Chapter 47 The Mat-Maker

        This chapter gives Melville the perfect opportunity to articulate his philosphical theory of Necessity, Free Will, and Chance. He uses the weaving of a simple mat as a metaphorical image of the interplay of these three influences on Destiny. He begins with a masterful setting of mood:

        "It was a cloudy, sultry afternoon; the seamen were lazily lounging about the decks, or vacantly gazing over into the lead-colored waters. Queequeg and I [Ishmael] were mildly employed weaving what is called a sword-mat for an additional lashing to to our boat. So still and subdued -- and yet somehow preluding was all the scene, and such an incantation of reverie lurked in the air -- that each silent sailor seemed resolved into his own invisible self." [Note the poetic use of repetitive initial sounds (alliteration) in this paragraph, contributing to a sense of whispering somnolence by repeating "s" and "z" sounds.]

        Queequeg and Ishmael have set up a sort of makeshift loom for weaving their sword mat. A woven fabric is composed of long threads called the warp and shorter threads called the woof (or weft), which is woven back and forth within the warp. The loom is strung with long warp yarns first; then the marline [light rope] woof is shuttled back and forth, over and under the warp threads. Something must be used to push the woof threads tightly against one another -- in this case it is a wooden "sword" wielded by Queequeg. Ishmael uses his hands for a shuttle, passing and repassing the marline through the warp, while Queequeg "carelessly and unthinkingly drove home every yarn" with the wooden sword.

        Next, mood is combined with a philosophical statement: "I [Ishmael] say so strange a dreaminess did there reign over all the ship and over all the sea, only broken by the intermitting dull sound of the sword, that it seemed as if this were The Loom of Time and I myself were a shuttle weaving away of my own Free Will into these unalterable threads. The fixed threads of the warp seemed Necessity -- and here thought I, with my own hand I weave my own Destiny. Meantime, Queequeg's impulsive, indifferent sword hitting the woof, first one way, then another - - this savage's sword must be Chance. Aye -- Chance, Free Will, and Necessity -- all interweavingly working together."

        The author provides us with a very effective visual model of those three influences weaving the fabric of destiny -- indeed weaving the fabric of a life. Although we seem to have free will, we can only exert it within the constraints of necessity. Melville gives an important role in weaving the fabric of life to chance, declaring that "Chance by turns rules either [free will and necessity], and has the last featuring blow at events."

        This day-dreamy weaving session at the loom of time, as it were, was shattered by the wild and unearthly sound of Tashtego, the Gay Head Indian, crying, "THERE SHE BLOWS!!" -- answered by, "Where away?" -- "On the lee beam, etc., etc. . . There go flukes [tails of whales]." And the whales disappeared, showing their tails as they dived.

        The crew then made ready to lower the whaleboats to chase, harpoon, and lance those whales to their gory death and illustrious destiny as fuel for whale-oil lamps and spermaceti candles. But avast! Ahab is suddenly surrounded by "five dusky phantoms" spoiling for the chase. [These are the Parsees that Ahab kept hidden in the after hold -- remember the scuttle-butt, dear reader?] What have the fates woven into Ishmael's life fabric?