I have been neglecting my blog of late. I plan to bring FifthLung up to speed here in the near future. This What Are You Reading Now post is step one. I finished my Moby Dick class and the book itself back in April. (Spoilers follow.) My girlfriend and I broke up at the same time so I know how the crew of the Pequod felt as they and their whaling enterprise sank in the ocean’s whelmings. This post is about the last three chapters of Moby Dick, which cover the Pequod‘s final confrontation with The Great White Whale. Many historic battles of the 19th century took place over several days, and Ahab’s battle with Moby Dick was no different. Before I get to that, I have to recommend a great website: Power Moby-Dick, the Online Annotation. They have the entire text online with helpful notes and tons of other fun Moby Dick-related links.
The last three chapter titles are, “The Chase—First Day,” and “The Chase—Second Day” and “The Chase—Third Day.” The final battle takes place on the third day and some say it’s very abrupt. I agree. In class, we discussed some reasons for it being abrupt, namely that it shows Ahab’s insignificance relative to the whale he was up against. We learned in high school that Moby Dick was a story of good vs. evil. But I’ve always thought it was man vs. nature, and mighty nature makes mincemeat of man.
But let me start in an earlier chapter, I cannot recall which one, where Melville uses a great metaphor. He talks about Death, and Death reaping souls. He says Death goes out “blackberrying,” plucking souls off the earth the way blackberry pickers pluck them off bushes.
Then, on the second day of the chase, Melville says:
The rigging lived. The mast-heads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs. Clinging to a spar with one hand, some reached forth the other with impatient wavings; others, shading their eyes from the vivid sunlight, sat far out on the rocking yards; all the spars in full bearing of mortals, ready and ripe for their fate. Ah! how they still strove through that infinite blueness to seek out the thing that might destroy them!
“Why sing ye not out for him, if ye see him?” cried Ahab…
The Pequod is just an over-sized blackberry bush and Death is coming. There’s plenty of foreshadowing in the book, the end game won’t come as a shock to any reader. Eventually, the sailors see Moby Dick:
“There she blows—she blows!—she blows!—right ahead!” was now the mast-head cry.
“There she breaches! there she breaches!” was the cry, as in his immeasureable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale.
“Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!” cried Ahab, “thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!—Down! down all of ye, but one man at the fore. The boats!—stand by!”
They do battle with Moby Dick but the outcome is inconclusive — until the Third Day. Starbuck, the First Mate, senses impending doom:
“God keep us, but already my bones feel damp within me, and from the inside wet my flesh. I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying [Ahab]!”
Captain Ahab departs the Pequod for the last time:
“For the third time my soul’s ship starts upon this voyage, Starbuck.”
“Aye, Sir, thou wilt have it so.”
“Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!”
“Truth, Sir: saddest truth.”
“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.”
Their hands met; their eyes fastened; Starbuck’s tears the glue.
“Oh, my captain, my captain!—noble heart—go not—go not!—see, it’s a brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!”
“Lower away!”—cried Ahab, tossing the mate’s arm from him. “Stand by the crew!”
Oh, my captain, my captain. Sounds familiar. It’s probably where Walt Whitman got the title of his poem, O Captain! My Captain!, which he wrote 14 years later as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln after the President’s assassination. And Whitman’s phrase later inspired the rousing final moments of the film Dead Poet’s Society.
Ahab has ordered Starbuck to stay on the ship. Ordinarily, he would command one of the harpoon boats. In modern times, Starbuck would say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Here’s what Melville had him think circa 1850:
For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing—be that end what it may. 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?
As Ahab tries to harpoon Moby Dick, the whale turns on the Pequod, smashing into its hull. Ahab watches as the White Whale destroys his ship. Ahab renews his attack on the whale with this battle cry:
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.
That may sound familiar too. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in Kahn’s final battle with Captain Kirk, Kahn says, “To the last, I will grapple with thee… from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee! For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”
Kahn is Ahab and Captain Kirk is his White Whale.
Back to the book, Ahab’s harpoon finds Moby Dick:
The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove;—ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn 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. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.
Not quite the sanitized version of the Gregory Peck movie version. The sinking ship then creates a whirlpool that sucks down everyone in the ship and in the whaling boats. Only Ishmael survives because, we find out, he had fallen out of one of the harpoon boats early in the battle and was a safe distance away watching the battle unfold.
Great final battle, great book. Although you come to like many of the crew members on board the Pequod, it’s hard not to cheer for the whale, especially after reading through the vivid and detailed descriptions of the whaling industry in action.