Moby Dick Questions and Answers
by Herman Melville

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In Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, what are some specific ways in which Ishmael contrasts with Ahab?

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In Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, Ishmael (the narrator of the novel) contrasts with Ahab (the tragic protagonist of the book) in numerous ways. Particularly when the novel is re-read, the contrasts become very striking. They are already implied, for instance, in Chapter 10, before we even meet Ahab. In this chapter, Ishmael describes his reaction to his new friend Queequeg, who has just completed a ritual involving worship of a small black idol:

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? - to do the will of God - that is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me - that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

Here are some specific ways in which this passage highlights differences between Ishmael and Ahab:

  1. Ahab is not a good Christian; he is his own god in his own little universe.
  2. Ahab doesn’t really care about the tenets of the Presbyterian church or any other church (or religion, for that matter).
  3. Ahab himself is a kind of idolator; he treats his own opinions as idols.
  4. Ahab does not consider God “magnanimous”; his view of God is much more cynical than Ishmael’s.
  5. Ahab is not the kind of person who very often questions himself or doubts himself.
  6. Ishmael thinks that God is too good and too great to be troubled by a piece of wood; Ahab sets himself up as a kind of highly jealous God, determined to wreak vengeance on Moby Dick.
  7. Ahab doesn’t particularly care about doing the will of God; he intends to do his own will.
  8. Ahab doesn’t particularly care about obeying the Golden Rule, as he later consistently proves, especially when the Pequod encounters the Rachel.
  9. Ahab doesn’t consider or treat other human beings as his equals or as his “fellow” men.
  10. Ahab isn’t particularly interested in uniting with others; rather, he seeks to dominate others and force his own opinions on them.
  11. Ahab never displays the wry sense of humor that Ishmael displays in his final sentences here.
  12. Ahab is never really at peace with himself or with the universe.

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