By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

18. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 524-566

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics) Chapter CXXIX: The Cabin; Chapter CXXX: The Hat; Chapter CXXXI: The Pequod Meets the Delight; Chapter CXXXII: The Symphony; Chapter CXXXIII: The Chase -- First Day; Chapter CXXXIV: The Chase -- Second Day; Chapter CXXXV: The Chase -- Third Day; Epilogue
Ahab starts to leave his cabin, and when Pip follows, warns him not to do so. "There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady. Like cures like; and for this hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health." In short, Ahab needs to be mad to proceed, and his affection for Pip weakens him. So Pip remains behind, in the captain's chair, and hears the ivory leg above on deck. "I am indeed down-hearted when you walk over me. But there I'll stay, though this stern strikes rocks; and they bulge through; and oysters come to join me."

Ahab's determination infects the crew: "Stubb no more strove to raise a smile; Starbuck no more strove to check one. Alike, joy and sorrow, hope and fear, seemed ground to finest dust, and powdered, for the time, in the clamped mortar of Ahab's iron soul." But "even as Ahab's eyes so awed the crew's, the inscrutable Parsee's glance awed his." Fedallah's mysterious hold over Ahab undermines one's sense of Ahab's indomitability, and though it doesn't quite make Ahab a sympathetic character, it humanizes him. Fedallah's "gift" of prophecy seems supernatural -- his predictions "come true," but as we'll see, they come true only because of Ahab's willingness to interpret events as fulfillments of them.

Three or four days pass with no sighting after the meeting with the Rachel, and Ahab becomes more impatient, determined that "Ahab must have the doubloon" for the first sighting of the white whale. He creates a "nest of basketed bowlines" and has himself hauled aloft for a better view, putting Starbuck -- "almost the one only man who had ever ventured to oppose him with anything in the slightest degree approaching to deecision" -- in charge of the rope that suspends him, "freely giving his whole life into such an otherwise distrusted person's hands."

Suspended there, Ahab is swooped down upon by a seahawk who carries off his hat. Ishmael recalls the legend that an eagle removed the cap worn by Tarquin the Elder, flew around him three times, and replaced the cap, an omen that Tarquin's wife, Tanaquil, took to be a prophecy that Tarquin would be king of Rome. "Ahab's hat was never restored; the wild hawk flew on and on with it; far in advance of the prow; and at last disappeared, while from the point of that disappearance, a minute black spot was dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea."

The Pequod encounters another ship, "misnamed the Delight." On deck is a splintered whale-boat. Ahab asks his usual question: "Hast seen the White Whale?" and the captain of the Delight points to the wrecked boat. When Ahab asks if they killed him, the captain replied, "The harpoon is not yet forged that ever will do that," and looks at a group of sailors who are sewing a dead comrade into his hammock. In fact, the Delight is a kind of hearse, but Ahab doesn't choose to interpret as a fulfillment of Fedallah's prophecy. He defiantly brandishes his blood- and lightning-tempered harpoon, but the other captain is unmoved: "I bury but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb." And before Ahab's order to sail away can be accomplished, the corpse is committed to the sea, "not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled [the Pequod's] hull with their ghostly baptism." And as they sail away a voice from the Delight calls out, "In vain, oh, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!" -- Queequeg's coffin-turned-life-buoy that hangs from the ship.

"It was a clear steel-blue day," Ishmael begins, observing that both the "feminine air" and the "masculine sea" share the hue, the birds being the "gentle thoughts" of the former, and the "mighty leviathans, sword-fish, and sharks ... the strong, troubled, murderous thinkings of the masculine sea." Caught between the two is Ahab, who "From beneath his slouched hat ... dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such wealth as that one wee drop." Starbuck carefully approaches the captain, who, it turns out, is lost in memories of the first time he went to sea forty years ago, when he was "a boy-harpooneer of eighteen." He was "past fifty" when he married "and sailed for Cape Horn the next day.... I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck." He now recognizes his own madness: "more a demon than a man! -- aye, aye! what a forty years' fool -- fool -- old fool, has Ahab been!"

He looks Starbuck in the eye -- "a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God." And he tells Starbuck not to join him in the boats when he pursues Moby Dick:  "I see my wife and my child in thine eye.... That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!" Deeply moved, Starbuck once again tries to persuade Ahab to give up the chase; he tells him that his wife, Mary, takes their son to the top of the hill every day to watch for the returning Pequod. "Yes, yes! no more! it is done! we head for Nantucket!" But Ahab is convinced that he is in the grip of an immutable destiny: "By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike." He addresses Starbuck again.
But blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail.
Starbuck, the better angel of Ahab's nature, loses to the fatal angel.  

The next morning "a long sleek on the sea" reveals the underwater presence of the whale. Ahab is hoisted in his basket, and two-thirds of the way through his ascent "he raised a gull-like cry in the air. 'There she blows! -- there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill. It is Moby Dick!" Only thirty pages before the novel's end, we get our first sight of the promised quarry.

Ahab claims the doubloon for himself, and orders three boats lowered. Starbuck is ordered to stay on board to "keep the ship." The sailors see that "the tall but shattered pole of a recent lance projected from the white whale's back."
A gentle joyousness -- a might mildness of repose in swiftness, invested the gliding whale. Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away from ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horn; 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. 
Here Melville has adopted an epic device, the rhetorical trick of elaborate negative comparison, found perhaps most famously in Milton's Paradise Lost:
                                Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer Flow'r by gloomy Dis
Was gather'd, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world; nor that sweet Grove
Of Daphne by Orontes, and th' inspir'd
Castalian Spring might with this Paradise
Of Eden strive.... 
Just as Milton exalts the biblical Garden of Eden by asserting that it excels the gardens of classical myth, so Melville bestows divinity on Moby Dick by comparing the whale to the transformed Jupiter, who took the form of a white bull in the rape of Europa.
Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1562
The whale even presents an aspect of peacefulness. "No wonder there had been some among the hunters who namelessly transported and allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes."

Now "the grand god revealed himself, sounded and went out of sight." The three boats wait for an hour for the whale to reappear. Then suddenly Tashtego cries out, "The birds! -- the birds!" as the seabirds that had been hovering around the whale earlier begin flying toward Ahab's boat. "Their vision was keener than man's; Ahab could discover no sign in the sea." But then he glimpses a white spot "with wonderful celerity uprising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom."

Ahab tries to maneuver the boat out of harm's way, but "the long, narrow, scrolled lower jaw curled high p into the open air, and one of the teeth caught in a row-lock." The whale's mouth is within six inches of Ahab, who grabs the jaw in his hands. "As now he thus vainly strove, the jaw slipped from him; the frail gunwales bent in, collapsed, and snapped, as both jaws, like an enormous shears, sliding further aft, bit the craft completely in twain." Ahab falls "flat-faced" into the water. Moby Dick swims around through the runs of the boat which "seemed to madden him, as the blood of grapes and mulberries cast before Antiochus's elephants in the book of Maccabees." (1 Maccabees 6:34, "And to the end they might provoke the elephants to fight, they shewed them the blood of grapes and mulberries.") Ahab is unable to swim, but he keeps afloat. From what's left of the boat's stern, "Fedallah incuriously and mildly eyed him." The other boats don't dare approach the scene, but the Pequod sails in and drives off the whale so they can rescue the castaways. 

The exhausted Ahab is pulled into Stubb's boat. When he finally regains his strength, he asks first about his harpoon, which Stubb shows him, and then about the men in his boat, all of whom have survived. Once the crew from the boats and the parts of the wrecked boat are on board, the Pequod sails on after the whale. Ahab is hoisted back into his perch for a while, and then descends to pace the deck, where he scolds Stubb for making light of the wrecked boat and Starbuck for calling it an ill omen. "If the gods think to speak outright to man, they will honorably speak outright; not shake their heads, and give an old wives' darkling hint." A curious position for a man to take who puts his faith in Fedallah's prophesies. 

When it is too dark for a sighting, Ahab points to the doubloon on the mast: 
"Men, this gold is mine, for I earned it; but I shall let it abide here till the White Whale is dead; and then, whosoever of ye first raises him, upon the day he shall be killed, this gold is that man's; and if on that day I shall again raise him, then, ten times its sum shall be divided among all of ye!"
On the second day, the sighting of the whale is greeted with a universal enthusiasm: "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." This is Melville's curiously American version of an epic simile.
They were one man, not thirty.... all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.
In a marvelously simple sentence, a sharp counterpoint to Melville's usual biblical/Miltonic/Shakespearean diction, he writes: "The rigging lived." That is, the crew has taken to the rigging to sight the whale. "Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!"

The first cry of "There she blows!" is a false alarm -- "in their headlong eagerness, the men had mistaken some other thing for the whale-spout" -- but when the real whale is sighted, "The triumphant halloo of thirty buckskin lungs was heard." He is less than a mile away, and now he treats them to the "wondrous phenomenon of breaching."
Sperm whale 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 or more.
Moby Dick breaching, by Rockwell Kent
The boats are lowered, and once again Starbuck is left on the ship. The whale attacks the boats furiously, seeming "only intent on annihilating each separate plank of which those boats were made." In the crossing and recrossing, he becomes entangled in the lines, and soon presents "a sight more savage than the embattled teeth of sharks!" The tangled line is full of "loose harpoons and lances, with all their bristling barbs and points." Ahab takes the boat-knife and reaches into the mass of sharp steel, cutting it loose so it sinks. But Moby Dick, fastened to the lines from the boats of Stubb and Flask, dashes the two boats together and then dives.

"Flask bobbed up and down like an empty vial, twitching his legs upwards to escape the dreaded jaws of sharks; and Stubb was lustily singing out for someone to ladle him up." Then Moby Dick surfaces underneath Ahab's boat, carrying it into the air. It falls gunwale downward and Ahab and his men struggle out from beneath it. The whale again seems to want to demolish what's left of the boats: "whenever a stray oar, bit of plank, the least chip or crumb of the boats touched his skin, his tail swiftly drew back, and came sideways smiting the sea."

The Pequod again comes to the rescue, bringing the men aboard. "Some sprained shoulders, wrists, and ankles; livid contusions; wrenched harpoons and lances; inextricable intricacies of rope; shattered oars and plans; all these were there; but no fatal or even serious ill seemed to have befallen any one." But Ahab's "ivory leg had been snapped off, leaving but one short sharp splinter." Ahab proclaims himself "untouched.... Nor white whale, nor man, nor fiend, can so much as graze old Ahab in his own proper and inaccessible being."

But suddenly Ahab realizes that Fedallah is not among the rescued. Stubb says that he was "caught among the tangles of your line -- I thought I saw him dragging under." The news that Fedallah was caught in Ahab's line leads him to the realization that his blood-forged harpoon is missing, too, still suck in the whale. Ahab orders everyone to work repairing the boats and the irons. "I'll ten times girdle the unmeasured globe; yea and dive straight through it, but I'll slay him yet!"
"Great God! but for one single instant show thyself," cried Starbuck; "never, never wilt thou capture him, old man -- In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone -- all good angels mobbing thee with warnings -- what more wouldst thou have? ... Oh, oh, -- Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!" 
Ahab is unmoved. "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." And he invokes the old legend that drowning things rise three times before they drown. "So with Moby Dick -- two days he's floated -- to-morrow will be the third." Then he reflects on Fedallah's disappearance. In the prophecy, he "was to be seen again ere I could perish." How can that be? he wonders.

The carpenter makes Ahab a leg from the wood of his ruined boat, and he is there at dawn the next day looking for the whale. By noon it is still unsighted, and then Ahab realizes that the whale has been tangled in lines and has slowed down: the ship has passed him in the night. So he has the ship turned around and sails back to where he things he will see the whale. "'Against the wind he now steers for the open jaw,' murmured Starbuck to himself." And he worries that he disobeys God by obeying Ahab.

The whale is sighted at last, and before Ahab gets in the boat he bids the ship goodbye: "Good bye, mast-head -- keep a good eye upon the whale, the while I'm gone. We'll talk to-morrow, nay, to-night, when the white whale lies down there, tied by head and tail." But he is less certain about his return when he speaks to Starbuck: "Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood; -- and I feel now like a billow that's all one crested comb, Starbuck. I am old; -- shake hands with me, man." Starbuck's eyes are full of tears as he shakes Ahab's hand. And as Ahab's boat pulls past the stern, Pip cries out from the cabin: "The sharks! the sharks! ... O master, my master, come back!" But Ahab, who is giving orders to his crew, doesn't hear.

The sharks, in fact, are following only Ahab's boat and not the others. Ishmael speculates that it was because "Ahab's crew were all such tiger-yellow barbarians, and therefore their flesh more musky to the senses of the sharks" -- though as we learn later, Ishmael himself is part of that crew.

Ahab's thoughts are on Fedallah's prophecies still: "no coffin and no hearse can be mine; -- and hemp only can kill me!" The whale surfaces, and "maddened by yesterday's fresh irons that corroded in him, Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven." He smashes in the sides of Stubb's and Flask's boats, but not Ahab's. And then everyone sees the whale's flank.
Lashed round and round to the fish's back; pinioned in the turns upon turns in which, during the past night, the whale had reeled the involutions of the lines around him, the half torn body of the Parsee was seen; his sable raiment frayed to shreds, his distended eyes turned full upon Ahab. 
Ahab realizes that the reappearance of Fedallah, with the whale as his hearse, fulfills those parts of the prophecy. "But I hold thee to the last letter of thy word. Where is the second hearse?" He orders the other boats to return to the ship for repairs and then rejoin him, and threatens to harpoon any of the men in his boat if they try to leave.

Moby Dick now seems to be swimming away, passing the ship. As Ahab's boat draws closer to the Pequod, he sees Starbuck leaning over the rail and Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo climbing to the mast-heads. Stubb and Flask are on the deck, sorting through new harpoons and lances. Ahab also notices that the flag is gone from the main-mast-head, and shouts to Tashtego to descend for another flag and nail it to the mast. Sharks are biting at the oars of Ahab's boat, but he orders the crew to keep rowing even though the blades are getting smaller.

Ahab's boat gets near enough to Moby Dick that Ahab "darted his fierce iron, and his far fiercer curse into the hated whale." The whale swamps the boat, tossing three of the men out of it, but two of them manage to get back in, "the third man helplessly dropping astern, but still afloat and swimming." The line snaps, and Ahab cries, "What breaks in me? Some sinew cracks!" The whale turns and sees the ship now, "seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it -- it may be -- a larger and noble foe." And so Moby Dick attacks the Pequod.

Ahab is blinded by the spray for a moment, and is horrified to see that the ship is being attacked. Tashtego, aloft, is nailing the flag to the mast-head, "and the red flag, half-wrapping him as with a plaid, then streamed itself straight out from him, as his own forward flowing heart; while Starbuck and Stubb, standing upon the bowsprit beneath, caught sight of the down-coming monster just as soon as he." Starbuck cries out, "Oh, Ahab, Ahab, lo thy work." Stubb says, "I grin at thee, thou grinning whale," and tells the other mate, "Oh, Flask, for one red cherry ere we die!" Flask replies, "Cherries? I only wish that we were where they grow," and hopes that his mother has drawn his part-pay already, because "the voyage is up."

As "the white buttress of his forehead smote the ship's starboard bow, till men and timbers reeled," the water pours into the Pequod, and Ahab realizes that another prophecy has come true: "The ship! The hearse! -- the second hearse! ... its wood could only be American!" He realizes that he has been deprived of "the last fond pride of meanest shipwrecked captains," the honor of going down with his ship. And so he turns his anger on the whale: "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." He throws the harpoon, but the line "caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone." The final prophecy, death by hemp, is fulfilled.

The crew of the boat watches in horror as the ship sinks, "only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking look-outs on the sea." The sinking ship creates a great vortex into which everything is drawn and swallowed up. But Tashtego's arm rises above the water, still in the act of nailing the flag to the mast-head. A sky-hawk has flown around the sinking ship and now has its wing caught between the hammer and the wood:
the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.
Ishmael was the man who failed to get back into Ahab's boat, and as he is drawn toward the vortex, "the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side." Two days later, he is rescued by the Rachel, which, "in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan."

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