It’s my assumption when reading any work that whatever is included or excluded by the author is done intentionally. So what is the reason Melville includes a full sermon at the outset of Moby Dick? The account of Jonah makes it clear that Melville is foreshadowing some event or theme that will follow later in the narrative. Jonah is one of my favorite books of the bible, because of its complexity despite being only “four yarns” (or chapters) long, and also because I find Jonah as a character to be very relatable.
Father Mapple sums up the themes of the book of Jonah as “A story of sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.” I agree with this summary, with one exception: that this is only the first part of Jonah’s story, and the second part is equally as important. In the first part as discussed by Father Mapple, Jonah is comparable to Ishmael, as they both are wanderers in a sense—Jonah running away from God, Ishmael seeking to escape from the world in general. But this comparison waxes feeble when contrasted to the similarities between Jonah and Ahab.
After he was spit out by the big fish, Jonah obeyed God at last and went to Nineveh, where he preached of the city’s inevitable destruction unless they repented of their wickedness. What Jonah didn’t expect was that his warning would be heard. The Ninevites repented, and God spared them. Meanwhile, Jonah had safely distanced himself from the city and camped out, waiting for God to destroy the Ninevites. These were the enemies of Jonah’s people, so he would have gladly welcomed their obliteration from the face of the earth. But because of God’s mercy, the fire and brimstone Jonah expected didn’t come.
Jonah was so angry at God’s forgiveness that he wished he was dead. Good rebuked Jonah for questioning His will (and for caring more about whether he had a shady seat than for the lives of the Ninevites). The book ends neither with Jonah’s joy, nor even with any clear conclusion, but rather implies that whether Jonah ultimately learned his lesson is irrelevant; what is important is what we, the readers, have learned about obedience, forgiveness, and God’s character.
Now, after that lengthy summation, how does this relate to Captain Ahab? Personally, I connect Ahab’s unrelenting hatred for Moby-Dick with Jonah’s genocidal desire for God to mete out vengeance to his enemies. Just as Jonah equated Nineveh’s destruction to justice, Ahab manifests all that is against him in the universe, whether it be natural phenomenon or human wickedness, in the life of the white whale. If he can’t have vengeance on Moby-Dick—and therefore, the universe—Ahab, like Jonah at the prospect of Nineveh’s survival, would rather die.
One last, important part of Father Mapple’s sermon is his conclusion, in which he says that to obey God’s will, one must repent of sin, and “preach the truth to the face of Falsehood.” This relates to the crew of the Pequod, because instead of making Ahab accountable for his obsessive behavior putting his ship in danger, they don’t confront him with the truth. Instead they allow him to persist in his monomaniacal delusions, and some even join him, like Ishmael when he says, “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine.”