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The Major Role of The Theme of Free Will Versus Fate in Moby Dick, a Novel by Herman Melville

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The Major Role of The Theme of Free Will Versus Fate in Moby Dick, a Novel by Herman Melville essay


The theme of free will versus fate plays a large role in Moby Dick. One’s fate can be described as the path of events in their life that unfolds and cannot be altered. However, in Moby Dick, the end result of the characters can be best described as being decided by the choices that they made while exercising their free will. The characters are in control of themselves and the events that unfold are simply results of their decisions as well as the decisions of those around them. As illustrated in Moby Dick, the events that unfold in one’s life are a result of themselves and those around them exercising free will and the decisions that are made while doing so.

Captain Ahab in Moby Dick

In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is portrayed as having one goal in mind – killing Moby Dick and while exercising his free will, he decides that he must track down the white whale. He uses being the captain of a whaling ship looking to turn a profit as a front for himself to track down the whale that took his leg from him. He is mostly unconcerned with his duties as captain of a whaling ship and hunting whales to turn a profit as he is really only concerned with tracking down Moby Dick. This goal of finding Moby Dick directly affects everyone on board the Pequod as they were unsure of what they were getting themselves into when they decided to go aboard. The first time that Ahab officially addresses the crew, he says “it was Moby Dick that dismasted me; Moby Dick that brought me to this dead stump that I stand on now. [..] it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day! […] I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the horn […] before I give him up” (Melville, Moby Dick, 144). Ahab takes his injury to Moby Dick personally and believes it to be a sign that it’s his fate to find and kill the whale. Though he believes that it is his fate, he exercises his free will and decides that he will do anything in his power to kill the white whale, regardless of what it cost him or those around him.

In contrast to Ahab, the Captain of the Samuel Enderby states “Didn’t want to try to; ain’t one limb enough? What should I do without this other arm? And I’m thinking Moby Dick doesn’t bite so much as he swallows” (Melville 394). Like Ahab, the other ship captain also lost a limb to Moby Dick. Even though he also lost a limb, the other captain is doing his best to avoid the white whale as he doesn’t want to go through a similar experience again. By saying that the whale doesn’t bite but rather swallows, he is alluding to the idea that the whale attack was not personal and was rather just part of the nature of the whale. He doesn’t believe in tracking down the whale and certainly doesn’t believe that killing the whale is part of his fate. On the other hand, Ahab is fully committed to killing Moby Dick even at the expense of his own life and the lives of the crew. He demonstrates this when he exclaims “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” (Melville 148). Ahab exercises his free will to make the decision to hunt Moby Dick regardless of the costs. This decision sets up the chain of events that eventually leads to everyone on the Pequod passing away besides Ishmael.

Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick

Similar to Ahab, Ishmael and Queequeg both exercise their free will and make decisions throughout the story that directly impact the events that unfold in their lives. The decision to sign on to the Pequod was made by both of them through free will. Ishmael and Queequeg are approached by a stranger who asks them if that’s their ship. Ishmael responds with “’Yes,’ […] ‘we have just signed the articles’” (Melville 82). The stranger then goes on to state “’Anything down there about your souls?’” (Melville 82). This stranger is alluding to the idea that by signing onto the Pequod, they are doing more than they initially thought. By mentioning that they are signing down their souls, he is alluding to the idea that their lives will now be intertwined with Ahab and the Pequod. Had Ishmael and Queequeg not made the decision to not go onto a whaling vessel, or had they made the decision to join a different vessel, the events that would unfold and eventually lead to Queequeg’s death would not have happened.

Ishmael and Queequeg jointly make decisions that have major impacts on the both of them. Starting in the very beginning of the story, Ishmael and Queequeg share a very tight bond. This bond is best illustrated when Ishmael states “I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint-stock company of two: that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death” (Melville 287). Ishmael is referring to how he is tied to Queequeg as Queequeg is on the whales floating body trying to attach a hook. Since he is tied to Queequeg, he would also be taken down into the water were Queequeg to fall in. This makes a mistake on either end dangerous for both of them. Though it seems as though fate would take over at this point since they are both at the mercy of each other as well as external forces such as the water and potential sharks, they have both made the decision to be in this position together. Since they have made the decision to work together through their own free will and they know exactly the situation that they are in, the events that unfold are not left up to chance, so it cannot be considered fate.

Starbuck in Moby Dick

Similar to how both Ishmael and Queequeg make decisions that impact the events that unfold, Starbuck exercises his free will to make decisions that have a potential to completely alter the course of his life. Starbuck is able to understand the situation that he is in better than the other characters. He knows what the outcome of being on Ahab’s ship may be as he states “My soul is more than matched; she’s overmanned; and by a madman! Insufferable sting, that sanity should ground arms on such a field! But he drilled deep down and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must help him to it” (Melville 150). Starbuck knows that Ahab is a madman and that his soul belongs to him as long as he is on the ship. He believes that the end of this journey will not turn out well for anyone, yet he doesn’t feel the need to act at this point. Starbuck feels as though Ahab has taken the reasoning that he had out of him as he knows what the outcome of this journey may very well be. He feels as though he should help Ahab in his journey to find Moby Dick even though he knows that Ahab is a madman. He exercises his free will be deciding to accompany Ahab on the journey.

Starbuck eventually reaches a point where he has to make a decision regarding killing Ahab or not. As the story progresses, Starbuck continues to be uneasy about Ahab and the journey that he is leading the crew on. This uneasiness reaches its peak when Starbuck is close to killing Ahab. Towards the end of story, Starbuck is holding a musket near Ahab while he sleeps and says “But shall this crazed old man be tamely suffered to drag a whole ship’s company down to doom with him? […] And would I be a murderer, then if’ – and slowly, stealthily, and half sideways looking, he placed the loaded musket’s end against the door […] Starbuck seemed wrestling with an angel; but turning from the door, he placed the death-tube in its rack, and left the place” (Melville 455-456). Starbuck knows that Ahab and his madness will end up dragging the ship down with him, so by killing him, he would avoid that outcome. Had Starbuck went ahead and killed Ahab, the Pequod would have not chased after Moby Dick and would most likely not have sunk, therefore saving the lives of the crew. As illustrated when Melville writes that it seemed as if Starbuck was wrestling with an angel, Starbuck struggled to make the decision. In the end, he exercised his free will and decided to not kill Ahab. This decision is what sets the course for the end of the story. The decision to let Ahab live is Starbuck deciding to go along with Ahab even though he knows the outcome will most likely lead to his death.


It could be argued that the events that unfold in Moby Dick and more specifically when the Pequod sinks is a direct result of fate. It may seem as though the ship was fated to be doomed from the very beginning and there wasn’t anything that anyone could do about it. This idea is best illustrated in the very beginning of the novel when Ishmael states “Though I cannot tell you why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of the whaling voyage […] various disguise, induced me to set about performing the part that I did […] chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself” (Melville 5). Ishmael states that it was the fates that put him on the fateful voyage to search for Moby Dick yet he also states that it was his desire to learn more about the whale that put him in the role that he played. He was not forced into being a crew member on the Pequod, but rather he exercised his free will and chose to do that. Like Ishmael, both Queequeg and Starbuck, as well as the rest of the crew members, chose to join the Pequod’s crew. Though it was Ahab’s decisions that ended up bringing about the fateful end to the Pequod, the crew members, especially Starbuck, could have overthrown or even killed Ahab. This would have brought about an end to the Moby Dick chase.


The culmination of the Pequod’s journey and the end results for the members of the crew is a result of decisions that they made through exercising their free will rather than a result of fate. It would be incorrect to state the culmination of the Pequod and Pequod’s crew’s journey was a result of a chain of events that couldn’t be altered. The crew members were aware of Ahab’s madness and the situation he was getting them all into, yet they never did anything about it even though they had numerous opportunities to. Instead of trying to alter the path that they were on, the crew members chose to be complacent and follow Ahab’s orders. This is what led to the sinking of the Pequod and the deaths of all the crew members, besides Ishmael.

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The Major Role of the Theme of Free Will Versus Fate in Moby Dick, a Novel by Herman Melville. (2018, October 02). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from
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