Ti of the blog Book Chatter is sponsoring a challenge/readalong to read the classic Moby Dick. On Mondays, we’ll be posting about our progress. I am listening to the unabridged audiodisks for this book, which my husband listened to and loved.
Today: The Denouement!
As we read last week, First Mate Starbuck was seriously contemplating killing Captain Ahab, because he knew this obsessive search for Moby Dick could lead to the deaths of all the crew. But in the end, he could not do it.
Near the Equator, an accident occurred, and a man fell overboard and drowned, taking the life-buoy with him. In a rather blunt symbolic gesture, Starbuck commanded that Queequeg’s coffin be substituted for the life-buoy.
The next day, the Pequod met a large ship, the Rachel, that actually claimed to have seen Moby Dick! One of the Rachel’s whale boats was lost giving chase to Moby, and the captain’s son was on it. The Rachel’s captain begged Ahab to help find the whaleboat:
“My boy, my own boy is among them. For God’s sake—I beg, I conjure”—here exclaimed the stranger Captain to Ahab, who thus far had but icily received his petition. ‘For eight-and-forty hours let me charter your ship—I will gladly pay for it, and roundly pay for it—if there be no other way—for eight-and-forty hours only—only that—you must, oh, you must, and you shall do this thing.'”
Ahab coldly refused: he knew Moby was near, and said he had not time to go look for any people.
Intensely the crew of the Pequod sailed on, and several days later encountered another ship, “most miserably misnamed the Delight.” It too had encountered Moby, and was worse the wear for it: torn to shatters and with sailors to bury.
Knowing the time of confrontation is near, Ahab finally comes on deck, and delivers a long soliloquy (ostensibly to Starbuck) about his life; about how whaling has taken it over and how he has a wife and child at home. Starbuck grabs onto the hope of Ahab’s regret like a bear onto a honeypot:
“Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck’s—wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, Sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, longing, paternal old age! Away! let us away!—this instant let me alter the course!”
[You may recall that Lincoln’s death in 1865 inspired Walt Whitman to write one of his most memorable works—a simple, three-stanza poem of sorrow- “O Captain! My Captain!,” obviously influenced by Melville, which was met with immediate acclaim.]
But when First Mate Starbuck made his plea to his captain, Ahab basically responded: “What? Abandon the chase? Are you CRAZY?!!”
The next morning, the cry went out:
“There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” It is Ahab himself who first spots the whale. The boats are lowered and the chase is on, with Ahab in the lead.
For three days, the crew of the Pequod fought with the ferocious Moby, who succeeded in destroying all the whaleboats and finally the Pequod itself. On the third day, it was all over: Ahab sunk after getting caught in the line of the harpoon he thrust at Moby Dick; it looped around his neck and pulled him from the whaleboat and down into the sea. [That, we presume, was just in case the reader missed how destructive was an all-consuming, uncompromising fixation.] Moby had been harpooned numerous times, and his pain drove his frenzied violence; but we never do receive confirmation of his fate. All the remaining crew of the Pequod, except for Ishmael, got sucked down into the vortex formed by the savage fight, taking the ship with it.
And how was it that Ishmael survived? As he too was being drawn to the center of the vortex, suddenly the black bubble burst upward, liberating Queequeg’s life-buoy coffin. Ishmael clung to the floating coffin for almost a day and a night before being rescued by the whale ship Rachel, retracing her steps in search of her missing children. But as Ishmael said, the only orphan found by the Rachel was him.
And with that sentiment, the book is over.
If you do a search on Google for symbolism in Moby Dick, your results list will be as numerous as the fish in the oceans. And there are just as many theories, it seems, as there are articles. The ultimate irony, however, is that, as mentioned in a previous post, this epic “literal and metaphorical quest” takes place for the most part without even the presence of either Ahab or Moby Dick! Yet, even as the dramatic tension builds, we are treated to chapters upon chapters of poetic disquisitions on whales, whaling, religion, politics, mythology, mysticism, charisma, heroism, prejudice, fate versus free will, faith versus doubt, science versus superstition, man versus beast, adventurism versus “nesting,” the quest for the unattainable, the desire to play God, the survival instinct, bioethics, the motivating force of capitalism, the folly of extremism, the influence of the Bible, the persistence of folklore, and the human tendency to be guided by madness. Is there any wonder that Moby Dick is considered to be “the great American novel?”
I hope you haven’t been dissuaded by summaries of the plot from reading it on your own, because no summary captures the beauty of the language of this book.
The book begins “Call me Ishmael.” By the end, you will be saying, as my husband did after reading it, “Call me impressed.”
Wow, congratulations on conquering the whale! I love your husband’s reaction…just perfect! I probably won’t be attempting this any time soon though.
Whew! Congratulations to you! It sounds like you had a really good time reading this. 🙂
Darn, it’s over. I’ve so enjoyed these Monday summaries of Moby Dick. I read the book in high school (voluntarily I might add) and actually finished it then on the beach in Key West. I’ll always associate the book with the only blistering sunburn I ever got.
Thanks for letting me know what happens. 😀 But despite your glowing recommendation, I’m still not reading it.
You’re right. You really have to read it for yourself to appreciate the language and the little nuances that Melville inserts here and there…and there and here and everywhere. The descriptive passages are so overwhelming at times that you almost have a visceral reaction to them. BUT, like the ocean, the waves come and go and you are left with a good sense of what it was like for whalers in general.
I am so glad I finished it. It was MY white whale!
Oh I thought of Whitman, too, when Starbuck gave the Oh my Captain speech! So then the poem was indeed inspired by Melville!
Congratulations to us for conquering the white whale! And happy to see we share the same feelings about this book. I loved your post so much I quoted you. 😀
Oh, well done! I never thought that anyone could inspire me to dust off my copy and really read it (as opposed to skipping half of it, as I did the first time–shhh!), but you have. Of course, there’s the little matter of time…
How interesting that Whitman was inspired by Melville. That alone is reason to reconsider him.
Congratulations–and thank you!
Stand up and take a bow. “clap clap clap” that is my applause for a great summary and a job well done. Outstanding blogging material!
Wow! That was fun!!! I loved every single post that you wrote during the time you read this!! Thanks ever so much!!
Starbucks really should’ve killed the Captain!
congrats on completing this monster of a book!!!! you guys outdid yourselves. 🙂
ps. i love teaching the whitman poem to my students. it’s so cool to watch them break it apart and see the symbolism.
Congrats on sticking with it … I don’t know if I’m that dedicated. I still have to tackle Musashi this year.
Jill, I’m glad this didn’t turn out to be an oversized serving of rabbit brain soup for you! Ha ha, just kidding. But you and your buddy Bolaño have something in common after all because Moby Dick was one of that novelist’s favorite works. P.S. I hope to read this Melville epic later in the year, so I’ll be back to check out your posts in more detail later–couldn’t resist skimming as you all moved along, though.