Sunday, May 3, 2015

Well, There She Blows: The Ending of Moby Dick

I went on a 15 month journey with Moby Dick in my American Literature 1800-1860 course this semester, a journey some thirty some years in the making, given that I'd somehow managed to go through my entire life having never read a page. I like others ignorant to this complex tale thought "Call me Ishmael" was the first line of Melville's epic novel (Spoiler: it's actually "Etymology: Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School").

When I first started reading the book, people would hear (or see me) reading it and offer me these little asides, things like "Oh, so you know that book is all about symbolism. It's all about the color white," or "everybody dies," or, as I would discover in this course through Dr. David Lavery that there's an entire section on whale penises (or is it penii? I digress). Indeed, I now know a lot about whales, sperm whales, boating, the ocean, et cetera, et cetera, having read Moby Dick in increments of twelve chapters over a 15 week period. I know a lot about Herman Melville, and I think I kind of developed a bit of a crush on him in the course of the time period in immersing myself in his work. Had I lived in 19th century America, I think we would have been friends.
But, back to Moby Dick. In particular, the end-- It's not like you don't know what is going to happen, because Melville's various narrators (I'm in the camp that believes there are a few appearing throughout the novel at different times) clue you into the fact that Moby Dick pretty much kills everyone but the lucky Ishmael, who manages to survive on a floating coffin. After all, we do have to have someone that can tell this incredible tale. Watch Gregory Peck Ahab as they lower the boats to go over the great White Whale:

The final few chapters detail the chase of Ahab and his men as they seek the white whale, and the prose in these sections are honestly just incredible. Melville really gives the reader a payoff for the wait. One of my favorites that really showcases Melville's talent as a writer:

"Like noiseless nautilus shells, their light prows spread through the sea: but only slowly they neared the foe. As they neared him, the ocean grew still more smooth; seemed drawing a carpet over its waves; seemed a noon-meadow, so serenely it spread. At length the breathless hunter came so nigh his seemingly unsuspecting prey, that his entire dazzling hump was distinctly visible, sliding along the sea as if an isolated thing, and continually set in a revolting ring of finest, fleecy, greenish foam." (Melville 408) 

That's just stunning writing. The build up and anticipation is so fine there, so tense and beautiful-- and we get this amazing imagery of both beauty and disgust. It's perfectly timed and paced. It makes you feel like you're going after the whale yourself.

You also get a sense of Moby Dick's enormity. It's been four years that Ishmael and Co. have been out on the open seas, four years of hearing stories about the Great White Whale, but Melville really sells his grandeur. Greek Gods can't compare to Moby Dick, " Not the white bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa clinging to his graceful horns...not Jove, ot that great majesty supreme! did surpass the great White Whale as he so divinely swam" (Melville 409).

The final pages of the novel detail the whale's revenge on the ship, on Ahab, on his persecutors as he closes in on the ship. You can feel the terror in these lines:
"From the ship's bows, nearly all the seamen now hung inactive; hammers, bits of plank, lances, and harpoons, mechanically retained in their hands, just as they had darted from their various employments; all their enchanted eyes intent upon the whale, which from side to side strangely vibrating his predestinating head, sent a broad band of overspreading semi-circular foam before him as he rushed. Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were his whole aspect, and spite of all that moral moan could do, the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ships starboard bow, til men and timbers reeled." (Melville 425)

The ship sinking, Ahab tries once again to exact his revenge on the whale, managing to strangle himself in the process. How fitting, right? I love the symbolism in the fact that Captain Ahab killed himself. I also like that I now love to use the term "monomaniacal." Thanks, Herman Melville.

And then we come to the last lines of the novel. An epilogue, short and sweet, that details just how Ishmael, ever the scrappy survivor, managed to make it out alive. The best part is the last line, with "it was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan." 

Brilliant. It makes me want to read the entire thing all over again and again to catch every little detail I'm sure I missed (especially in the whale penis section).

A few internet gifts:

The "Thug Notes" for Moby Dick 

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