Week 6: Death & The End
I had originally planned to call this “Death and All His Friends” which seemed so clever and eerily appropriate. And then I realized it was the title of a Coldplay album and decided that all my street cred would be lost (even though I do like the disc).
I was also considering talking about omens in the book, but that has been well covered by Daryl (I do have some specific omens in this post). And finally I considered revisiting religion since Ahab has the audacity to baptize his harpoon in Satan’s name (and there’s a Starbuck as Jesus motif going on). But really what could be more right than death?
I had noticed throughout the book that there was very little death (except for the whales of course). This is despite the opening scene in the church with all of the grave markers and Ishmael slowly reading them all. In fact, despite Pip’s falling over and Queequeg’s “fatal illness” no one had died at all aboard the Pequod.
Then in this final week’s reading–which was really fantastic. I can’t get over how gripped I was by the build up and the whole chase sequence–death starts to poke its head out of the waters.
The first death is very cryptic, and possibly not even real (?). In Chapter 126 (The Life-Buoy) we learn of one of the crew (who, strangely, remains unnamed) who fell overboard:
At sun-rise this man went from his hammock to his mast-head at the fore…he had not been long at his perch, when a cry was heard – a cry and a rushing – and looking up, they saw a falling phantom in the air; and looking down, a little tossed heap of white bubbles in the blue of the sea.
The life-buoy – a long slender cask – was dropped from the stern, where it always hung obedient to a cunning spring; but no hand rose to seize it…and the studded iron- bound cask followed the sailor to the bottom.
And thus the first man of the Pequod that mounted the mast to look out for the White Whale, on the White Whale’s own peculiar ground; that man was swallowed up in the deep (516).
And from that anonymous death, things really escalate.
Of course, there is the obvious omen (I couldn’t resist) of using a coffin as a life-buoy, but the very next encounter is with The Rachel. Unlike all of the other ships that the Pequod has encountered (all with varying degrees of success) none has suffered a fate as wrenching as this one: the captain’s own 12-year-old boy is lost at sea, and he had to choose his other son’s life over this one. And the Rachel has been looking for him (and his boat) for a day already…it’s hopeless. That whole boat’s crew is dead.
This visit is followed by a visit from The Delight. The Delight has encountered the White Whale and has suffered terribly for it
“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” (532).
As ships near the white whale, death cannot be far. (In fact the most successful ship, the Bachelor–which was laden with sperm–didn’t even think the White Whale was real). Then, just to rub it in a little, as the Pequod sails away from The Delight, she is
not quick enough to escape the sound of the splash that the corpse soon made as it struck the sea; not so quick, indeed, but that some of the flying bubbles might have sprinkled her hull with their ghostly baptism (532).
Given this portent, and the seeming snowball of deaths, the actual Pequod deaths do not come fast and furious. On the first day of the chase, everyone is spared. On the second day of the chase, only Fedallah is killed [must...not...mention...prophecies]. This wounds Ahab terribly, but he manages to press on.
Of course, on that third day everyone dies, so I guess the trickle became a gusher. But it’s fascinating to see how delicately Melville handles this mass death. Even in that last scene when the Pequod sinks, only a few crewmen are mentioned by name–and Tashtego is still engaged in an activity when the boat goes down: “Tashtego’s mast-head hammer remained suspended in his hand” (563). No one is said to suffer (Pip suffered far more on the page during his ordeals), and it ends very quickly.
What I found most interesting is that as a reader, I was picking up on all of the omens, the prophecies, the greater and greater deaths, and yet, like Ahab I read nothing into them. I was sure that the ending…well, what? I didn’t think it could be a happy ending (whatever that might mean), I wasn’t even sure if I thought Ahab would be victorious (I wasn’t holding my breath for him). And yet, I never imagined that the whole ship would sink.
And even though this ending happens remarkably quickly (the ending scene is the last three pages of a 469 page book (the Norton edition)), it doesn’t feel like what my friends and I have called The Star Trek ending–[Five minutes till the end of the show, Captain, shall we release the dilithium crystal and huzzah!--we're all safe (I like Star Trek (especially TNG) but it's funny how many of their shows end like this)]. Obviously, Moby Dick doesn’t have that ending because in everyone dies, but what I mean is, the ending feels like a natural, almost inevitable end. I was shocked–completely shocked–when I read that everyone died. And yet in retrospect it is the only reasonable outcome.
I am still really surprised that Queequeg dies. I realize there’s no way to save him and have it be believable, but still. It’s also weird how little is made of Queequeg going down too. [Can you imagine is he somehow managed to get Ishmael and Queequeg rescued on the coffin together--it's sequel city baby!].
I mentioned in my other post how beautiful I think the Epilogue is, and I will do so here as well. It’s tidy and elegant and unlike many epilogues which sort of tidy up loose threads a little too neatly, this one pulls together various ideas (the coffin, The Rachel) and uses them to give Ishmael a fully believable rescue.
When you reach the end, you realize that this story is something of a eulogy; a whale tale told to someone about the death of his shipmates. This gives the entire book an angle that didn’t exist before. Were I the kind of person who did this sort of thing (I’m not) I would re-read the book with this new information in mind to try to see if the book reads differently knowing the outcome.
I am really very pleased for having read this book. And I’ve more than very pleased to have been able to write these posts here. I hope they’ve been interesting. Thanks for reading.