In a work of literature, a theme is a recurring, unifying subject or idea, a motif that helps us understand a work of art better. With a novel as richly ambiguous as Moby-Dick, we look at themes as guides, but it is important to be flexible while we do so. A good deal is left to individual interpretation so that one reader might disagree with another without necessarily being "wrong" or "right" about what the novel is saying. With that in mind, consider the following sections.
Because of the dominance of Ahab's quest in the novel, the theme of defiance is of paramount importance. Father Mapple prepares us for a consideration of defiance with his sermon about Jonah in Chapter 9. Jonah suffers from the sin of disobedience. When God asks him to submit to God's will, Jonah attempts to flee from god. He thinks that he can find some country where God does not rule. What he learns is that he must set aside his own wishes, his own vanity, if he is to follow God's way. Father Mapple puts it like this: "And if we obey god, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists."
Whether he is fighting against God or the rules of nature or some sort of perverse evil authority, Ahab is a defiant man. After Starbuck suggests that it is "blasphemous" to seek revenge on some poor dumb brute, such as a whale, when it merely followed instinct and took off the captain's leg, Ahab responds that he would "strike the sun if it insulted me" (Chapter 36). Ahab explains that he is not seeking revenge against a mere whale. He sees the White Whale as a mask, a façade, for his real enemy, which is an authority that rules over Ahab and which Ahab refuses to accept. The nature of that authority is debatable. We might infer that it is the order of nature, which Ahab sees as evil because Ahab insists on being placed higher in nature than a mere man can be.
Certainly Ahab is mad; even he knows that his monomaniacal obsession is not "normal." But he strikes us as not being a man who would want to be normal. Ahab strikes back against the inscrutable figure behind the mask because Ahab sees no justification for submitting to it. He rebels with anger because he wants to be more than he is. Ahab defies whatever authority there is and stands against it with a soul that can be killed but not defeated. In that sense, he condemns himself to death; but it is a death that he prefers to submission. In his madness and egocentrism, tragically, he takes his ship and most of his crew with him.
In contrast to Ahab's self-centered defiance is the theme of friendship, or camaraderie, which is characterized primarily through Ishmael and Queequeg. The two meet under awkward circumstances. As a result of a shortage of beds at the Spouter-Inn, as well as the mischievous nature of the proprietor, Queequeg and Ishmael find themselves in a frightening situation. Ishmael has no idea that his bunkmate is a "heathen" and concludes that the aborigine who enters the room late is a cannibal. Queequeg doesn't even know he is to share his bed with anyone and does threaten Ishmael's life. It's not an auspicious beginning for a friendship, but things soon get better because both men are open to the positive possibilities of diversity. They are characters who can and do grow and change. Queequeg left his native island of Kokovoko to learn about the rest of the world. Ishmael has similar motives for his ventures. Both understand that people from different cultures can learn from each other, and both value their differences as well as their similarities. An example is their respect for each other's religion. Although Queequeg is no Christian, he does attend services at the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford. Later, Ishmael bonds with Queequeg by sharing a pipe of tobacco and later making a burnt offering to Queequeg's little idol, Yojo.
Although it is not investigated in detail, this kind of friendship is also somewhat true of the crew of the Pequod, which is a microcosm of life from various cultures. Ishmael alludes to the camaraderie as he describes working whale blubber with the other men. Unfortunately, there are exceptions aboard ship. Stubb is one. His scene with the black cook, Fleece, may have been designed for humor; but it seems more like an illustration of the absence of brotherhood. The gams with other ships do provide positive opportunities for camaraderie. Significantly, Ahab has almost no interest in friendship. He eventually banishes the one person, Pip, who begins to get close to him. Ahab's mission allows for none of the warmth of friendship.
Ultimately, and symbolically, Queequeg indirectly saves Ishmael's life. It is Queequeg's coffin that pops to the surface after the Pequod sinks, providing the narrator with a life buoy and allowing him to survive until the Rachel rescues him. Queequeg could not have planned this, of course, but his loving nature would approve of his part in his friend's good fortune.
Because most of the action of the novel takes place aboard ship, it is not surprising that duty is a major theme in Moby-Dick. The problem is how it is to be interpreted. For Father Mapple, the first duty of any shipmate is to God. We can serve our professional obligations only within that larger value system. This is not the case with Ahab. After Ahab's initial disagreement with Starbuck on the quarter-deck (Chapter 36) regarding the ship's mission, the crew sees Ahab as its highest authority. Later in the voyage, Ahab and Starbuck have another confrontation, again concerning duty, in the captain's cabin (Chapter 109).
Starbuck is a sincere Quaker with a hierarchy of loyalties: He feels a duty first to God, then to his employer (who supports Starbuck's family), then to his captain. When Starbuck discovers that some of the barrels in the hold of the ship must be leaking oil, he reports the situation to Ahab. The first mate expects the captain to stop the ship and turn all hands to a check of the casks because the ship's official mission is to capture whale oil and bring it home safely. As he says, "What we come twenty thousand miles to get is worth saving, sir." Ahab sardonically responds, "So it is, so it is; if we get it." Starbuck means the oil; Ahab means the White Whale. Starbuck reminds Ahab of the owners' interests, but the captain could not care less about the owners. He points a loaded musket toward the first mate and declares that there is "one Captain that is lord over the Pequod." Starbuck returns to the deck, and Ahab soon decides it is more prudent to stop the ship and make repairs.
It is clear, however, that the captain feels only one duty on this mission, and that is not to the owners or even to God but to Ahab. He will pursue his own monomaniacal goal in defiance of whatever gets in his path. The only way to stop Ahab is to kill him. When Starbuck has an opportunity to shoot the old man, with the same musket that Ahab pointed at him, the duties become confused in the first mate's mind. He has a duty to his family. How is that duty best served? He has a duty to the men who may well die with Ahab. But Starbuck feels a higher duty — to himself, to God, perhaps simply to decency. He is unable to pull the trigger, not through weakness but due to his own system of values. Because Starbuck cannot kill his captain, he must serve him.
Although it does not dominate until the end, the theme of death casts an ominous shadow over the novel. When Ishmael arrives at the Spouter-Inn, he immediately notices a large, obscure oil painting, a "boggy, soggy, squitchy picture" (Chapter 3) with such a confusion of shades and shadows that, for some time, he can make no sense of it. Contributing to the theme of death, and foreshadowing events later in the novel, the subject seems to be a ship foundering in a terrible storm and under attack from a whale. The inn's proprietor is named "Coffin," contributing symmetry to a book that begins and ends with a coffin.
From the first, Ahab appears to be familiar with death. He looks like a man "cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them" (Chapter 28). His mission has only two possible results: death for many of the men or victory over forces that probably cannot be defeated by this mortal. As practical as he is, Starbuck sees this; yet Starbuck cannot intentionally bring on his captain's death.
The Pequod's voyage is a voyage to death, and the prophecies in the novel all anticipate it. Elijah, a prophet of doom, cryptically warns of dark endings before the ship sails. The Shaker prophet aboard the Jeroboam, who calls himself Gabriel, predicts that Ahab will soon be joining the dead at the bottom of the sea. Fedallah's prophecy is most elaborate as he details events leading up to and including Ahab's death. The Parsee's predictions all come true in unexpected ways.
The novel ends in death for all but the narrator, Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale because his friend Queequeg's coffin has been caulked and pitched to become a life buoy, which emerges from the vortex of the sunken Pequod to bring new life and hope to the narrator. In the first British publication, there was no epilogue explaining Ishmael's survival; a criticism of the story was that it was told by a dead man. Melville solved that problem with a poetic conclusion so ideal that it is difficult to imagine the novel without it.
While the themes add cohesion to the novel, it is important not to become lost in them. Above all, Ishmael has told us an excellent "yarn," as Father Mapple would say, and we should enjoy.