Father Mapple, an elderly but vigorous man of God, ascends to the pulpit by climbing a rope ladder like one used to mount a ship from a boat at sea. He was a harpooner in his youth, and he alludes to the imagery of seamen frequently in his sermon, referring to the congregation, for example, as his "shipmates." The pulpit itself is shaped like the prow of a ship and features a painting of a vessel battling a storm near a rocky coast, an angel of hope watching over it. The text for the sermon is the Old Testament's Book of Jonah, the story of Jonah and the whale.
The setting is the Whaleman's Chapel, and everything about it reminds the visitor of life and death at sea. Father Mapple is like the captain of the ship, the congregation his crew. When he enters the pulpit, he pulls the rope ladder up after him, symbolically cutting himself off, for the time, from worldly matters. This act foreshadows the way in which the Pequod, when set at sea, becomes its own microcosm (a symbolic little world), peopled by a diverse crew, isolated, captained not by the spiritual Father Mapple but by the troubled, rebellious, angry Ahab.
The sermon centers on the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale. Its theme is that we must serve God by transcending our own self-interests: "And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists," Mapple states. This theme continues throughout the novel; the sermon sets its tone. The reader should remember this sermon in relationship to Ahab, who sins in numerous ways throughout the book but never repents and whose greatest sin is that he abjures all obligation to everything but his own desire for revenge.
The reader might recall that Ishmael concedes, early on in the book, that he has no problem serving a higher authority; we will discover that Ahab does. Jonah tries to flee his responsibility to God, but he finds that there is no place where God does not reign. Cast overboard during a storm at sea, Jonah is swallowed by a whale. Jonah's salvation comes only when he transcends his own desires and submits to God's will. Readers might profit from reviewing the short Book of Jonah, only four brief chapters — or "yarns" as Father Mapple calls them. Serious students of the novel certainly should study Mapple's sermon, in which, according to Mapple, are two great messages: The first message is do not sin, but, if you do, repent properly, not "clamoring for pardon, but grateful for punishment." The second, and the more awful, message is preach truth in the face of falsehood.
This chapter cements the connection between the physical and metaphysical, the worldly and the religious, the actual and the metaphoric. Jonah's story parallels Ahab's in that it represents man's relationship with his universe and his god(s). Jonah's approach was more God centered; Ahab's is more man centered.
larboard the left-hand side of the ship as one faces forward; also called port.
starboard the right-hand side of the ship as one faces forward.
flouts mocks or scoffs at, shows contempt for.
cupidity avarice, greed.