“Most men worship the gods because they want success in their worldly undertakings. Men whose discrimination has been blunted by worldly desires, establish this or that ritual or cult and resort to various deities, according to the impulse of their inborn nature.” –Bhagavad Gita (Huxley 264-265)
The number three makes roughly two-hundred and fifty appearances in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick. This estimation is not counting the descriptions of the fates or the Trinity, but is calculated by the narrator’s decision to use the mathematical representation of the number. More often than not, when a number is used to describe a distance, a quantity of people, or objects associated with the Pequod, the number three is chosen by the narrator. However, three is not a simple representation of quantity in the novel. As the novel focuses around themes of belief and mysticism, the number’s prevalence in mythology and religion comes to the forefront. From the trinity of God, and Christ’s resurrection on the third day, to the three fates and Ahab’s utilization of pagan rituals, many thematic elements in the novel reveal themselves to be connected by the use of the number.
Ahab’s character is inherently linked to Christianity through the novel and, yet, he utilizes other belief systems in his pursuit of the whale. Combining Ahab’s pursuit with the prevalence of the number three leads to an analysis that the number is used to emphasize a merging of various belief systems. Ahab is depicted as blending, utilizing, and disregarding spiritual elements that don’t venture far from each other to begin with. The Pequod can be viewed as a microcosm of spiritual discourse where the compounded explication of the similarities in various belief systems are revealed through the number three. The Pequod’s ultimate wrecking exposes the flaw in thinking that one belief system excludes or is superior to another. This essay will explore the underpinning connections of the number three throughout the novel and how the number’s prevalence lends to understanding Ahab’s spiritual quest for the whale as a statement on American culture of the time.
Defining Three: How the Number Three is Relevant to Mythology and Religion.
Throughout history, the number three has emerged and reemerged with significance in various myths and religions. To begin, in Greek mythology the number three is represented by the three fates or Moirai: Klotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.
“Plato may be following an old tradition when he states that into the ears of man Klotho sings of the present, Lachesis of the past, and Atropos of the future; and a late belief ascribed to them severally, in the order in which they have just been named, control over the birth, the life, and the death of mortals” (Fox 284).
Framing human mortality with birth, life, and death and framing time with past, present, and future reflects a human understanding of existence divided into threes. Mythology is one system used to make sense of the human condition, but portrayals of existence in time and space compacted into sets of three can be seen in other belief systems as well. This framework of mortal existence and time transposes creed and culture and is used in other cultures, like: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity all have entities that are made of three parts, respectively: the Three Bodies of Buddha, the Trimurti, and the Holy Trinity. Although these belief systems operate in different ways, they all utilize the tri-form to explain an ultimate being that reigns over mankind. The number three bridges the gaps of dogma and belief in these examples because it allows a person from any of these cultures to trace similarities in their belief systems. Stepping away from the narrowed scope of human existence and towards the structure of the universe, these belief systems all share the concept of three planes of existence. In Hindu and Buddhist belief there are three worlds:
“In Hindu tradition there are three lokas (triloka): Earth, the Atmosphere, and the world of the gods. These worlds represent stages of salvation, Heaven being the Vedas. The Three worlds of Buddhism are the lowly kamaloka, the world of Hell and desire; the rupaloka, the world of the gods and of form relieved of desire; and the highest or arupaloka, the world of perfect formlessness” (Leeming 172).
Reflecting on the three worlds of Christianity, Heaven, Earth, and Hell, shows another example of how three evolves as the frame to many belief systems. Tracing the use of the number three through these belief systems shows that various cultures have used the number to outline mortal life and the universe beyond simple coincidence. Condensing existence into a manageable and straightforward representation, the number three emerges as an adaptable representation for understanding existence. The number suspiciously weaves through the narrative and Melville seems to be acknowledging the similarities in religions through his use of the number, especially in moments of spiritual discourse.
Why Should the Number Three be Considered a Motif
Now that the pervasiveness of three has been mapped in various belief systems, it is necessary to outline why the number’s spiritual connotations are relevant to Moby Dick. It has already been noted that the number makes hundreds of appearances in the novel and that this abundance suggests its importance, but what implies that the use is more than unintentional repetition is its application beyond a simple quantity of items. The number is not used only where any random number could be chosen, but transcends quantity and emerges as central to plot and character. Doing so, grants the number a comprehensive presence.
In the very beginning of the novel, the number three is mentioned as Ishmael attempts to make sense of the painting in the Spouter-Inn:
“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. (…) Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvelous painting meant” (13).
In this early mention of the number three, an element of confusion and amazement accompanies its presence. A key element to understanding the picture hovers over the three lines and makes this passage seem like a metaphor for what the number three is portending. Much like the exaggerated existence of the number three throughout the novel, the reader may feel an “involuntary oath” to figure out what meaning is just above the number. Although, if this passage is meant as a metaphor for the curious presence of the number three and the novels larger meaning, it seems that comparing the novel to a “marvelous painting” would be a self-aggrandizing statement on the part of the author. Initially, this self-aggrandizing may seem an unlikely arrogance on behalf of the author and, perhaps, dismiss the probability that the statement is operating as a metaphor. However, when considering what Melville wrote in “Hawthorne and his Mosses” about applauding even the worst of American writers, it could have been written mockingly or tongue-in-cheek. Being that the number three is beneath a “portentous, black mass of something” an element of comedy permeates the passage and furthers the possibility of this passage as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor. The use of a humorous metaphor here could be a way of introducing the reader to patterns in the novel while ensuring that the reader does not feel overwhelmed with dense philosophical meaning. Considering the scale of the novel, as well as what Melville’s previous readership might expect from him, it works in his favor to ease the unsuspecting reader with humor.
As this comedic element introduces the existence of the number three lurking just beneath the confusing black mass that is the painting, so too do features of the novel’s characters seem to revolve extraneously around the number. For instance, all of the ship’s ranks come in threes. Ahab, Bildad, and Peleg are the ship’s three captains (80), Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are its three mates, and Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequag are the three harpooners (124-131). The number appears here in the inherent structure of the ship’s crew. These sets of three show a relevance to the number that goes beyond an unintentional coincidence and exaggerates the number in a direct link with the characters. The three sets, of these three characters, rely on each other to operate the ship. Using the number in this way emphasizes the sense of dependency among the sets through its rote force of presence. Considering how frequently the number is used, in conjunction with its relevance to the novel’s structure, the number must be integral to the novel’s story. Of course, using any number repeatedly could work simply as a tool to cue the reader to similarities or moments of interest in character and plot events that need to be linked; yet, the number three actually coincides with and signifies spiritual themes in the novel suggesting that the number operates as a motif and carries greater meaning.
To better understand why it is necessary to follow the number three in the plot of the novel, it is helpful to begin with the end of the story. In the Epilogue, the representation of the number is heavily acknowledged, Ishmael states: “I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out the rocking boat, was dropped astern” (Epilogue). An epilogue is used as a summary and conclusion and Melville has compacted this epilogue with the Christian connotation of the third day, the quantity of three men tossed from the rocking boat, and references to the number three through the mythology of the Fates. An epilogue is meant to bring together themes and reveal meaning that may exist outside of the story’s ending and it becomes clear that the number three is present almost to the point of exaggeration here. It’s as though Melville is compacting the number’s presence in the story’s end to ensure that it has not been overlooked by the reader.
It is granted that belief systems exist to apply structure or understanding to human existence and it can be argued that a main theme in Moby Dick is the search for understanding in the world of whaling. To clarify, hundreds of pages in the novel are dedicated to the description of whales and whaling to the point that the novel becomes an encyclopedia as much as it is a narrative. Following three as a spiritual reference within these two elements of understanding whaling and understanding spirituality, exposes an intersection in the novel on the level of text and at the level of the reader. As Ahab struggles to understand the world of Moby Dick through tedious cartography, he also struggles to understand the spiritual or mystical elements of the world around him through various spiritual elements. As the reader tries to ascertain Ahab’s spiritual beliefs through signs and motifs, so too does s/he learn about whaling in its expansive exposition. The manner of connecting the reader to the story in this way can suggest that Melville is attempting to bring the novel outside the scope of its pages and engage the reader to think of the story as applicable in real life. Melville’s threading of the number through the novel creates a recognizable component that blends character, plot, and reader experience.
Ahab’s spiritual experiences are depicted as disorderly and ever-changing, a depiction that is not shared by the role of three in the novel. As belief systems change, certain elements, like the use of the number three to effect meaning in the real world, remain unchanged. The number three helps the reader to realize the similarities of belief systems and, thus, its use highlights a notion of interconnectedness; whereas, reading Ahab’s experience alone highlights the disorderly. Melville seems to be conjuring this motif of three in an effort to explicate the similarities of belief in the real world. The next section in this essay will identify and outline the various representations of belief systems that are highlighted by the use of the number three in the novel.
Identifying How Belief Systems are Linked to the Number Three in the Novel
As stated in the last section, the relevance of three is not isolated to quantity within the novel, but can be found connecting characters. In fact, many of the characters are linked to mythology or religion through their personality traits and professional positions on the Pequod. Through representations of three, Ahab, Stubb, and the three harpooners depict the different belief systems on the ship.
Stubb is one of the first characters who appears to have a link to the number three, mythology, and Christianity. Stubb’s relevance to the number can be gleaned, perhaps most obviously, from the simple fact that he is one of three mates. In and of itself, this does not add much weight to the significance of the number in the novel and could be coincidental at best. However, his connection to the number is revealed through the fact that he is the brother-in-law of Charity. He is related to a woman who happens to have the same name as one of the three Saints in Christianity: Faith, Hope, and Charity. Here, Charity is passing along gifts to the whalers: “Charity had come off in a whaleboat, with her last gifts—a night-cap for Stubb, the second mate, her brother-in-law (…)” (111). Her name is embodied by her character trait, adding significance to the name itself. Since there is added emphasis placed on her name, through her characteristic embodiment, it can be determined that her character carries an intended or deliberate significance. Stubb’s relation to her, alone, does not lend a solid link to the idea that he is connected to the number three and systems of belief, but his connection here can be considered, at least, as peripheral.
Beyond Stubb’s peripheral connection, Stubb’s character traits seem linked to a spiritual three as well. He embodies a characteristic of one of the three “Charities” in Greek mythology, Good Cheer. Since his relative, Charity, embodies a characteristic that is associated with both mythology and Christianity, it could be that Stubb is capable of embodying a characteristic from mythology as well. This characteristic can be gleaned in the passage: “[Stubb is] happy-go-lucky (…) Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests” (128). His good cheer goes beyond what can be considered as “normal” happiness, because it emanates in the throes of danger and teeters on the point of exaggeration. Being an in-law to one of the three Saints and seeming to be an allegory for one of the mythological Charities, Stubb represents a physical embodiment, in part, of what the quantity three comes to represent in the novel. With his likeness to a mythological “three,” his character accentuates a relationship between mythology and Christianity. It may not be initially clear whether this accentuation is the author’s intent, but when considering the prominence of the number three throughout the novel, it seems probable. Mythology and Christianity are both mentioned in connection with the number three and both revolve around a main character, Stubb. That the two are interconnected and personified through Stubb adds pertinence to how the number is integral to understanding the characters. Although this essay will not focus on what that means for Stubb, it is relevant to note that the relationship between belief systems is represented in a character closely linked to Ahab; the relevance here will be explored later in the essay.
Another belief system that is connected to characters through the number three is paganism. The three harpooners are called savages and cannibals readily throughout the novel, a few examples: “It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage” (24), “the three savages” (165) “an extremely sensible and sagacious savage” (94). Paganism is often thought to entail a close relationship with the earth through the worship of observable phenomenon. The words savage and cannibal, used by Christians, denote a fearful dislike of their spirituality. Christian rhetoric diminishes the spirituality of pagan ritual by emphasizing its earthly foundations. Like Stubb, the harpooners have a topical connection to the number three, in that there are three of them. However, since the three pagans share the common role of harpooner, the connection of the harpooners to the number three can be gleaned through the importance and relevance of their harpoons: “[T]he three harpooners now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons, some three feet long, held, barbs up, before him” (180). Here, they are standing before Ahab and Stubb holding the three-foot tools that fight not spirituality or ephemeral quandaries, but battle up-close with nature.
The number three is mentioned four times within that short passage, compounding the previously explored connotations of the number with an element of math: “some three feet long.” That the mathematical representation of “three” is compacted in the same place that the pagans are called upon to battle the whale emphasizes the role of math as juxtaposed to Christianity, mythology, and paganism. It’s clear that the number three is used to represent many facets of spirituality, but it is also used to denote various quantities of items that don’t seem inherently linked to spirituality. The mathematical representation of the number three lurks in the background of spirituality throughout the novel, but if there were not to be some connection made between three’s quantitative relevance and its spiritual relevance, the author could have easily chosen a different measurement. It is important to note that although empirical knowledge doesn’t seem to be linked to spirituality, the number three was still chosen and therefore carries all relevant connotations in its mention.
For Ahab, battling the whale requires an earthly power as much as it seems to require spiritual power. The pagans are the ones who use the tools and can be considered as spiritually closest to “natural” or “earthly” spirituality. Thus, they are mentioned in a section that contains a mathematical representation of the number three because math can be viewed as an “earthly” creed. One can put faith in the constancy of mathematics as much as in any other system and, therefore, math qualifies as a belief system. Whereas Stubb rests between both Christian Charity and the mythological Charities, the harpooners are in a place between spiritual and empirical systems. Compounded by the presence of the number three, these characters’ spiritual presence intensifies and validates the theme of merging spirituality in the novel. All of these characters come under the command of Ahab and his spiritual prevalence. Seemingly, Ahab’s commanding of the crew can be related to a command of belief systems.
Before going on to explain exactly how Ahab operates in the novel, it is important to consider the setting in which these characters are placed.
The Pequod as a Microcosm for the Exploration of Spirituality in the Novel
The Pequod is an important mechanism in the novel because it is a contained site in which nearly all spiritual matters transpire. The ship’s relevance to the number three can be determined when considering that Melville chose to map the similarities in belief systems on a ship whose name is that of a Native American tribe. The Pequot are a people who were pillaged by colonists in the early 17th century. Since names in the novel often carry spiritual significance, like Charity, Ishmael, Ahab, etc., it seems probable that the name of the Pequod is meant to represent some aspect of spirituality and, therefore, garnishes an exploration of its spiritual relevance.
Before analyzing the presence of the number three in relation to the ship, it is important to point out a curious statement that occurs right before Ishmael and Queequeg set off to board the Pequod:
“He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety” (95).
In this sentence, Ishmael states that Queequeg, a pagan, looks as though he considers Ishmael to be “lost to evangelical pagan piety.” This statement is curious because it directly expresses a blending of Christian and pagan religious sentiment. The word “pagan” is placed between two Christian words, “evangelical” and “piety” depicting the theme of blended spirituality at the level of the text. It comes after a moment when Ishmael states that “my remarks about religion [had not] made much impression on Queequeg” (94). This statement, that there was no religious impression made on Queequeg, seems to contradict Ishmael’s analysis of Queequeg’s blended sentiments. Ishmael may not realize that Queequeg has already been impressed upon by Christian ideas because, by stating that it has no effect on Queequeg, he fails to consider the feeling as originating in Queequeg beyond the level of his own explication. It’s as though Ishmael’s words resonate only through the assessment that he is able to relay Queequeg’s feeling and not as though Queequeg is capable of actually understanding or embodying the sentiment. This mistaken idea is also reiterated through the use of the conditional tone around it: “as though he thought.” Although Ishmael may be exhibiting his own inability to accept similarities between pagans and Christians, it is clear to the reader that Ishmael is failing to realize Queequeg as the one who gave Ishmael the impression of “evangelical pagan piety.” This concentration of a direct statement on Christian and pagan belief systems and its emphasis at the level of the text gives weight to the idea that blended spirituality is a core theme. This exchange occurs immediately before the two set off for the Pequod and seems to denote the ship as a new setting for this type of discourse.
The Pequod, similar to how some of the characters have a topical connection to the number three, is described as having three masts. This detail seems to allow the Pequod a presence in the novel similar to that of the characters who share a topical linking to the number three. Since the ship’s name is that of a tribe considered, like the harpooners, to be savage and pagan, an element of the ships “earthly” connection emerges. The Pequod’s earthly connection can be interpreted and translated in the same way that the harpooners who carried three-foot harpoons are interpreted. The Pequod’s spiritual significance blossoms when the mathematical quantity of “three” masts is compounded. Those masts are revealed to partake in moments of complex spiritual rituals because the ship serves as an altar for Ahab as he picks and chooses which spiritual dogma to follow. As the big storm looms down, the masts begin to burn:
“All the yard-arms were tipped with a pallid fire; and touched at each tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames, each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar” (549).
The reference of three gigantic wax tapers before an altar depicts a religious burning of candles. Combined with the mythological, religious, and pagan elements in this section, it is unclear at which altar they are burning. Considering that the novel is rife with men from all belief systems, and that Ahab has brought them all together in pursuit of the whale, the vigils can be interpreted as burning for three different systems that Ahab has combined to form a super-ritual. The ship therefore becomes a sort of hybrid-altar. As Ahab conjures the various components of spiritual worship to pursue the whale, the relevance of the ship beyond metaphor comes into view. It is not only an altar in this passage, but it is an earthly tool. It is a tool commanded by Ahab in which spiritual rituals are blended and performed. Since the ship is captained by Ahab, it could be said that it is his altar. It is his altar in that he has ascribed the burning masts to a super-spiritual ritual and it is his altar because the ship belongs, partially, to him. This passage elucidates his own spiritual presence because, as seen through his complete command, it’s as though the ship is an altar burning more for him than for an external diety.
Similar to how early Americans worked to take resources from the tribe, the Pequod is commanded by a crew of people from many different backgrounds who are searching for resources in uncharted waters. Upon analysis, it seems that the Pequod operates as a metaphor for America; a place where spiritual discourse and conflict existed for centuries. Considering the blending of spiritual beliefs that occur on the ship, the elements of metaphor can be taken a step further and related to the clashing of multiple belief systems in early America. As the Pequod is destroyed in the end of novel, so too were the people of the Pequot tribe. The use of metaphor here, when combined with the idea of similarities in belief systems, suggests that Melville is commenting on how Americans failed to recognize their spiritual similarities with others, due to the strict adherence to dogma and earthly greed—like Ahab’s—and how, in failing to do so, many lives were lost.
How the Number Three Magnifies Ahab’s Spiritual Presence
The phenomenon of three seems no coincidence as the novel delves into mythology and religion. The number weaves through the novel revealing a reality of constant blending and retelling of spiritual stories. Ahab blends spiritual elements from different cultures in order to command spiritual tools to help him in the pursuit of Moby Dick and repeated use of the number three evinces a subtly complex and over-arching theme of interconnected belief systems as man quests for reason and vengeance. Through Ahab, the novel challenges the concepts of isolation and importance of one belief system over another. The first part of this essay explored the quantity of three throughout the novel, considered its relevance under the scope of a larger theme of belief systems, and touched on the idea that Ahab manipulates spiritual ritual to pursue his earthly vengeance. Illuminated by the significance of three, Ahab’s character is contrasted to biblical Job when Ahab conjures the earthly ritual to challenge and avenge the loss of his leg. This connection with Job along with Ahab’s use of mythology and paganism, to pursue the whale, charges the novel’s spiritual theme. The number three is always present and acts as a sort of key to understanding Ahab’s quest for vengeance.
So far, the various types of spirituality have been introduced by the way they gain attention through the number three and Ahab is no exception. He is a character closely linked to the number three in a religious aspect. Not only does he command a ship with three masts, three mates, and three harpooners, but he is one of three captains, along with Bildad and Peleg. His connection to Bildad strengthens the relevance of the quantity of three with Christianity because Bildad is one of Job’s three friends in the Bible (Concordia 752). Ahab’s connection with the number three, and its connection to religion can be linked to Job’s story through the concept of loss without understanding. The importance of Job’s story, in regards to understanding Ahab, rests not only in the fact that Bildad is a friend, but in the idea that Job never questioned God’s will or disavowed Him. Ahab, however, challenges God by conjuring elements of paganism. Before exploring Ahab’s manipulation of mythology and paganism, it is first important to explore the connection between Job and Ahab.
Ahab as a contrast to Job
Along with his connection to Job through Bildad and the number three, Ahab is directly linked to Job’s story in the statement: “[Ahab] chases with curses a Job’s whale round the world” (203). Job’s whale references the “Balaam who pronounced curses on people, objects and days. Using vivid, figurative language, Job wishes that “those who curse days would arouse the sea monster Leviathan to swallow the day-night of his birth” (Concordia 736). Being that Ahab curses Job’s whale, it is important to consider what role Ahab is playing in connection to Job’s tale. Ahab’s role can be gleaned from the idea of bodily or earthly loss and his non-acceptance of that loss. Whereas Job never lost his faith: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” (Concordia 735), Ahab attempts to attribute the loss of his leg to the malicious intent of the whale. The connection between Job’s loss and Ahab’s leg can be seen when Satan testifies that Job will fall from God if he is bodily injured: “’Skin for skin!’ Satan replied. ‘A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face’” (Concordia 735). If we are to read into Ahab’s disavowal and search for reason in the whale, it seems that Ahab discerns the loss of his leg not as God’s will, but the whale’s. Ahab blames the whale for his loss and seeks vengeance on him.
As a Quaker, Ahab was once devoted to God and, probably, considered everything that happened, up to the point of losing his leg, as His will. As he relates to Job, it seems that the story is revolving around the fact that Ahab has disavowed God in order to seek power in other forms of spirituality. Unlike Job, Ahab disavows God and attempts to find meaning through other forms of spirituality. He refuses to believe the whale is indifferent to him and, throughout the novel, Moby Dick is personified in a way that makes it seem as though he is capable of complex thought and malicious intent. As Ahab conjures mythology and paganism, the reason for his blending of spiritual rituals, as a search for new spiritual help against nature, comes to light. As will be explored further in the next section, it’s as though Ahab feels God has slighted him and therefore conjures all things outside of Christianity to challenge Him. What Ahab fails to realize, is that he is partaking in an almost biblical recreation of Job’s tale.
How Ahab Highlights the Number Three by Blending Belief Systems
Ahab forgoes belief in God’s will and chooses to take the matter of the whale into his own hands:
“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. (…) Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! (…) Leap! Leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!” (551).
Here it is clear that Ahab is sending a challenge to the “Light thou be” and choosing to defy God by worshiping not only earthly power, but his own power of existence. The mentioning of the word “triply” seems a sacrilegious statement challenging the Trinity. He later makes his harpoon with barbs that are tempered by lightning from this moment: “Tempered by lightning are these barbs; and I swear to temper them triply in that hot place behind the fin, where the White Whale most feels his accursed life!” Ahab has focused his vengeance, on God and the whale, and uses the pagan worship of nature to give him strength and power. How he uses other forms of knowledge, that are distinguished by three, can be seen in other moments of the text.
As Ahab quests for vengeance on an indifferent nature he places value on pagan ritual: “Three punctures were made in the heathen flesh, and the White Whale’s barbs were then tempered” (532). Here the pagan-like act of using three “heathen’s” blood establishes a connection to the whale as a sort of extension of natural knowledge. The whale’s barbs were “tempered” and the Oxford English Dictionary defines tempered as something that is brought to a desired consistency through the mixing of elements. This mixing of elements, pagan and earth can be seen to include Greek mythology as well:
“At one extremity the rope was unstranded, and the separate spread yarns were all braided and woven round the socket; from the lower end the rope was traced half way along the pole’s length, and firmly secured so, with intertwistings of twine. This done, pole, iron, and rope—like the Three Fates—remained inseparable (…)” (533).
Ahab is directly conjuring and melding mythology and paganism in an effort to battle the whale on both spiritual and natural terms and the number three, mentioned as triply and the Fates, follows close behind. For Ahab, the whale is more than an earthly creature, he is a creature that defies the realities of nature. Ahab uses the only tools he knows, blending them together to battle the whale. What Ahab doesn’t realize is his significance in battling the same “evils” of Job. Although his story plays out in a sort of modern reversal to Job’s story, Ahab does not seem to realize this, and rather considers it within his power to piece together various belief systems in an effort to battle nature’s whale. Now that Ahab’s connection to biblical, mythological, and pagan belief systems has been outlined, the question of what that means to the novel’s whole remains.
In the novel’s conclusion, the Pequod is destroyed along with its inhabitants, except for Ishmael. Although he survives, Ishmael is not excluded from the lesson of the novel since he, like Ahab, conjures the fates and religion in a sort of melded way in the end. In biblical history, Jesus was resurrected on the third day. A retelling of life existing beyond death can be seen when Ishmael survives and “rises” again on that third day: “Liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side” (Epilogue). This is an important clue to the meaning of the novel because it concludes the novel and, therefore, acts as a sort of binding of the major themes of belief systems. Since Christianity acts as the structural foundation to the end here, one can consider it as perhaps the strongest or most durable way of understanding the world, at least for Ishmael.
Although Ishmael states that the Fates are who must have chosen him, Ishmael is not the most reliable narrator, as seen in the section about the Pequod, and perhaps he is unable to consider his own emergence as a symbol peculiarly akin to that of Christ’s resurrection and a survivor to pass on knowledge like in Job:
“[W]hat the White Whale was to them, or how their unconscious understandings, also, in some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon of the seas of life,–all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go” (203).
Like those who survive to tell the story of Job, Ishmael seems to be telling his audience a modern version of an old tale. The idea that religious challenges of the past continue through to the future lays the groundwork for the metaphors and the motif of three operating in the novel.
The continued reemergence of the number three in various belief systems seems to mimic and highlight the idea that spirituality evolves both within and outside of strict Christian dogma. If one follows the motif of three through the novel, it forms a tapestry weaving through the book’s story, the characters, and the spiritual history of the world. As Ahab uses spirituality as a tool and challenges God, he ends by perishing in his pursuit of the Leviathan. This all occurs on a ship that seems to operate as a metaphor for American struggles with other belief systems. What it means for Ahab, as the captain of the ship, comes to the forefront.
As the epigraph of this essay suggests, men work to manipulate spirituality for their own ends. Ahab has controlled the ship’s destiny and spearheaded the spiritual blending in an effort to displace God as Supreme. Simultaneously, he commands a ship that operates as a metaphor for American colonial interactions with native peoples. Focusing in on the element of how the number three unites various belief systems, it can be interpreted that Ahab’s disavowal and manipulation of various belief systems acts as a metaphor for Christian out lash against pagan religious belief. The number reveals spiritual similarities, but as Ahab, the “American Christian,” forgoes Christianity he fails to identify those similarities. A reversal on how the Christians treated pagan belief plays out here.
Instead of focusing on Christianity as a supreme tool meant to extinguish all other systems, Ahab focuses on the other systems and extinguishes his Christianity (what remains is that he is shrouded in a Christian tale at all times). The novel seems to be making a statement that, just because there are other religions, does not mean they are any better or worse than Christianity. For the American, Christianity is valued and respected, just as for the pagan, his beliefs are to be valued and respected, or as Greek literature suggested, mythological beliefs also carried great spiritual meaning. When Ahab rejects his Christianity and embraces other spiritual rituals as true, he is not allowing a harmonious blending of all religion. As the novel weaves the number three in and around Ahab’s spiritual struggles, it becomes clear that the reader is meant to follow this clue in order to come to a fuller understanding than that of which the characters are capable. As demonstrated by Ahab, spirituality is not a tool or a concept that must be defended with blood, because that can only lead to an inability to respect religion and, thus, complete destruction. The number three unites very different belief systems, revealing not that one should forego their own beliefs for another, but should instead acknowledge and accept the similarities, allowing all forms of spiritual ritual to exist harmoniously.
Concordia Self-Study Bible New International Version. International Bible Society, 1984. Print.
Fox, William Sherwood. Greek and Roman Mythology. Princeton University. Google Books.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York. Harper & Brothers. 1945. Print.
Epigraph is an excerpt taken from this text. No original citation is listed.
Leeming, David. Asian Mythology. New York. Oxford University Press. 2001. Print.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. New York. Penguin Group, 2003. Print.