And so we enter upon the third day of the chase for Moby Dick. We know how it must end. I trust I won’t be spoiling it for anyone to cover the events that finally doom both Ahab and his ship.
I have to say that, compared to Ahab’s thrilling soliloquy in the storm, the writing of this final chapter left me cold. It was old, worn, tired, just a playing out of what had to happen to cap this epic tale with a suitable Shakespearean finale. I was disappointed.
First Ahab, following Macbeth, begins the chase by stating once again his belief in his own immortality.
“Drive, drive in your nails, oh ye waves! to their uttermost heads drive them in! ye but strike a thing without a lid; and no coffin and no hearse can be mine:- and hemp only can kill me! Ha! ha!” (p 834)
You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Moby Dick arrives on the scene, causes his usual havoc with every boat but Ahab’s, and then reveals a human figure pinioned to his back. It is, of course, Fadallah, “his sable raiment frayed to shreds; his distended eyes turned full upon Ahab.” (p 835)
Fadallah has gone before Ahab, and Moby Dick himself is the first hearse – remember, “the first not made by mortal hands.” Clever, Melville, very clever. Ugh.
But still following the path first trodden by the Scottish king, Ahab holds onto his belief that the full prophesy cannot possibly come true. “Where is the second hearse?” (p 836) Ahab shouts to the sea. It’s a little like the guy who says, “Let’s split up,” after they discover the dismembered teenager in the slasher movie.
And of course you know what’s coming now. Ahab once again harpoons Moby Dick, and the whale snaps the line. Then, in an act that would be implausible were it not the replay of an actual historical event, Moby Dick aims headlong not at Ahab, but at the Pequod itself. When the great whale collides with the great ship, the wound Moby Dick makes in her hull dooms the Pequod to sudden and irrevocable collapse. In short order, the ship goes down. It is, of course, the completion of the prophesy.
“The ship! The hearse! – the second hearse!” cried Ahab from the boat; “its wood could only be American!”
Oh, please. Oh, barf. Why is it that every prophesy ever made has to come true, but only in some twisted and unforeseen way? And why must every “hero” misinterpret the prophesy, leading to his downfall? Can’t anyone think of anything else?
Once again like Macbeth, who gets to shout “I will not yield” before his inevitable end, Ahab still has his famous final attack upon 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!”
And somehow, as this harpoon goes flying toward Moby Dick, the hemp rope (Get it? Remember the prophesy? Remember the gallows?) catches Ahab around the neck and pulls him right out of the boat. His harpoon once again embedded in Moby Dick’s flesh, Ahab and the whale together disappear under the waves and out of our story. The Pequod sinks (not without one more grotesquely symbolic drowning – I’ll let you read that one yourself, it’s so ridiculous I can’t bear to write of it). Next a coffin-turned-lifebouy explodes from the water, and Ishmael (remember him? The narrator? The star of the book’s first twenty chapters?) grabs hold. A passing ship rescues him, the lone survivor of the tragedy, and our sad story finally ends.
But wait. What of the whale? As stated before, where Starbuck sees Ahab’s desire for vengeance as blasphemous, we moderns see it simply as misguided. We know that whales are animals, not evil spirits. We know that if you try to kill an animal, you should expect it to fight back. I think it’s clear that Melville agrees with Starbuck, as the very air and water rebel against Ahab, sending sharks to chew on his boat’s oars, eagles to steal his ship’s flags, and lightning storms to reverse the Pequod’s compasses. We look at Ahab and see error. Melville looked at Ahab and saw sin.
So is there nothing to redeem this failure of human spirit? After 845 pages, does Melville leave me nothing but a morality lesson about flying too close to the Sun? Maybe not. But the hope I take from the story comes from a remarkable place.
Speaking of remarkable, it is worth stating that, for all the talk of Moby Dick, the whale itself does not even appear in the book, except in the tales of others, until chapter 133. And when it finally does appear, it doesn’t resemble at all the monster that was described in ridiculous and overblown prose in chapter 41.
(S)uch seemed the White Whale’s infernal afore-thought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent. (p 266)
Yet when finally the whale is seen up-close by the sailors of the Pequod, here is the description Melville gives us: “A gentle joyousness- a mighty mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale.” (p 807) Is this the unconquerable beast that thirsts for human blood? But wait, maybe the legendary ferocity will appear once the attack has begun. No. While crafty and experienced in avoiding the harpoon and knocking the whalers from their boats, in each encounter Moby Dick swam away while helpless men floated in the ocean like little crunchy snacks.
Melville describes Moby Dick as an animal merely trying to survive. This is made clear by Starbuck’s shouted words to Ahab just before the final battle on the third day of the chase.
Moby Dick was now again steadily swimming forward; and had almost passed the ship, which thus far had been sailing in the contrary direction to him, though for the present her headway had been stopped. He seemed swimming with his utmost velocity, and now only intent upon pursuing his own straight path in the sea.
“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (p 836)
And so it goes until Moby Dick defies all convention and rams the Pequod itself. As mentioned before, this is so unlikely that it would have been quite implausible had not a similar event occurred in the year 1820, when the whale ship Essex was sunk by a collision with a sperm whale, apparently driven mad by the hunt.
We know today what Melville could not. The oil-filled head of the sperm whale that made the creature such a valued target for whalers is not a floatation device or a battering ram, but rather is a finely-tuned instrument for focusing sonar signals through dark ocean depths. It seems incredible that any sperm whale, no matter how provoked, would purposely ram this delicate organ into a ship. And yet we know it happened in reality at least once. So Melville’s collision was not wholly the creation of his own fancy. But again, perhaps, Melville misinterpreted what had really happened.
After Ahab’s last stand, both he and Moby Dick disappear from the story. We can be certain that Ahab perished in that final plunge (otherwise the prophesy would not be fulfilled, and we know that’s not allowed), but of the whale, we are left with nothing but silence. In the absence of evidence, then, we speculate.
Let us here, then, give Moby Dick a suitable finale. I imagine this magnificent whale, so tormented by its pursuers that, after three days of unrelenting pressure, Moby Dick finally chose to confront the creature that would not leave it be – the Pequod itself. In ramming its forehead into the Pequod the whale must have mortally damaged itself, but at least it would finally be free of the torment of this unceasing hunt. Stunned and injured, Moby Dick took one final insult from Ahab, catching Ahab’s last harpoon, then spiraled down into the abyss, carrying the vengeful madman down and down, creature and tormentor now linked forever.
In smashing its head into the Pequod, Moby Dick did what Ahab could not. Where Ahab followed prophesy, was “the fates’ lieutenant” and acted “under orders”, Moby Dick made a choice. And maybe it is in that final act of free will that we can find some reason for hope.
A Short Afterward
I’ve been a bit hard on Melville in these blog entries. I judge him with my own modern eyes, and that’s not really fair. But like Melville I bring my own time with me wherever I go. How could it be otherwise? I’m certain people of the future will look back at us with equally critical eyes. In fact, I hope they do. As David Deutsch said, “Only progress is sustainable.” (BoI, p 389)
I began this project with the goal of discovering how (if?) reading Moby-Dick had changed me. Did I succeed? Certainly, this reading changed my view of what had up to now been my favorite Shakespearean play, Macbeth. The book and the play have so many parallels toward their ends that I think I will never again consider one without the other. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I used to really like Macbeth.
On the brighter side, Moby-Dick left me fascinated about the history of whaling. I’m longing now to visit New Bedford and Nantucket, to stroll the streets once trodden by Ishmael, Queequeg, and even Ahab as they prepared to sail through the gates of the wonder world and into the wide ocean beyond. I did, I have to admit, enjoy the adventure.
But more deeply, Moby-Dick, and its consideration in light of The Beginning of Infinity, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, has reaffirmed in me my core belief in the power and the primacy of the individual. There is nothing better than being alive in this world, to know that, in Walt Whitman’s words, “the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What more could one ask for than the chance to play in this unscripted, unbounded drama? “All right then,” Huck said, “I’ll go to hell.” We are not guided by fate, we are not controlled by destiny. No invisible hand presses down upon us. If we feel such a hand, it is of our own making. We are not passive players in a tale that has already been told. Rather, we are the writers of our own story. The page, for now, is blank, awaiting the next verse. What will that verse be? We, and we alone, decide.