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Moby-Dick Recap: Chapters 133-Epilogue
It’s that unhopeful, nearly hopeless, hope.
“Indeed, contained in the pages of Moby-Dick is nothing less than the genetic code of America: all the promises, problems, conflicts, and ideals that had contributed to the outbreak of a revolution in 1775 and were about to precipitate a civil war in 1861, and that have continued to drive this country’s ever contentious march across 160 years… This means that whenever a new crisis grips this country, Moby-Dick becomes newly important.”
Well, we made it, my friends. Even if the crew of The Pequod sure didn’t. This week marked the first crisp days of fall and it means Moby Dick Summer has come to an end.
There’s something narratively satisfying about waiting a long time for what you want and finally getting it. Even though we all knew it was coming, who didn’t feel like cheering when Ahab finally said, “There she blows!—there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!” (Or maybe you were more like, “it’s about goddamn time.”) After so much anticipation, I was worried that the finale wasn’t going to live up to expectations, but Chapter 133 (“The Chase – First Day”) was really thrilling.
Consider that part mid-chase where Moby Dick lifts himself out of the water and dives out of sight. The boats anxiously await his reappearance, and then, like a horror movie, flocks of birds fly toward Ahab’s boat, and Ahab looks down into the depths of the water to see a white spot slowly emerge. It’s Moby Dick rushing toward his boat with his open jaw, his “two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth” emerging from the blue of the sea. From that moment on, I was like, okay, Melville is really going to bring it. That image, as well as the moment where Moby Dick bites the boat in half, then circles Ahab (who has been thrown in the water) and the crew of said wrecked boat, with the other boats too terrified to make any of type of move, out of fear that Moby Dick will attack Ahab, were as suspenseful as anything. Finally.
I also loved that the book is still completely odd. We’re not entirely in action-sequence mode. Like, lol, what was up with that part when they’re back on the Pequod and Stubb makes that awkward joke about the wrecked boat, and Starbuck says it’s a grim omen, and Ahab’s like, “Shut up, you both suck, just in completely opposite ways.” Also, I loved that Ishmael got one last chance to Ishmael all over things at the top of Chapter 134. It’s the morning of the second day, we’re ready to chase Moby Dick again, and he’s compelled to pop in and say, “Did you think it unusual or unprecedented for a ship to pursue the same whale over several days? Let me explain why it’s actually common whaling practice." Yeah, nobody was really questioning the logistics at this point, Ish.
On the second day, even after the horrors of the first, somehow the crew is more caught in Ahab’s madness than ever (“they were one man not thirty”). When they spot Moby Dick again and lower for him, things go pretty similarly as the first day, but worse. Ahab gets thrown from his boat again. This time Moby Dick doesn’t bite his boat in half, but basically headbutts the boat from underneath, tossing it in the air and throwing all the men out. Moby Dick splashes around, but decides not to finish them off, instead he continues on “his leeward way at a traveller’s methodic pace.” The Pequod comes to rescue Ahab and his crew again. This time Ahab’s new leg has been lost, men have been wounded, and Fedellah has gone missing, possibly pulled in the tangles of the line. Parts of Fedellah’s prophecy are coming true, as he predicted that he would die before Ahab.
On the third day, the weather is eerily beautiful, and Ahab realizes that the ship has run past Moby Dick the night prior, and concludes that “he’s chasing me now; not I, him.” I guess that’s one way to see it. So he orders the ship be turned against the wind, and also has a weird monologue about the wind, first complaining how unfair it is that the wind doesn’t have a body, because if it did he sure would slap that wind the way it slaps him around, then he changes his tune and romantically sings the praises of winds around the world.
They soon catch up with Moby Dick, and Ahab lowers with a crew to confront him again. At this point, I’ve kind of lost track of how many boats Moby Dick has wrecked, but it seems like most of them. Queequeg and his fellow harpooners have to stay on the ship for this lowering (my one gripe with the ending is that we deserved a better goodbye to Queequeg). If anything, Ahab sure could have used Queequeg in his boat to beat away the sharks. Yes, shortly after the boat lowers a fleet of sharks start nipping away at the oars.
When they finally reach Moby Dick, he “seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven” and when the boats get closer, they see that Fedellah’s half torn body is lashed to Moby Dick’s back, caught in the harpoon line. Ahab understands that this is the first hearse he was meant to see.
After this horrifying image, Moby Dick just goes on his merry way. Starbuck, in a moment that recalls Chapter 36, when Ahab first revealed his plan, shouts that this is evidence that Moby Dick is just a dumb brute. It’s Ahab that pursues him, not the other way around. It’s not too late to give up this madness!
But c’mon Starbuck, it’s far too late, you know Ahab’s still going after MD. No matter that the sharks have nearly eaten his boat’s oars. He also notices that the flag on the Pequod has been lost (earlier a hawk had been pecking it) and orders Tashtego to get another flag. After another attempt to harpoon MD, the white whale thrashes, and the line breaks, and finally, he’s had enough and charges directly toward the Pequod.
Ahab is dismayed and tries to row back to save his ship, but he can’t, not with the oars and the boat itself so damaged. Moby Dick fatally strikes the ship and it begins to sink. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flash all say their prayers. And Ahab, realizes that if the first hearse is Moby Dick, the second is the Pequod itself, and in a great line says, “The ship! The hearse!—the second hearse! Its wood could only be American!” Indeed. After striking the ship, Moby Dick swims back over to Ahab, calmly taunting him. Ahab throws the harpoon, but in doing so, the line catches him by the neck and throws him out of the boat into the water, from which he does not emerge, and thus he himself fulfills the final part of Fedellah’s prophecy—that he would be killed by hemp, the material of the rope.
The boat sinks into an almost supernatural whirlpool, and yet, the crew remains dedicated to the very end, particularly the harpooners. Tashtego, in his last moments, is hammering a new flag to the mast. When a hawk tries to pull it away, he pins the hawk too and with a final shriek from the bird, the whole ship is gone.
I sort of wish it was Queequeg in this last moment, since he’s more of a major character, but I also love the irony of Tashtego, who is Native American, valiantly holding the flag to the very end. It’s described as a red flag, but I don’t know, it might as well be an American flag.
No matter how uneven or frustrating a novel or movie is, I’ll still think back fondly on it if it’s got a great ending, and man, Melville really nailed the landing on this one. And I did have frustrations with this novel at times. Not with the more famous interstitial chapters that everyone mentions, “The Whiteness of the Whale” or “Cetology,” those were two of my absolute favorites. But, my god, those slow chapters about minor whaling details (looking at you Chapters 82-86, what’s up Chapters 66-76) or strange overwritten detours (ugh, “The Town-Ho’s Story”) were rough. But it’s all a lot more forgivable now that we’ve had an amazing ending. Like a long relationship, I’m left to look back fondly only upon my favorite parts. And there is something immensely satisfying about being finished with this novel in general, and not just because it’s a classic book I can check off the list. It really does feel like we’ve all been on a journey.
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Moby-Dick really did dominate my own summer for better or worse. When I originally planned to do this, I mentioned that I’d be reading the book in real time, but I had intended to get ahead and read further than each assigned week, simply to make sure I had some kind of safety net. But this never ended up happening. My day job, or general non-Moby-Dick related summer plans got too in the way. I was always reading the chapters I sent only a few days before, or sometimes even the night before, and every recap was written the same week it was posted. A little anxiety-inducing, but I also liked the challenge of writing under that type of pressure. There’s energy to it, you can edit, but you can’t be too precious about it. It has to be a little loose.
Mostly it was a lot of fun writing these, though occasionally I felt slightly irked at the time it was taking at the expense of other projects. At the same time, who knows how much I would have actually used that time to write something else? The recaps got me writing over 1,000 words each week, it helped hone a specific voice, and I always knew what the topic would be. That was the thing about Moby-Dick the whole summer. It was always there. Not sure what to do in an idle moment? There was always more of the novel to read, some chapters to schedule to send, some emails to draft inviting someone to be on the podcast.
The age of the text, its classic timelessness was reliable as well. Whenever I was annoyed at some discourse on Twitter, whenever I worried that my attention span was crushed to dust from our modern distractions, I could go to a novel that didn’t care about any of that. It was a palate cleanser. It wasn’t just some old dusty thing though, the best part was that it was alive. The human moments and humor often felt much more contemporary than I expected, and as the Nathaniel Philbrick quote that opens this post mentions, there are so many aspects of it that could be applied to today. And even better, it wants to be read by us today. I already mentioned “Cetology,” which remains one of my favorite chapters, for the reasons described in the last three paragraphs of its recap. The best books wish to grow with current readers and future readers, and Moby-Dick is that 100%. It calls for you to do that within the text itself.
Thank you to everyone who joined in on this Moby Dick Summer, and everyone who guested on the podcast. Previously, I hadn’t been one for book clubs, as I’m rather stubborn and don’t like to be told what to read, lol, but this experience actually opened me up to the whole book club experience. It was so much fun to be able to text with friends, or chat IRL with them, about everything Moby-Dick. I highly recommend the experience of your notifs, your DMs, being full of Moby-Dick references for an entire summer.
It was also wonderful to virtually meet those who have happened upon this Substack. It delighted me to see the same names pop up in the comments, or liking each chapter. And I was really touched last week by those who mentioned enjoying the recaps as well. Thank you! I’m not sure what book, I’ll tackle next, but either way, there will be a long break. In the meantime, I’ve got a Twitter where I’ll post about future projects. I use Twitter to talk about books and writing-related things in general, though most of the books discussed are of a more contemporary nature.
Of course, I didn’t forget about recapping the Epilogue. Ishmael, who has faded into the background for the last several chapters, pops out to be like, “Oh, by the way, I happened to be on the boat that third day. I took Fedallah’s place. And yeah, everybody died but me.” I suppose I can forgive Melville for the lack of Queequeg in the last chapter, because he’s very much there in the epilogue—his coffin ultimately saves Ishmael’s life. It’s a fitting final goodbye from a character who preferred actions to words. But that’s about the only bright spot in the ending.
In one of the first recaps, I mentioned an episode of the Open Source podcast called “Moby Dick in 2020.” I highlighted some quotes by writers Alexander Chee and Jonathan Lethem, but the last guest on this podcast was Cornel West. I’ll end Moby Dick Summer with a quote from him, a quote that darkly speaks to Melville’s prescient genius, but I recommend listening to it in West’s own distinct voice, at 44:22.
“We’ve yet to catch up with Melville. He’s too frightening. He’s too truth-telling. He’s too unsettling. But the American empire today is having a profoundly Melvillean moment. It’s having to confront in the most raw, coarse, ugly, but undeniable way, the worst that we have done in the past and how that continues to haunt us. A deep white supremacy, the unbelievable grotesque wealth inequality, the patriarchy running amok. The greed, the envy, the resentment, the hatred. It’s not just the neo-Nazi brothers and sisters, they’re just the peak of an iceberg. And they are as American as apple pie, as John Coltrane, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary Lou Williams. As American as apple pie. We’ve got the worst and the best struggling. And right now the best is in no way triumphing. At the very end of Moby-Dick, what do we have? A coffin, serving as a raft. Ishmael holding on for dear life. It’s that unhopeful, nearly hopeless, hope. It doesn’t get more threadbare than that. It doesn’t get more tightrope-like than that. That’s not American optimism at all.”
A coffin, serving as a raft. It doesn’t get more threadbare than that.
No, America, I’m afraid it does not.