Foreshadowing in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Arielle Windham

Arielle has worked worked with elementary, middle, and secondary students in American and Japan. She has a bachelor's degree in English and a master's in Education.

Herman Melville uses foreshadowing extensively in his book ''Moby Dick.'' This lesson will look at why and how he uses this literary device in his classic sea adventure.

What Is Foreshadowing?

Spoiler Alert! Everyone but Ishmael dies. Sorry if you haven't gotten to the end yet. But, to be fair, Melville kind of spoiled it first. He starts dropping hints on page 1!

Throughout Moby Dick, Melville generously uses foreshadowing so that while the reader might not know exactly how each character will meet their demise, they will at least know that something pretty terrible is going to happen to everyone but Ishmael.

But why?

Foreshadowing is like hinting about a birthday gift.

Well, say it's your birthday coming up. Your friend keeps dropping hints about how awesome the present they got you is, and how much you are going to love it. Foreshadowing is the same thing. The author drops hints that clue the reader into what is going to happen next. It isn't enough to ruin the story, just enough to create some tension and suspense. You have to know what happens! So you turn the page. Then the next. And the next.

Many authors use foreshadowing to create those 'dun, dun, duuuuun' moments of apprehension to hook us. We have to know what happens next. Despite the fact we can't change the outcome, we harbor a secret hope that it will work out differently. Why else would we want to keep reading about a doomed ship?

In Moby Dick, Melville had a pretty good excuse for his extensive use of foreshadowing. Ishmael is telling this story some years - never mind how many - after the events. They say hindsight is 20/20, so of course looking back he would see omens everywhere. But there's a bit more to it than that. From page 1 we know that he survives. If we already know the outcome, Melville needs to do something to keep our attention. So he creates a web of foreshadowing to help us along.

Examples of Foreshadowing in the Text

Even if you weren't reading the book super closely (the best scholars skim sometimes too), you probably still caught quite a bit of Melville's foreshadowing. It seems to be everywhere! From paintings, to inn décor, to weather, to the habits of fish, Ishmael sees omens all around him. You could write an entire, albeit much smaller, book on the many instances of foreshadowing found in the story. How about we look at just a few? You can get a good idea from there.

We'll start with the omens. Especially in the early chapters of the book, Ishmael draws a lot of attention to things that remind him of death. For example, when he sees the inn sign for the Try Pots on Nantucket Island, Ishmael is immediately reminded of a gallows with a place for two. He says, ''Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg and one for me. It's ominous, think I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen's chapel; and here a gallows!'' A sense of unease is building the closer and closer he gets to sailing.

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