Welcome to Part 18 of this series on Moby Dick. In this lecture we will discuss Chapter 133-Epilogue.
In Chapter 133, Ahab spies Moby Dick, and four boats are lowered for the chase. Moby Dick dives, and then returns to the surface under Ahab’s boat, crushing it between his jaws, and casting Ahab and his boat crew into the water. The Pequod, which is under Starbuck’s command, drives away the whale before it can harm Ahab and the other fallen crew members.
When Ahab is hauled back onto the Pequod, he dismisses the ominous beginning to the chase of Moby Dick. “Omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honourably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.” Though Ahab believes that the gods have not given definitive declarations of opposition towards his desire for revenge, the other crew members, and the reader, can clearly foresee Ahab’s impending doom.
In Chapter 134, the Pequod tracks Moby Dick through the night, and lowers for the chase again the following day. Moby Dick capsizes Ahab’s boat again, and he is hauled on board the Pequod. During this chase, Ahab’s ivory leg is splintered, and Fedallah is lost, fulfilling the first part of his prophecy that he would die before Ahab.
Starbuck begs Ahab to call off the pursuit. “What more wouldst thou have?—Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world?” But Ahab merely declares that he is acting the part that has been dictated to him by the fates. “This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.”
In Chapter 135, Ahab chases Moby Dick for a third and final day. Instead of attacking Ahab’s boat, Moby Dick attacks the Pequod, striking a hole into its side, and sinking the ship. Enraged at the loss of his ship and crew, Ahab angrily casts his harpoon into Moby Dick. “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” But the rope attached to the harpoon gets caught around Ahab’s neck, and drags him into the sea.
The last sentence of the chapter emphasizes the ultimate insignificance of Ahab’s monomaniacal quest. “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” The end reminds one of the quote earlier in the novel about trips around the world. Though it sounds impressive and significant, a trip around the world ultimately brings you back to the point where you first began – nothing has changed, nothing has been earned. The universe seems indifferent to the deeds of humans, and the ocean will continue to roll on.
In the Epilogue, Ishmael explains that he was the only survivor of the encounter with Moby Dick, and that he was rescued by the Rachel, which was still searching for the Captain’s lost son. “On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
This concludes our series on Moby Dick by Herman Melville. This novel is The American Novel for very good reasons. The story is compelling, the language is sublime, and it covers several important philosophical themes – such as time, fate, and god. But I think that the most important symbolism in the novel is not the white whale, but rather the oil painting hanging in the Spouter Inn, which Ishmael discusses in the early chapters of the novel. The painting represents life. Each person has an interpretation that oftentimes differs entirely with another person’s interpretation. The moral of the story is to learn how to assimilate one’s self in a such a world of conflicting opinions. As Ishmael states, “It is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.”
“There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!”
“A gentle joyousness—a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns; his lovely, leering eyes sideways intent upon the maid; with smooth bewitching fleetness, rippling straight for the nuptial bower in Crete; not Jove, not that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.”
“Omen? omen?—the dictionary! If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honourably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives’ darkling hint.—Begone! Ye two are the opposite poles of one thing; Starbuck is Stubb reversed, and Stubb is Starbuck; and ye two are all mankind; and Ahab stands alone among the millions of the peopled earth, nor gods nor men his neighbors!”
“The frenzies of the chase had by this time worked them bubblingly up, like old wine worked anew. Whatever pale fears and forebodings some of them might have felt before; these were not only now kept out of sight through the growing awe of Ahab, but they were broken up, and on all sides routed, as timid prairie hares that scatter before the bounding bison. The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls; and by the stirring perils of the previous day; the rack of the past night’s suspense; the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless way in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark; by all these things, their hearts were bowled along. The wind that made great bellies of their sails, and rushed the vessel on by arms invisible as irresistible; this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency which so enslaved them to the race.”
“Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.”
“What more wouldst thou have?—Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,—Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!”
“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.”
“Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last!”
“What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn upon that world. Here’s food for thought, had Ahab time to think; but Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels; that’s tingling enough for mortal man! to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege. Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that. And yet, I’ve sometimes thought my brain was very calm—frozen calm, this old skull cracks so, like a glass in which the contents turned to ice, and shiver it. And still this hair is growing now; this moment growing, and heat must breed it; but no, it’s like that sort of common grass that will grow anywhere, between the earthy clefts of Greenland ice or in Vesuvius lava. How the wild winds blow it; they whip it about me as the torn shreds of split sails lash the tossed ship they cling to. A vile wind that has no doubt blown ere this through prison corridors and cells, and wards of hospitals, and ventilated them, and now comes blowing hither as innocent as fleeces. Out upon it!—it’s tainted. Were I the wind, I’d blow no more on such a wicked, miserable world. I’d crawl somewhere to a cave, and slink there. And yet, ’tis a noble and heroic thing, the wind! who ever conquered it? In every fight it has the last and bitterest blow. Run tilting at it, and you but run through it. Ha! a coward wind that strikes stark naked men, but will not stand to receive a single blow. Even Ahab is a braver thing—a nobler thing than that. Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There’s a most special, a most cunning, oh, a most malicious difference! And yet, I say again, and swear it now, that there’s something all glorious and gracious in the wind. These warm Trade Winds, at least, that in the clear heavens blow straight on, in strong and steadfast, vigorous mildness; and veer not from their mark, however the baser currents of the sea may turn and tack, and mightiest Mississippies of the land swift and swerve about, uncertain where to go at last. And by the eternal Poles! these same Trades that so directly blow my good ship on; these Trades, or something like them—something so unchangeable, and full as strong, blow my keeled soul along!”
“So, so; he travels fast, and I must down. But let me have one more good round look aloft here at the sea; there’s time for that. An old, old sight, and yet somehow so young; aye, and not changed a wink since I first saw it, a boy, from the sand-hills of Nantucket! The same!—the same!—the same to Noah as to me. There’s a soft shower to leeward. Such lovely leewardings! They must lead somewhere—to something else than common land, more palmy than the palms. Leeward! the white whale goes that way; look to windward, then; the better if the bitterer quarter.”
“Will I have eyes at the bottom of the sea, supposing I descend those endless stairs?”
“Oh! my God! what is this that shoots through me, and leaves me so deadly calm, yet expectant,—fixed at the top of a shudder! Future things swim before me, as in empty outlines and skeletons; all the past is somehow grown dim. Mary, girl! thou fadest in pale glories behind me; boy! I seem to see but thy eyes grown wondrous blue. Strangest problems of life seem clearing; but clouds sweep between—Is my journey’s end coming? My legs feel faint; like his who has footed it all day. Feel thy heart,—beats it yet?”
“Oh, lonely death on lonely life! Oh, now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief. Ho, ho! from all your furthest bounds, pour ye now in, ye bold billows of my whole foregone life, and top this one piled comber of my death! Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”
“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
“On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”