Archive for the 'Religion and the Bible' Category

Mar 06 2010

Antitranscendentalism in Moby Dick: The Malevolant God of the Deep

In my last post, I discussed the implications of Captain Ahab as a fallen priest, leading his flock along the path to perdition.  Yet there is another perspective on this topic that bears acknowledgement: Moby Dick is not a false idol, but actually God. His destruction represents not God’s wrath against those who have fallen from his grace and sinned, but against those his defy his power.

In this reading, a thread that I have consistently followed through my reading drastically changes: Ahab is no longer necessarily an antagonist; Moby Dick—God—is the only truly malicious character.  Moby Dick in this reading is the uncaring, even cruel God.  He is the God that Poe wrote of, and that of Flannery O’Connor.  Ahab is the only character that attempts to rail against the almighty power.

So how does this reading work?  Moby Dick is, whether or not you call it God, a manifestation of an all powerful force, and one that is malicious, or simply does not care for humanity and antagonizes them in its pursuit of some other goal.  With this being the case, Ahab is a lone man trying to defy the destiny that it seems he has been dealt; he attempts to destroy the power that took his leg and has scarred not only his body but also his soul.  He is the one of the crew who has suffered most in this world, and therefore seeks revenge on the almighty.  Does this mean he is sane?  No. Trying to kill a God is usually reserved for the mad.  Yet he is not simply crazy, he is a man attempting a glorious and justified fight against an insurmountable force.

This reading also drastically changes the view of Starbuck that I have maintained.  Throughout this novel, I have seen the first mate as a conflicted heroic figure.  In this reading, he is in fact the opposite: a cowed, subservient man who is frightened of battling against an indestructible force, no matter how malevolent it is.  He simply is trying to live his life as he always has, in constant fear and constant supplication.  He truly is the epitomic God-fearing man.

This reading also makes Ishmael a much more fascinating character.  His conflict becomes more interesting as he is not simply deciding whether the pursuit of his captain’s revenge is justified, but if the entire pursuit is right.  Is it right to fight God, even if it does seem wicked.  Is it right to fight an evil force if one is destined to fail?  Is it worth the good fight, if the good fight is doomed?  Ishmael’s dilemma is, in the anti-transcendentalist reading, far greater.  It becomes a question of faith and righteousness; of fear and of supplication.

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Mar 05 2010

Is Ahab defying his fate or submitting to it?

Published by under Religion and the Bible

We talked a lot in class about Chapter 132, The Symphony, and whether Ahab’s death occurred as a sort of punishment for his refusal to give up on killing Moby Dick, his defiance of defeat. When I read The Symphony I felt that, rather than defying his destiny, Ahab was actually submitting to it in his search for Moby Dick.

We know that Melville was Calvinist, looking for signs of his pre-ordained fate. After Ahab gives his speech questioning his choice to spend his life whaling, and Starbuck encourages him to go back to Nantucket, Melville writes:

“But Ahab’s glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last cindered apple to the soil. ‘What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, and I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that is as an errand-boy in heaven…” (521).

While Ahab’s literal death occurs in the later chapters, when he is dragged down by the line, his figurative one seems to occur at the very moment when he “cast his last cindered apple to the soil.” His last cindered apple falls from the tree, leaving nothing behind, similar to the way that the speech he just gave Starbuck hinting that he wishes to give up the hunt on Moby Dick is his last attempt to avoid his fate. The speech was his last defense, and after he has given it, Ahab resigns himself to his fate: to fight Moby Dick and die. Perhaps the fact that Melville describes Ahab’s last apple as “cindered” suggests that Ahab was pre-ordained to go to Hell.

If Ahab’s fate was pre-ordained, can we blame him everything tragic that happens in this book, or do we just have to accept it as everybody’s fate, meant to happen. Is Ahab responsible for the “murders” of all those people on the ship who died because he wouldn’t give up hunting Moby Dick? If he was compelled, by a force bigger than himself, does that still make him responsible for the consequences of his actions? I think these are some questions Melville was exploring when he created Ahab.

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Mar 05 2010

The Wayward Shepherd: Ahab and the Road to Perdition

Published by under Religion and the Bible

After viewing the  film The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin for a religion class, I started wondering about the role of organized religion in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick.  My result: the realization that Captain Ahab, as captain of the vessel called the Pequod, is the shepherd of his crew.  Ahab is the priest and father of a nautical parish, a lonely church set on the sea.

Why make this analogy, you ask?  It is simple.  Melville was a religions man, raised in a family of devout Calvinists, in a time when possession and demonic powers were still feared to some extent, no matter how small.   It was key to Calvinists that one not fall from the path of righteousness, and this path was beset on all sides by Satan and his minions. Yet Ahab, as the priest and leader of his men is a failure.  He has fallen from the path.  He is the perfect example of a spiritual leader who has failed and follows a path of darkness.

The first step in Ahab’s fall was his worship of a false idol.  Ahab turns away from God and begins to worship the White Whale.  And in this context, where the sea is the cruel unforgiving, dark region of the earth, they are passing through hell to find his “god.”  He leads goes astray, taking his flock, and this being the case, he dooms them all to hell and a watery grave.  They meet a cruel fate for turning away from goodness.  Even at the beginning of the novel, the right path is shown: in the church, in the sermon of the preacher, Jonah’s tale is described, and this should warn them that hell is found in the watery deep.

Throughout the book this is a fascinating thread to follow.  Ahab repeatedly defies the Christian God and, as the leader of his crew, he takes them with him.  He is truly a failed shepherd that has led his flock into the mouth of the beast.

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Mar 05 2010

Ishmael: Just believe.

In Chapter 83, Jonah Historically Regarded, Ishmael interestingly contemplates religion and science. This is not the first time Jonah is mention in the book, nor is it surprising, with the overt mention of the whale in the story. However, I think this chapter adds an interesting dimension to Ishmael’s character.

Ishmaels has shown himself, in certain moments, to lean more towards the logical and scientific than the religious (such as when he criticizes Queequeg’s Ramadan as being silly and bad for the body). In this chapter, he also reveals himself to be religious. Through the character of Sag Harbor, he draws attention to  some of the discrepancies in the story, and his attempts to explain them seem halfhearted. After reading his meticulously detailed descriptions of whaling, one expects him to dissect the story of Jonah in the same way: paying attention to the details. However, he doesn’t. When he addresses the fact that a whale could not swallow a whole man, Ishmael says: “Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless.” He leaves the paragraph at that. So, why would Ishmael bring up a possibility, promptly reject it, and then give no other explanations?

I think he purposely doesn’t try to give readers any convincing scientific or logical explanation for the discrepancies because he wants the reader to recognize that there are some things for which one just has to put logic aside and believe. Ishmael finally ends the chapter by telling us: “all these foolish arguments of old Sag-Harbor only evinced his foolish pride of reason […] Besides, to this day, the highly enlightened Turks devoutly believe in the historical story of Jonah” (355). Don’t reason it too much, just believe it, Ishmael seems to tell us. His repetition of the word “foolish” in his description of Sag Harbor is especially striking—Ishmael, to this point, has hardly struck me as a character who would find logic foolish. His use of the word foolish here to describe Sag Harbor’s pride, once again, reminds men to not be too arrogant (something that comes up again and again in this book). In this chapter, he checks man’s pride, telling them not to try and use reason to justify religion, because religion is bigger, and beyond the reach of logic.   This shows his religious side, the side of him inclined to believe in this story and in God even though the facts don’t add up.

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Mar 05 2010

Determinism and the Spirit-Spout

In attempting to come up with alternative lenses through which to read chapter fifty-one, I immediately latched on to that of determinism. Personally, I’m obsessed with the idea of determinism in this book, especially as it might relate to Melville’s Calvinist background.

As far as Calvinist determinism goes, Augustine emphasized the notion that man was created with free will, but for some reason lost significant aspects of it over time, particularly the ability to permanently change oneself and to accept what he called the “offer of salvation.” These things, according to Calvinist theology, have been for some time either total accidents, or effected by some agent or third party.

Who could such an agent be?…

Ah. The massive white whale who took off Ahab’s leg, thereby permanently altering his physical self. That one.

Taking Moby Dick as an agent of divinity (and, ultimately, fate) offers an interesting perspective on the chapter. There’s a sense of destiny, or at least of divinity, to the spout:

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea.

The spout continues to lead the men for days, and it is this fact which I think is important. The spout is not a singular spectacle; Melville makes absolutely sure that it leads the ship somewhere. Calls to the men like a siren. Melville describes the men’s compulsion to follow: “And so it served us night after night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it.” There is a sense that the men can no more comprehend the nature or purpose of the spout because an understanding is simply not possible. The spout (and, by extension, Moby Dick) leads the men on and they, not even knowing what the sign could portend, follow. Moby Dick is controlling the ship and, just like he broke Ahab, is now by the same token offering a kind of beautiful, terrifying grace—or at least a final solution:

For a time, there reigned, too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition, as if it were treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest and most savage seas.

Calvinist determinism not only offers new explanations and interpretations of this chapter, but also opens much of the book to discussion. It also begs the question of whether Moby Dick is good or evil… or neither. Also a lens through which to read this chapter.

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Mar 05 2010

Everything in Its Right Place

Published by under Religion and the Bible

And only I am escaped alone to tell thee.

Ishmael introduces his epilogue with this quote from Job I. In response, I’d like to share another quote from the same chapter of the Bible:

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

As a reader, my impression of Ishmael was that he is as balanced a narrator as any. He constantly interjects with all sorts of cetological and philosophical musings and odd stylistic choices—and one might even say these are specifically Melville’s doing, and not Ishmael’s—but he never once questions Ahab outright, never once judges Queequeg negatively after their first meeting, and appears to all the while be relatively invested in the hunt for Moby Dick. Ishmael seems something of a Job-like determinist in this respect; by never “charging” anyone with “wrongdoing,” Ishmael displays a kind of casual acquiescence that suggests a faith in the events on and around the ship. Basically, Ishmael trusts in what’s to come. With this reading of Ishmael’s character, his reasons for including an epilogue seem clear: Ishmael wants to show how right he was.

To give a crude summary of the relevant bits of Job I: Job, whose children are feasting at the house of his oldest son, learns from four messengers that various acts of man and God have resulted in the death or destruction of all land, animals, and people at the son’s home. Job’s reaction is somewhat surprising:

At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
may the name of the LORD be praised.’

Through all the pain inflicted by such a traumatic event, Job retains his faith in God, a faith for which Job will remain in God’s favor. Similarly, Ishmael floats confidently along and through a whirlpool (the experience of which Ishmael likens to the story of Ixion, a man also tortured by a god), only to be saved miraculously by Queequeg’s coffin, which had (not coincidentally) been the ship’s life buoy. Things worked out exactly as they were supposed to in Ishmael’s eyes, and he even describes the event as organized by the Fates. As the only man on the ship with true faith in the consequences of his actions and the actions of others, Ishmael survives the ordeal as was destined to happen. The epilogue, then, might seem to say, “I told you so.”

And only I am escaped alone to tell thee.

Ishmael introduces his epilogue with this quote from Job I. In response, I’d like to share another quote from the same chapter:

In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.

As a reader, my impression of Ishmael was that he is as balanced a narrator as any. Sure, he constantly interjects with all sorts of cetological and philosophical musings and odd stylistic choices—and one might even say these are specifically Melville’s doing, and not Ishmael’s—but he never once questions Ahab outright, never once judges Queequeg negatively after their first meeting, and appears to all the while be relatively invested in the hunt for Moby Dick. Ishmael seems something of a Job-like determinist in this respect; by never “charging” anyone with “wrongdoing,” Ishmael displays a kind of casual acquiescence that suggests a faith in the events on and around the ship. Basically, Ishmael trusts in what’s to come. With this reading of Ishmael’s character, his reasons for including an epilogue seem clear: Ishmael wants to show how right he was.

To give a crude summary of the relevant bits of Job I: Job, whose children are feasting at the house of the oldest son, learns from four messengers that various acts of man and God have resulted in the death or destruction of the land, animals, and children at the son’s home.

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Mar 05 2010

Religion Ain’t Rational

Published by under Religion and the Bible

In chapter 83, “Jonah Historically Regarded,” Melville seems to be having a spot of fun. With what is essentially a tangential tale of a whaleman’s attempt to rationalize the story of Jonah and the whale, Melville examines vastly different methods of Biblical interpretation, thereby casting an inquisitive light on his own frequent Biblical references.

Ishmael introduces to the reader a host of religious intellectuals (including a bishop and German exegetist)—all of whom attempt to rationally legitimize the story of Jonah—through Sag-Harbor, who is more or less the protagonist of this brief chapter. By likening their efforts to those of Greeks and Romans who “[stood] out from the orthodox pagans of their times,” Ishmael perhaps sarcastically represents Biblical rationalization as a historically tried-and-true process. However, each successive “explanation” of the religious text is more ridiculous than the next. Ishmael points this out by slyly mocking the bishop’s explanation of the possibility that Jonah’s whale was a Right whale:

For truly, the Right Whale’s mouth would accommodate a couple of whist-tables, and comfortably seat all the players. Possibly, too, Jonah might have ensconced himself in a hollow tooth; but, on second thoughts, the Right Whale is toothless.

Ishmael goes on to entertain several considerations beyond the anatomy of the whale, including whether Jonah’s whale was alive or dead, and several quibbling geographical details. In the last paragraph, Ishmael makes absolutely clear his opinion of Sag-Harbor’s attempts at rationalization by calling him of “little learning,” and by denouncing the practice in general: “I say it only shows his foolish, impious pride, and abominable, devilish rebellion against the reverend clergy.”

Ishmael never explicitly states what he regards as the best way to approach Biblical stories. In the same paragraph, however, our narrator does reveal an alternative to Biblical rationalization, of which he apparently approves: “Besides, to this day, the highly enlightened Turks devoutly believe in the historical story of Jonah.” There is no ridicule in Ishmael’s language here; as opposed to his description of Sag-Harbor as uneducated, Ishmael makes a point of labeling these Turks “highly enlightened.” He goes on to illustrate the power of their devout belief with a legend:

And some three centuries ago, an English traveller… speaks of a Turkish Mosque built in honor of Jonah, in which Mosque was a miraculous lamp that burnt without any oil.

Perhaps what Melville is trying to say is that his story, like any Biblical story, is meant to be taken at face value. Certainly, there is a suggestion that the Turks were able to achieve miracles by their blind faith in Biblical text. Perhaps, then, the most fruitful way to read Moby-Dick is with a trusting eye.

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Mar 04 2010

Religion, Fate, and Fedallah

Lashed round and round to the fish’s back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon old Ahab. [from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick]

This passage drives home a couple of themes that have been central to this entire novel since the beginning: the question of what to make of religions other than Christianity, and the concept of fate.

I’ll start with addressing the first of these two topics: what are you supposed to make of non-Christian religions, if you are Herman Melville in the 1850’s, or if you’re Ishmael around that same time, or if you’re someone reading this book when it was released?  Throughout the book, Melville routinely includes references to alternative religions, seeming to play with the idea that perhaps they are valid.  Here, however, it seems that Melville makes some sort of statement about Fedallah, the “Persian fire-worshipper”.  This particular character’s demise is comprised of being dragged to death through the water by Moby-Dick, his body mangled and torn.  One can argue that this is a comment about the character’s religion, as he is referred to as a “Parsee” in this passage, a direct reference to his “Persian fire-worshipper” identity. His body did not meet a respectful end upon his death, and perhaps this is a comment on the end his soul met as well.  Or, perhaps, Melville is making a comment on how religions other than Christianity were treated at that time in the States — not well.  Perhaps Melville is using Fedallah’s mangled body as a symbol for the mangling that mainstream America did to other religions.  And the passage certainly makes us feel for Fedallah — who deserves to die in that way?  Was Melville trying to make his readers feel for worshipers of religions besides the Christian norm?

A concept also thoroughly addressed by this passage that is very closely tied to religion is the concept of fate.  Firstly, Melville makes a foreshadowing reference to the fate of the ship: Fedallah is lashed round and round the whale, much as the Pequod will become thrashed round and round in the vortex of water that destroys it.  Is it a coincidence that these two things, Fedallah and the rest of the Pequod, met the same fate?  Is Melville saying that perhaps there is no escaping our own fate, so even though Fedallah does not die with the rest of the crew, he is still lashed round and round as the ship will be later?  (But then why does Ishmael escape this fate?  Perhaps Melville is both showing us the power of fate, but asking us to question it at the same time.)  Furthermore, Melville makes clear to mention that the distended eyes of Fedallah focus on Ahab.   Perhaps this is a reference to the role that Ahab played in the fate of Fedallah (and the rest of the Pequod).  Ahab was the one who decided to lead the crazy mission to kill Moby-Dick, and so perhaps he is responsible for the fate of Fedallah, and Fedallah is blaming him even after his death by staring at Ahab with his distended, dead eyes.  Or, perhaps, Melville is forcing the reader to question the validity of the dead Fedallah’s sentiment, rather than presenting such sentiment as true.  Is it possible for one man to control another man’s fate, or is every man’s fate controlled by some higher power?  If Moby-Dick represents God (as often he is said to), and he is what caused Ahab to lead this crazy mission, is the case simply that Moby-Dick (and thus God) caused the fate of Ahab and the crew that followed him?  Is this to say that God controls the fate of all of us?

Both of these subjects make one point clear: the way in which Melville structured his themes and symbolism does not lead the reader to one definite conclusion.  It allows for a variety of interpretations, a variety of ideas.  It causes the reader to question, rather than follow.  And perhaps this is just what Melville wanted.

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Mar 03 2010

The Symphony: Sea and Sky

Published by under Religion and the Bible

The Symphony is considered by all those we have studied as a major chapter in Moby Dick, as it begins the end of the novel, the crescendo to the final movement of the piece, where finally things have come together. It occurs immediately prior to the chase’s start, acting as a sort of calm before the storm. And what I love most about this chapter is how, like a well constructed symphony, the elements of the plot are coming together here, working like the various instruments and movements, to create a final push that ties it all together.
This chapter opens with a very interesting description of the sea and the sky, in contrast and similarity. Ishmael notes how “they were hardly separable” but for the sexing that he has applied to them. To him, the sky is a feminine force and the sea a masculine, which is sensible for a sailor (if you are keeping with traditional gender stereotypes); the sky represents an array of nurturing elements, acting as a sort of mother to the men, while the sea, instead of caring for them challenges and defies them. In this context, air is the giver of life, while water is the taker of it. I may be writing with prior knowledge of what is coming, but the foreshadowing should give any reader enough evidence that this idea is clear. Water, which is often used as a symbol of life and rebirth cannot be used as such here for it can neither quench your thirst nor wash away sin. This water is the destroyer of men. Contrariwise, the sky is air, which brings life to the sailors. As long as they have the sky, they shall not drown and they shall still have wind enough to bring them home.
Yet, like Ahab’s eventual description of Starbuck and Stubb (in The Chase – the First Day), as foils of each other, simple reversals of the same humankind, the sky and the sea are at their base the same: they blend together on the horizon, and life and death are joined, two faces to the same coin.
This is where my reading took a turn for the religious, for I began to see the comparison to the two parts of the Bible, the Old and the New Testaments. As a avid theologian, Melville would have been aware of the key differences between the Old and New Testament Gods. In the Old Testament, God is vengeful, harsh and unforgiving, smiting those who do not obey his will. A perfect example is the occurrences of Sodom and Gomorra, where due to their living in sin, entire cities are destroyed by the Lord. Lot’s wife is turned to a pillar of salt simply for turning back after being told not to do so. Job suffers through every possible degradation and torture at the hands of his God simply so that God might prove his follower’s faith. In this part of the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, God is what is traditionally considered masculine. He encourages holy war (holding the sun in the sky so that Jericho might fall at the hands of his followers) and even physically manifests to wrestle Jacob. He is the definition of the un-nurturing God, who is defined by “manly” qualities.
In the New Testament, God shifts drastically to a feminine side, embracing his children through Jesus Christ. Jesus is a nurturing figure who demands loyalty from his followers not through blood and sacrifice but through love and brotherhood. Jesus is often interpreted as a feminine character, which is sensible. He inspires love, caring and discourages any bloodshed or violence. He is a giver of life, a forgiving God, who truly wants to embrace mankind. Charity and love are the new principals.
So how do these connect? They are two sides of the same coin as well. The Testaments are two parts of the same bible, and the God within them has not changed; God is constant, but his presence changes between the two. It is impossible in Christianity to worship two gods, so one must find the consistency between these two apparently different deities and worship accordingly. Likewise, as one must understand the power of life and death, and how they are inextricably linked. And a sailor must see that the ocean and the sky are connected, even though one is terrible and the other life-giving.

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Mar 01 2010

Captain Ahab’s Religious Duplicity

Published by under Religion and the Bible

In Chapter 132, The Symphony, Captain Ahab and his crew look out to the sky, which is filled with flying birds and a clear blue sky.  This view of the sky is depicted as peaceful and serene.  However, below the ocean lies the trouble and true danger.  The sharks, “mighty Leviathans” and swordfish lie there (page 774).  Also at this time, Captain Ahab begins to grow weary and fearful on his journey to kill the White Whale.  This fear from Captain Ahab goes against Christian faith because Christian faith states that one must not fear anything and one must have faith in their most dire and tiresome journeys.   Captain Ahab begins to lose his faith and therefore is losing his Christian faith as well.  “Slowly crossing the deck from the scuttle, Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity. But the lovely aromas in that enchanted air did at last seem to dispel, for a moment, the cankerous thing in his soul” (775).  This quote shows how Captain Ahab begins to lose his strength and faith as it figuratively begins to sink into the abyss of the sea.  However, Captain Ahab also maintains some little faith as he enjoys smelling the scents in the air out on sea and this lovely scent purges that lack of faith from him. Interestingly enough he is both religious and irreligious because he struggles to completely maintain Christian faith and to relinquish Christian faith.  Captain Ahab even beings to cry into the sea.  Captain Ahab converses with Starbuck regarding his feelings and emotions.  Ahab says, “Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep.  … But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise” (page 777).  This quotation reinforces the fact that Captain Ahab is truly feeling drained and exhausted from his long journey and quest to kill the White Whale.  Ahab also feels weary of this quest and begins to question whether or not he can fulfill his desire to exact revenge on the White Whale or to fulfill his desire of attaining peace and serenity.  The fact that Captain Ahab wavers between these two opposing sides shows that he is religiously duplicitous.

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