye did; how could ye? Who knows it? Not all Nantucket, I guess. But hows'ever, mayhap, ye've heard tell about the leg, and how he lost it; ay, ye have heard of that, I dare say. Oh yes, that everyone knows a'most--I mean they know he 's only one leg; and that a parmacetti took the other off.

Ishmael and Queequeq already knew that a whale had taken Ahab's leg, so this doesn't give them any new clues. Elijah says that the loss of the leg came according to the prophecy, but he doesn't tell them anything about this prophecy itself, or exactly how it's related. Ishmael and Queequeg are as much in the dark as before.

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