In today’s society, the issues of fate and free will are hotly debated, drawing in heated discussions of religion, chance, and the extent of free will. While some believe we have a significant amount of control over our lives exercised through free will in our choices, others believe an entirely different power is at hand in controlling our lives. These issues often find themselves associated in literature, with examples such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Among these books, there are different interpretations on the role of fate and free will in human life. In particular, these three different works of literature express varying shows of balance between fate and free will, and how easily that balance can be changed. Ultimately, it is the decisions made by the different characters, the reasons behind their choices, and the respective consequences that ensue that lead understanding of the different demonstrations of the authors’ interpretations of free will and fate. Free will and fate are often regarded in terms of a balance, in that there is some of life that is controllable by using choice, represented as our free will, while there is still another portion where there is little to no control, something we call fate.
This observation of a balance between free will and fate is especially seen in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In Moby Dick, Ishmael, our protagonist, finds himself in the company of Queequeg, the chief harpooner aboard the Pequod. While together, Ishmael and Queequeg weave a mat, with Ishmael passing the shuttle through the threads on the loom while Queequeg strikes the woof with his sword, to tamp down the threads. During their weaving, Ishmael makes an observation in that their current activity was like how fate, free will, and chance worked, thinking, “it seemed as if this were the Loom of Time, and I myself were a shuttle mechanically weaving and weaving away at the fates”. Ishmael compares fate to the “fixed threads of warped of the warp subject to but one unchanging vibration” on the loom. He then connects free will to his actions, “with my own hand, I ply my own shuttle and weave my own destiny into these unalterable threads”. He puts the final pieces together by saying that chance is like when Queequeg strikes the woof, being he was “sometimes hitting the woof slantingly, or crookedly, or strongly, or weakly” that led to “producing a corresponding contrast in the final aspect of the completed fabric”.
His connection with the mat making and fate demonstrated his perspective of the balance between fate and free will, and perhaps brings to light one of the more major themes of Moby Dick. He believes that free will is bound by fixed limitations we perceive as fate, and that our choices are limited to what we can weave around our limitations, with the exception of random occurrences called chance, which can alter the limitations fate puts on our expressed free will. In Moby Dick, different motive often leads to different choices, which overall comes together to establish various consequences. Queequeg, one of the crewmembers under Captain Ahab, had fallen ill while aboard the Pequod. In absence of proper medicine and medical attention, the most obvious conclusion was that Queequeg was going to die aboard the ship. He had even prepared for death by having a coffin made for him. At the end of it all, when it had seemed that fate had established his end, Queequeg simply claimed that he remembered he had some duties left to do ashore, and that he still had responsibilities. With his own will, he tried defy fate by recovering from his illness, attempting to give himself time to do his business ashore. The fact that the motive behind his prolonging of death was due to his responsibilities, one could easily interpret his decisions as noble and respectable. However, Queequeg was but one of the two members of the Pequod who attempted to defy fate, the other of which being none other than the captain himself, Captain Ahab. After losing his leg in an encounter with Moby Dick, Captain Ahab had grown rather obsessed with capturing Moby Dick, much to the point of giving up his sanity. However with all the stories of the great sperm whale, and even now knowing how destructive the whale could be, it was safe to say his search for the whale was ill-fated.
However, even with fate clearly saying that his trip would lead to his own demise and possibly more, he was determined to capture Moby Dick purely out of spite and vengeance, two reasons that are often seen in negative light. What it all came down to was Queequeg’s noble intentions in trying to defy fate allowed him to recover from his illness and gave him more time, while Captain Ahab’s bitter motives ultimately led to not only the demise of the Pequod and its crew (excluding Ishmael), but also that of his own. Perhaps this brings to light another major theme of Moby Dick, in that it is ultimately our decisions in life and the reasons behind them that shape up how fate operates in our individual lives. This, along with the idea of the existence of human free will limited by fate yet
alterable by chance, establishes the general idea of fate and free will have a crucial roles in making it possible to understand and comprehend Moby Dick and all of its themes. Just as fate and free will have important roles in determining how life is experienced by an individual, they also have key roles and determining of how an individual behaves. In a sense, it’s almost as if the decision of how a human is natured is a determinant in establishing the line between good vs. evil in a person. This good vs. evil concept could especially be seen in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Caleb Trask, the protagonist, struggles throughout the book while in a fight where he tries to suppress and overcome his inner demons. Caleb, son of Adam and Cathy, had lived his life in the shadow of his brother Aron, who was obviously in better light with his father. While Aron symbolically was the embodiment of all that was good, Caleb was the opposite, having had embodied evil, like his mother. However, Caleb demonstrates the usage of free will in the struggle of overcoming evil. This is clearly shown during the confrontation of him and his mother, and his realization that Cathy is a prostitute. When Caleb meets with Cathy, Cathy tries to convince Caleb that in addition to her being evil herself, he also has the same evil within himself, and that he is more like her than he knows. However, he realizes otherwise, that he has choice in whether or not he would be evil. At the end of their conversation, Caleb reminisces on what Lee said, saying that, “I was afraid I had you in me… [But] I’m my own. I don’t have to be you”. At this part of the story, Caleb demonstrates understanding of one of the major themes of the story, simply known as Timshel. Caleb realizes that it is his choice, his own free will to overcome evil. He establishes that while there is evil in all of us, we are all capable of overcoming that evil, and choosing whatever path we wish to walk, all by using free will.
While Caleb had ultimately come to the conclusion that morality is a free choice, other characters of East of Eden had other interpretations of morality. Aron, Caleb’s brother, for example had a problem with the overcoming of evil. His world had been neatly put together for him so that he only had to face good in life, to the point where his mother’s evil proved too much for him. Cathy, had been convinced that world was nothing but evil, and therefore accepted it and settled for using deception in order
to advance in life. In the end, however, the evil she had spent her life embodying herself in proved to be just as overwhelming to her as it was to her son Aron, and she ultimately commits suicide. Caleb, standing at the crossroads of good and evil, successfully applies Lee’s advice and realizes morality is free choice, and that free will and determination are enough to overcome evil and lead a life of righteousness. By accepting that humans are imperfect and sinful, Caleb was able to realize that humans don’t need to be perfect to be good, and that true goodness comes after overcoming evil. Because he had applied Timshel in his life he became capable of living a controllable life, one with a moral destiny that truly belonged to him. John Steinbeck’s in-depth coverage of the story of Caleb and his choices truly make Timshel, or “thou mayest”, a very powerful and key theme in East of Eden. The role of free will in this story establishes the fact that evil can be overcome by human, regardless of fate, and all up to moral decision.
Just as previously stated and seen in books like Moby Dick and East of Eden, free will and fate are often seen as in a balance, sometimes with the weight over on fate’s side or vice versa. However, there are instances where free will can completely overcome fate in cases where it doesn’t seem to the slightest bit possible. Such an example of impossible overcoming of fate with free will can be seen in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. In Sophie’s World, the story of Sophie, a 14 year old girl who undergoes philosophy lessons, is followed. Sophie, who consistently receives notes not addressed to her but with ponderous questions such as “Who are you”, believes that her life is practical, and that she is living her own life. However though a complicated turn of events, it is shown that Sophie, along with her philosophy teacher Alberto, are both part of another man’s imagination, characters of his mind. Albert Knag, the man behind it all, can be seen as fate, in that he controls what happens to Sophie and Alberto showing that they do not truly have a choice, and that their sense of free will was but an illusion. Though the odds against them are tremendous, being they are characters in Knag’s book and in his mind, Sophie shows a giant show of free will and escape, using the help of Alberto. Using nothing but free will, Sophie does the impossible and escapes the book and becomes a spirit, able to roam the world but fated to have limited interaction with the world.
However, it is shown that Sophie plans on attempting on have more and more influence in the real world and that she is not content with being an invisible person forever. Gaarder demonstrates a theme of how limitless free will truly is, and how fate can be overcome regardless of how the odds are stacked.
With all three of these literary pieces, there is a similarity in that all three books cover the topic of fate and free will. However, these three books show different interpretations of the extent of the two factors, and what is and isn’t possible when interacting with the two. Such as in the case of Moby Dick, free will and fate are shown to be in a balance, with the two working around each other nicely. It is also seen that fate cannot be overcome, in that the demise of the entire crew was inevitable. In East of Eden, fate and free will were shown to have impact on how a person is perceived as good or evil, and how free will can potential allow one to completely overcome evil. In the case of fate, free will is shown to be able to overcome it, however only with tremendous effort and understanding. Similarly, in Sophie’s World, fate was able to be overcome, but again, only with a tremendous amount of effort and understanding. These three books together and their respective morals and themes can be directly applied to daily life. Free will and fate do have roles in human life, in that misfortunes can often be presented and perceived as fate, and naturally actions in the form of free will can additionally play in overcoming those misfortunes. By utilizing and exercising free will in daily life, the perception of fate as being something completely uncontrollable can easily be brought down to a more containable entity. Moreover, with the understanding of free will and fate that these three books offer, the opportunity for a life with a controllable moral future becomes available.
In these three novels, the overall theme of a relation between free will and fate is existent. Respectively, the three authors of these books show their own interpretations of how fate and free will coincide, and how much control humans have on their own fate, or just how much free will they can exercise. However it is seen in all three books that with enough exercise of free will in the right light, positive events may occur, such as East of Eden’s Caleb
overcoming evil, Moby Dick’s Queequeg recovery from his almost certain fatal illness, and Sophie’s World’s Sophie, who escaped her confinements of being a controlled character in another man’s mind. Though the authors may have had their own unique interpretation of fate and free will, with their respective limits, the overall message that all three authors would most likely agree on would be humans are given a tremendous amount of free will and are presented with different kinds of fate, and that what they choose to do with that free will ultimately decides how much fate will control their life.