MELVILLE: Moby Dick [Chapters 115-125]

Welcome to Part 16 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture we will discuss Chapters 115-125.

In Chapter 115, the Pequod encounters another ship called the Bachelor. The ship is bound home for Nantucket with a full hull of sperm. The atmosphere on the Bachelor is festive, and the captain invites Ahab to join him on his ship. Ahab flatly denies the captain’s offer. “Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on. How wondrous familiar is a fool!”

In Chapter 116, Ahab kills a whale, and speaks to it as it turns to the sun in its death throes. “In vain, oh whale, dost thou seek intercedings with yon all-quickening sun, that only calls forth life, but gives it not again.”

In Chapter 117, Fedallah prophesies to Ahab that Ahab will not die until he sees two hearses – one that is not made by mortal hands, and another one that is made by wood from America. Ahab believes that it is unlikely to see two hearses at sea; and therefore concludes that he will not die on this voyage. This chapter is similar to the scene in Macbeth, where the three weird sisters give Macbeth a false sense of security. Like Macbeth, Ahab misinterprets the prophecies as good omens rather than ill.

In Chapter 118, Ahab realizes that the instruments of science that identify his latitude on the earth do not tell him what he truly wants to know – such as where Moby Dick is. He curses science in general, and destroys his Quadrant. “Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon.”

In Chapter 119, a Typhoon slams the Pequod, and the ship’s three masts catch fire. Ahab forbids his crew from hoisting up lightning rods to divert the lightning from the ship. Though Starbuck and the other crew members interpret the storm and the fires as ill omens, Ahab believes that they signify his imminent triumph over Moby Dick.

In Chapter 120, Starbuck advises Ahab to take down the sails lest the Pequod lose them during the Typhoon. But Ahab remains defiant towards the storm, and orders the crew to merely lash the sails to the masts.

In Chapter 121, Stubb and Flask tie the anchors to the ship. Stubb remarks upon the ominous feeling he has about the fate of the ship and themselves. “Seems to me we are lashing down these anchors now as if they were never going to be used again. Tying these two anchors here, Flask, seems like tying a man’s hands behind him.” These lines evoke an image of a condemned criminal being led to his execution.

In Chapter 122, Tashtego wishes that he was drinking rum, rather than battling the Typhoon. His wish indicates that the crew does not share Ahab’s monomaniacal quest to kill Moby Dick at any cost, and heightens the suspense surrounding the voyage. Will the crew rebel against Ahab’s command?

In Chapter 123, Starbuck contemplates just such a rebellion. He descends to Ahab’s cabin, where Ahab is sleeping, in order to inform him that the storm has abated. However, before opening the cabin door, Starbuck withdraws a pistol, and considers killing Ahab in order to save the crew from certain death. “Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought. Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?” But Starbuck does not kill Ahab. Instead he orders Stubb to inform the captain that the Typhoon has abated.

In Chapter 124, Ahab learns that the compasses of the ship have broken during the storm, which is a bad omen among sailors. Ahab downplays the situation’s significance, and constructs his own compass. “In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.” Pride comes before the fall, and this line directly foreshadows Ahab’s impending death.

In Chapter 125, Pip utters nonsense to the crew when asked to help retrieve some instruments. Ahab is saddened by Pip’s madness, and declares that Pip will share his cabin with him thenceforth. “Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines. Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude.”

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Chapter 115
“Thou art too damned jolly. Sail on.”

“How wondrous familiar is a fool!”

Chapter 116
“He turns and turns him to it,—how slowly, but how steadfastly, his homage-rendering and invoking brow, with his last dying motions. He too worships fire; most faithful, broad, baronial vassal of the sun!—Oh that these too-favouring eyes should see these too-favouring sights. Look! here, far water-locked; beyond all hum of human weal or woe; in these most candid and impartial seas; where to traditions no rocks furnish tablets; where for long Chinese ages, the billows have still rolled on speechless and unspoken to, as stars that shine upon the Niger’s unknown source; here, too, life dies sunwards full of faith; but see! no sooner dead, than death whirls round the corpse, and it heads some other way.”

“That one strivest, this one jettest all in vain! In vain, oh whale, dost thou seek intercedings with yon all-quickening sun, that only calls forth life, but gives it not again. Yet dost thou, darker half, rock me with a prouder, if a darker faith. All thy unnamable imminglings float beneath me here; I am buoyed by breaths of once living things, exhaled as air, but water now.”

Chapter 117
“But I said, old man, that ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood of the last one must be grown in America.”

Chapter 118
Then falling into a moment’s revery, he again looked up towards the sun and murmured to himself: “Thou sea-mark! thou high and mighty Pilot! thou tellest me truly where I am—but canst thou cast the least hint where I shall be? Or canst thou tell where some other thing besides me is this moment living? Where is Moby Dick? This instant thou must be eyeing him. These eyes of mine look into the very eye that is even now beholding him; aye, and into the eye that is even now equally beholding the objects on the unknown, thither side of thee, thou sun!”

“Foolish toy! babies’ plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains; the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot more! Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon; and yet with thy impotence thou insultest the sun! Science! Curse thee, thou vain toy; and cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live vividness but scorches him, as these old eyes are even now scorched with thy light, O sun! Level by nature to this earth’s horizon are the glances of man’s eyes; not shot from the crown of his head, as if God had meant him to gaze on his firmament.”

“I heard Ahab mutter, ‘Here some one thrusts these cards into these old hands of mine; swears that I must play them, and no others.’ And damn me, Ahab, but thou actest right; live in the game, and die in it!”

Chapter 119
“Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs: the tiger of Bengal crouches in spiced groves of ceaseless verdure. Skies the most effulgent but basket the deadliest thunders: gorgeous Cuba knows tornadoes that never swept tame northern lands. So, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all storms, the Typhoon. It will sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb upon a dazed and sleepy town.”

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar; I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind; and e’en for hate thou canst but kill; and all are killed. No fearless fool now fronts thee. I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me. In the midst of the personified impersonal, a personality stands here. Though but a point at best; whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go; yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights. But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee; but at thy highest, come as mere supernal power; and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds, there’s that in here that still remains indifferent. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”

“The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”

Chapter 120
“Loftiest trucks were made for wildest winds, and this brain-truck of mine now sails amid the cloud-scud. Shall I strike that? Oh, none but cowards send down their brain-trucks in tempest time. What a hooroosh aloft there! I would e’en take it for sublime, did I not know that the colic is a noisy malady. Oh, take medicine, take medicine!”

Chapter 121
“Seems to me we are lashing down these anchors now as if they were never going to be used again. Tying these two anchors here, Flask, seems like tying a man’s hands behind him. And what big generous hands they are, to be sure. These are your iron fists, hey? What a hold they have, too! I wonder, Flask, whether the world is anchored anywhere; if she is, she swings with an uncommon long cable, though.”

Chapter 122
“We don’t want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum.”

Chapter 123
“Ere knocking at his state-room, he involuntarily paused before it a moment. The cabin lamp—taking long swings this way and that—was burning fitfully, and casting fitful shadows upon the old man’s bolted door,—a thin one, with fixed blinds inserted, in place of upper panels. The isolated subterraneousness of the cabin made a certain humming silence to reign there, though it was hooped round by all the roar of the elements. The loaded muskets in the rack were shiningly revealed, as they stood upright against the forward bulkhead. Starbuck was an honest, upright man; but out of Starbuck’s heart, at that instant when he saw the muskets, there strangely evolved an evil thought; but so blent with its neutral or good accompaniments that for the instant he hardly knew it for itself.”

“Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?”

“In this level, Ahab’s hammock swings within; his head this way. A touch, and Starbuck may survive to hug his wife and child again.—Oh Mary! Mary!—boy! boy! boy!—But if I wake thee not to death, old man, who can tell to what unsounded deeps Starbuck’s body this day week may sink, with all the crew! Great God, where art Thou? Shall I? shall I?”

Chapter 124
“In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.” [Ahab’s end is near]

Chapter 125
“The greater idiot ever scolds the lesser.”

“Oh God! that man should be a thing for immortal souls to sieve through!”

“There can be no hearts above the snow-line. Oh, ye frozen heavens! look down here. Ye did beget this luckless child, and have abandoned him, ye creative libertines.”

“Lo! ye believers in gods all goodness, and in man all ill, lo you! see the omniscient gods oblivious of suffering man; and man, though idiotic, and knowing not what he does, yet full of the sweet things of love and gratitude. Come! I feel prouder leading thee by thy black hand, than though I grasped an Emperor’s!”

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