First let me tell you the story of Jonah. Jonah’s this guy who wants to do his own thing, right? Then along comes a bully named God (how being all-powerful excuses you from bullying behavior is beyond me – it didn’t work for Trelaine or Q.) God says to Jonah, “Go to Ninevah and do my bidding. Er else.”
Jonah doesn’t like either of these options, so he hops on the first boat out of God’s territory. Too bad for Jonah, though, ’cause God don’t play that. God whips up a storm that just about sinks the boat Jonah’s on. Nothin’ like a little collateral damage, right God? Lucky for the ship’s sailors, they figure out before the boat sinks that Jonah’s got enemies in bad places, so they dump him overboard. Just like that, storm’s over. Magic. Pretty powerful guy, this God. More on that later.
Meanwhile, Jonah’s sinking like a stone when all of a sudden he’s swallowed by a “great fish.” Now Jonah’s inside the fish (musta been an air pocket in there somewhere, I guess) and finally he thinks, hmmm, this God guy’s got me by the unmentionables. Guess I better do what the big jerk says.
So Jonah whips up a plan. Flatter the bully, and maybe he’ll let me go. Jonah goes into an obsequiation that would turn any decent creature’s stomach. And it works, because the fish barfs Jonah back up onto the dry land. Unfortunately for Jonah, the dry land where the fish chooses to de-Jonah its belly is none other than Ninevah, right where God wanted Jonah in the first place. And so there you are. The bully wins. Didja learn your lesson, kids?
Maybe not the King James version, but I think there’s a certain something there.
Anyway, a pathetic and sad (but social) character in Melville’s book has a somewhat different take on the Jonah story. Father Mapple is a retired whale hunter who’s now a hunter of men, or something like that. He climbs up on his ship-shaped pulpit and lets Ishmael and the rest of the congregation have what for. In Mapple’s twisted version of the Jonah tale, Jonah is a sinner. His horrible sin? Thinking for himself. Not allowed in Mapple’s world. Jonah is “most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God . . .” (p 63)
It gets worse. After Jonah is swallowed, the fish (which in Mapple’s account must of course be a whale) then “shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison.” Jonah, deep inside the whale, goes into his “God is great” routine. And Father Mapple gets all dewy-eyed over it.
He feels that his dreadful punishment is just . . . And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah . . . (p 68)
Well, yeah! The bully won! He got what He wanted. I’m sure He was pleased as punch with His Cosmicness.
Just one quibble. If God could whip up a storm, if God could prepare a whale (with breathable air inside, no less), if God could stifle a storm at a moment’s notice, if God could monitor Jonah’s every word while covered with both sea and blubber, why couldn’t God have run his own errands back in Ninevah? Just something to ponder.
But the final and most awful blow is still to come. For now, his yarn spun, Father Mapple reveals the great weight and burden that he, like Jonah, feels. “Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me.”(p 69) Mapple now seems near breaking under all the pressure, but Mapple’s own whale returns to the surface and Mapple expresses, of all things, delight.
(D)elight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven . . . And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath – O Father! – chiefly known to me by Thy rod – mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. (p 71)
If Jonah were in my belly, I’d have just barfed him out after listening to that festering twaddle. A victim who is beaten, then expresses love for his tormentor, is in every sense of the word, a pitiful creature. But I feel no pity for Father Mapple. Why?
Because the whole thing is just a ridiculous ruse. The story is metaphor*
*What’s a metaphor? It’s for cows to eat in!
There probably was no Jonah. If there was he certainly wasn’t swallowed by a whale, or any other “great fish.” And he couldn’t have survived the ordeal if he had been. I know it. You know it. Father Mapple probably knew it, too (yeah, I know, Mapple wasn’t real either. Just go with it, ok?) But there’s one thing more that Father Mapple knew (or would have known, if only he had taken a peek). That hand holding the rod, you know the one, Father, that “chiefly known to me by Thy rod” business? Take a good look at that hand, Father Mapple. That hand – it’s yours.