Moby Dick

Moby Dick Summary and Analysis of Chapters 121-Epilogue

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-One: Midnight ­ The Forecastle Bulwarks:

Stubb and Flask argue as they remain on the bulwarks, passing lashings over the anchors. They argue over the possibility that the ship may catch fire.


This chapter begins to describe the storm that began in the previous chapter, and makes clear the imminent danger that the Pequod faces.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Two: Midnight Aloft ­ Thunder and Lightning:

Tashtego passes lashings around the mainsail. He wonders what the use of thunder is, and says that he wants rum, not thunder.


Melville devotes this chapter almost entirely to the imagery of the storm that the Pequod experiences.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Three: The Musket:

While experiencing this severe storm, the Pequod suffers several shocks causing the needles in its compasses to spin out of control. The typhoon eventually abates several hours after midnight, and after everything calms Starbuck enters Ahab's stateroom to let the captain know the status of the ship. When Starbuck enters the stateroom, he sees loaded muskets on the rack and he immediately thinks that Ahab would have shot him once and thus picks up a musket. Starbuck considers that Ahab would kill his own crew in the quest for Moby Dick, and he may be justified in murdering him. He decides to place the musket so that it will shoot Ahab only if it falls, and thus Starbuck would not have to pull the trigger. However, he sees Ahab asleep and cannot move himself to shoot the old man. Starbuck hears Ahab cry in his sleep "Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last." Starbuck places the musket back on the rack and leaves the room.


Among the characters in Moby Dick, it is Starbuck who experiences the most vivid and acute internal conflict. As the character closest to Ahab and thus most privy to his madness and obsession, Starbuck allows the reader to get a more personalized but still external view of the captain, who emerges in this chapter as both the driven madman that Melville has described through the last hundred chapters but also as a weak and pitiable old man fully consumed by his personal demons. It is only when Starbuck glimpses this pitiable side of Ahab that he finally decides against murdering him for the sake of the crew.

Nevertheless, even before Starbuck's final realization of pity for the captain he seems unable to take full responsibility for the action he hopes to undertake. When contemplating whether or not to kill Ahab, he essentially argues the merits of murdering the captain by using legal and even mathematical terminology, weighing the thirty persons on the ship against the one captain who would sacrifice them. Starbuck thus attempts to distance himself from the crime he may commit, showing that he does not have the heart to go through with the crime without severe justification. Melville further shows this through Starbuck's decision to lay the musket on the door. Starbuck can only truly consider committing this murder if he does not pull the trigger. He wishes to have a relative level of impunity from the moral consequences of this murder. This is a significant point, for it shows that the conflict between Starbuck and Ahab exists on different moral planes; Starbuck will only do what he can ethically justify, while Ahab will do anything that he believes will help him achieve his final goal.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Four: The Needle:

On the morning after the typhoon, Ahab stands in an enchanted silence on the deck of the ship. Ahab corrects the ship's steersman when he says that the ship is heading east-southeast, for Ahab judges their direction by the rising sun. Ahab thus learns that the storm turned the compasses, and orders that the ship turn in the opposite direction. Starbuck, Stubb and Flask acquiesce to Ahab's demand, but display a quiet discomfort with Ahab's order. Ahab fashions a new needle for the compass out of a lance, and thus quiets the skeptical crew that had not believed that the compasses were in error.


While Melville has established Ahab as a madman consumed with his own obsession, that is only part of the terror that he instills in others. Another vital aspect that makes Ahab so formidable is that he is an extremely capable and knowledgeable sailor. While Ahab generally stands alone among his crew because of his madness, in this situation Ahab finds in opposition with his crew for the simple reason that he is the only one who can accurately determine the problem with the compass. While Ahab is descending into insanity, he nevertheless remains dangerous to the crew simply because even with his obsession he is still extraordinarily capable.

Melville makes this point about Ahab's capabilities explicit in part to create Ahab as a more intimidating character, but also in part to elevate the conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick into a more mythic battle. While Ahab may be mad, he is still an unquestionably superb sailor. This makes the captain's battle with Moby Dick into something more than a mere suicide mission, for Melville gives sufficient indication that Ahab has the sailing capability necessary to defeat the whale. It is not a lack of talent that will doom Ahab to failure, however; it is this very talent, this "fatal pride" that Melville names, that will prove Ahab's undoing.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Five: The Log and Line:

After fixing the compass of the Pequod, Ahab turns his attention to the log and line in order to make sure that this long-ignored part of the ship was still functioning. A Tahitian and a Manxman each attempt to raise the log, while the Tahitian makes puns about the Manxman, a "Man from (The Isle of) Man." Ahab watches the idiocy of these two from the deck, and calls for Pip to help them. When Ahab finds that Pip has gone insane and can spout only gibberish, he offers his cabin to Pip and vows that he will not let go of him "unless I should thereby drag thee to worse horrors than are here."


The formidable and mythic Ahab of previous chapters recedes into a shocking display of humanity and pity in this chapter, which finds the redoubtable captain displaying pity and empathy for essentially the first time in the novel. In the incoherent Pip, Ahab finds an idealized and blessed figure deserving of both charity and respect; Ahab even dubs him his "holiness." Also, Ahab notes that he cannot see his reflection in "the vacant pupils of thy eyes," and regrets his distance from the poor Pip. Quite significantly, Melville leaves Ahab's lament open to interpretation; it is unclear whether Ahab worries that Pip has lost his links to humanity or whether it is Ahab, who views man as "a thing for immortal souls to sieve through," who feels displaced from humanity himself. One could therefore interpret Ahab's offer of his cabin to Pip as an expression of Ahab's attempt to reconcile himself with the humanity he has lost.

The most significant line of this chapter, and perhaps the most startling change in Ahab, concerns Ahab's vow not to drag Pip to "worse horrors." This shows that Ahab has essentially doomed himself in his conflict with Moby Dick, but for the first time he seems to consider whether or not he shall allow the others of the ship to share his fate. Melville at last demonstrates an internal conflict within Ahab between his obsession and his common humanity.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Six: The Life-Buoy:

The Pequod progresses toward the Equator and reaches a cluster of rocky islets. The Manxman, the oldest mariner on the ship, declares that he hears sounds of "newly drowned men in the sea." The ship also passes seals, which are considered among mariners to be ill omens. Early in the morning, a sailor mounts the mast of the ship but falls from it and drowns. The sailors lose the life-buoy in their futile attempt to save him. Some members of the ship regard it "not as a foreshadowing of evil in the future, but as the fulfillment of an evil already presaged." Queequeg offers his coffin as a replacement for the life-buoy. The ship's carpenter complains about the duty of transforming the coffin into a life-buoy, comparing it to turning an old coat and calling it a "cobbling sort of business." However, he says that his job is not "to ask the why and wherefore in your work" and starts at his work.


The first segment of this chapter returns to one of Melville's most common techniques throughout Moby Dick, the building of a sense of impending doom. Once again Melville relies on the sight of harbingers of disaster, from the tangibly dangerous (the rocky islets) and the spooky (the supposed voices of nearly drowned men) to the merely superstitious (the seals). A more concrete sign of disaster comes with the death of another crew member and the loss of the life-buoy, which is treated as a more grave loss than the actual human life.

The irony of using Queequeg's coffin as a life-buoy is perhaps too obvious to merit much notice, but still fits with the theme of mortality that runs throughout Moby Dick. Deserving of more attention is the carpenter's complaint concerning the coffin. He resigns himself to transforming the coffin into a life-buoy because it is not his job to question the work assigned to him. This fits with a recurring theme of predestination and inevitability that dominates the main conflict of the novel, as the characters, even Ahab, find themselves powerless to escape the inevitable conflict with the great whale.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Seven: The Deck:

Ahab watches the carpenter work on Queequeg's coffin, and calls him "unprincipled as the gods" and "an arrant, all-grasping intermeddling, monopolizing, heathenish old scamp" for one day making legs and another coffins and another making life-buoys out of coffins. Ahab asks the carpenter whether he has ever carried a coffin with a body, and when the carpenter responds with the exclamation "faith," Ahab asks "what's that?" and then asks the carpenter if he is a silkworm who "spins thy own shroud out of thyself." Ahab thinks of the coffin as a life-buoy in the sense that it is an immortality preserver, but laments that he has gone too far to "the dark side of the earth"


The interaction between the carpenter and Ahab does very little to advance the plot, merely continuing the tone their interaction from previous chapters, but remains rich in symbolism and reiterates many of the themes that are prominent throughout Moby Dick. The religious overtones of this chapter are particularly important; Ahab believes that the carpenter commits blasphemy by making false legs and transforming coffins into life-buoys, yet nevertheless questions the idea of faith itself. Melville effects an ironic reversal in this chapter, as Ahab scolds the carpenter for faithlessness and blasphemy while it is Ahab himself who best displays these traits. He views the carpenter's work as unprincipled because it reverses the order of life (turning a coffin, a symbol of death, into a buoy, a symbol of life) and allows the carpenter to be a creator (fashioning a leg for Ahab); in other words, Ahab criticizes the carpenter for behaving in the manner of a god, just as Ahab has done through the previous chapters. Melville bolsters this comparison between the carpenter and god through the metaphor of the silkworm, which fashions its shroud from itself and is thus self-creating. One may even find the carpenter to be a metaphor for Jesus, himself a carpenter who, through resurrection, reversed the order between life and death. Significantly, all of these religious overtones concern mortality, as if Ahab presages an imminent death in his struggle with Moby Dick.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Eight: The Pequod Meets the Rachel:

The Pequod comes upon another ship, the Rachel. The captain of the Rachel tells the Manxman that he saw the White Whale yesterday, and asks whether the Pequod has seen a whale-boat adrift. Ahab soon recognizes this captain as a man from Nantucket that he once knew. This captain wishes to unite with the Pequod on a search for this whale-boat by sailing several miles apart on parallel lines. Stubb seems skeptical about the request, but they soon learn that the sailor in the lost whale-boat is the captain's son. Gardiner, the captain of the Rachel, refuses to leave the Pequod until Ahab assents to his request, and says that he knows that Ahab has a son himself. Ahab rejects Gardiner's request, claiming that he will lose necessary time in pursuing the white whale, and Gardiner dejectedly leaves the Pequod.


The plight of the Rachel provides a stark contrast to the plight of Pequod. Both of the captains of the respective ships, Gardiner and Ahab, are consumed with a difficult and personal journey and neither can fixate on anything other than that journey. However, while the object of Ahab's pursuit is death and a nearly suicidal fixation on the whale, the object of Gardiner's pursuit is life, in his attempt to save his son. For Ahab, such personal relationships mean little; it is jarring for Gardiner to remind Ahab that he is himself a father, for in his obsession over the whale Ahab has seemingly lost any ability to have a connection with another human being. For Ahab, all personal considerations are secondary when it comes to his pursuit of the white whale.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-Nine: The Cabin:

While leaving his cabin, Ahab finds Pip following him up on deck. Ahab stops him and tells Pip not to follow him, for the hour is coming when Ahab "would not scare three from him, yet would not have thee by him." Ahab claims that his malady becomes his most desired health. Pip weeps at Ahab's attempt to abandon him, but Ahab threatens to murder him, for he too is insane. Ahab leaves, and Pip steps forward, but vows to remain there until "the stern strikes rocks."


Just as the previous chapter established Ahab's inability to show any concern for others that might hinder his quest for Moby Dick, in this chapter Melville gives additional evidence of the hardened and emotionless Ahab through his interaction with Pip, the character to whom Ahab had shown the most pity. Ahab at first attempts to handle Pip gently in order to spare him from what seems to be an inevitable tragedy, yet still resolves to murder the pitiable boy if it is necessary. Perhaps the most interesting facet of Ahab's character in this chapter is his self-awareness of his own insanity. Ahab realizes that he is a madman, but cannot change his behavior. This is yet another example of the novel's recurring theme of predestined fate.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty: The Hat:

Ahab becomes more purposeful than ever upon learning that he is within range of Moby Dick, and in this foreshadowing interval all humor vanishes from the Pequod. The proximity to the whale awes Ahab, who has an "added, gliding strangeness" that even affects Fedallah. His life becomes a perpetual watch on deck, for Ahab wishes to have the first sight of the whale himself. Ahab selects Starbuck as the person who will help him reach the perch of the ship, a dangerous task that could lead to Ahab's death, despite the fact that Starbuck is the only person to ever voice any opposition to him. While on the perch, Ahab watches the horizon so intently that he barely notices when a hawk swoops down and flies off with his hat. This story recalls how an eagle flew thrice round Tarquin's head, removing his cap to replace it, and thereupon Tanaquil, his wife, declared that Tarquin would be king of Rome. However, it is only by the hat's replacement that this became a good omen.


Once again Herman Melville devotes a chapter of Moby Dick to detailing the ever-increasing feeling of doom and foreshadows the inevitable tragic end to Ahab, whose obsession becomes more public. He no longer remains a shadowy and mysterious figure in his cabin, but instead a consistently prominent symbol and active figure in relation to the crew. Melville also continues to add ill omens to the voyage, including the theft of Ahab's hat, which recalls the harbinger of Tarquin's destiny without the return of the hat that would render it a portent of victory.

This chapter fully realizes the arc of Starbuck's character as he accepts his captain's quest at a moment in which he could effectively stop Ahab. Starbuck could easily harm Ahab while he helps him to the perch, thus saving the crew from the captain's quest against Moby Dick, but Starbuck once again acquiesces. Whatever objections that he may have to his captain, he remains powerless to stop him. Starbuck thus accepts that his fate is irrevocably bound with Ahab's. Also, for Ahab the decision to allow Starbuck to help him is significant. Since Starbuck is the only person who might be considered untrustworthy to the task, asking Starbuck to help Ahab to the perch is an act of both great hubris and suicidal folly, both traits that Melville has certainly established within Ahab throughout the novel.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-One: The Pequod Meets the Delight:

The Pequod comes upon the Delight, which has upon its side the shattered planks of a former whale-boat. Ahab asks if the Delight has seen the White Whale, and the captain of the ship points him to the wrecked boat. The captain claims that no harpoon has been forged that could ever kill Moby Dick. Ahab wields Perth's harpoon, and claims that it is tempered in lightning and blood.


The eventual clash between the Pequod and Moby Dick comes closer during this chapter, in which the Pequod meets a ship that is itself a victim of the whale. Ahab once again demonstrates his egomaniacal belief that he can defeat the whale; when he wields the harpoon, he fashions himself as a mythic hero with mystical powers, once again demonstrating his own grand delusions.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Two: The Symphony:

Starbuck watches Ahab gazing out from the deck, and Ahab reminisces with him about the day when he struck his first whale nearly forty years ago when he was only eighteen. Ahab laments the solitude of these years, only three of which he has spent on dry land. He claims that when he married his wife he immediately left her a widow and says that he has "foamingly" chased his prey as "more a demon than a man." Ahab questions the strife of this chase. Ahab finally says that "toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field" and "rust amid greenness."


In this chapter, Melville repeats the characterization of Ahab that has been well established throughout the novel as a man possessed by a great obsession who can demonstrate few recognizably human traits. However, the significance of this not altogether shocking character analysis is that it comes from Ahab himself, who freely and explicitly admits to his disturbing nature. The formidable captain even demonstrates a bit of regret concerning his life and its consequences for others. In some sense, Ahab seems to give his last words to Starbuck. Even before the battle with the white whale, Ahab has written his own requiem, presaging his own death at the hands of Moby Dick and hoping for a better afterlife. Ahab's imagery of heaven, in particular his allusion to sleeping on the fields, recall mythic imagery of the Elysian fields. Once again providing a parallel to mythic heroes, Ahab fancies himself not in Christian ideas of paradise but in the afterlife of classical mythology.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Three: The Chase ­ First Day:

That night, Ahab suddenly declares that the whale must be near, and he orders the crew to prepare for the chase despite the fact that nobody can actually see Moby Dick. Finally Ahab spies the whale, and Tashtego affirms Ahab's vision. Soon all of the boats except for Starbuck's are in the water, and Ahab's boat leads them. The whale seems to possess a gentle joyousness, and it surpasses even "the whtie bull Jupiter swimming away with ravished Europa." A flock of white birds flies around Ahab's boat as it reaches Moby Dick's open mouth and scrolled jaw. Ahab struggles with the whale, which seems to predict every move that Ahab will make. When Moby Dick attacks Ahab's boat, causing it to sink, Ahab narrowly escapes to Stubb's boat, where he asks whether or not his harpoon survived before asking if there were any casualties. The boats rush back toward the Pequod, and Ahab remains on deck watching for more glimpses of Moby Dick. Starbuck claims that today's loss of Ahab's boat is an ill omen, but Ahab simply claims that if the gods think of communicating to man, "they will honorably speak outright, not shake their heads and give an old wives' darkling hint." Ahab orders Starbuck to begin the search for Moby Dick again, but not to find him until morning.


After over one hundred chapters, at long last Melville allows the conflict between Ahab and Moby Dick to come to fruition. The thematic implications of this conflict thus recede as the pure action and mechanics of the plot come to the fore. Having established the particular persona of Ahab and the context of his quest, Melville shifts the style of the novel from that of previous chapters, which focused on creating mood and delving into the psyche of Ahab, to a style that better recalls adventure stories, albeit with a darker and more foreboding tone. Melville does continue the pattern of including ill omens and superstitions that foreshadow disaster, but in this case a more concrete threat does come in the form of Moby Dick. In fact, Ahab altogether rejects the idea of these portents, claiming that the gods will communicate directly to him and not through superstitious hints. This may be interpreted in several ways: one can view this passage as Ahab's rejection of religion (and thus another example of his blasphemy), or as greater evidence that Ahab can be cold, calculating and logical.

Melville portrays Moby Dick in nearly human terms, endowing the great whale with a sense of intelligence, strategy and grandeur. The whale is more than a match for Ahab, despite his dogged persistence, and in fact appears altogether invincible. Therefore, despite the fact that the Pequod escaped with relatively little harm from its first encounter with the whale, there is little hope that Ahab and his crew will effectively vanquish Moby Dick.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Four: The Chase ­ Second Day:

The next day the Pequod once again comes upon Moby Dick, and in finding the whale the crew works together strenuously as "one man, not thirty." Ahab and his crew descend into the boats and sail toward Moby Dick, which in turn sails toward them. Once again Moby Dick fends off the attack by Ahab, and even breaks Ahab's ivory leg. Ahab and Stubb soon realize that Fedallah was a victim of Moby Dick; he had become entangled in the line and dragged underwater. Starbuck chastises Ahab, telling him that he will never capture Moby Dick and that it is "impiety and blasphemy" to chase him again. Ahab, however, declares that the chase is "immutably decreed" and that he is simply "Fate's lieutenant." In returning Starbuck's criticism, Ahab rallies the crew behind the cause.


The second day of the chase proceeds in much the same manner as the first, although Melville heightens the tension of the second conflict with Moby Dick through its first casualty. Otherwise, Melville merely makes explicit the character developments that have occurred throughout the novel. He specifically has Starbuck voice the opinion that Ahab's actions are blasphemy and has Ahab counter with the idea that he is merely fulfilling his destiny. At this point in the novel no other characters matter other than Ahab, as Melville indicates: the crew is no longer composed of thirty separate characters, but instead it is guided by the single vision and mind of Ahab. And, as Melville once again makes clear, Ahab's only opposition, Starbuck, is powerless to oppose him.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirty-Five: The Chase ­ Third Day:

On the third day, Starbuck begins to feel panic for helping Ahab, wondering if he does "disobey his God" by doing so. The crew remains tense at the suspense until Ahab finally spies the whale's spout again. Before Ahab sets out on a third attempt against the whale, he tells Starbuck that "some ships sail from their ports and ever afterwards are missing" and the two shake hands. As Ahab leaves, Starbuck calls for him to come back, for he sees sharks, but Ahab cannot hear him. When Ahab and the crew reach Moby Dick, the whale seems "combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven." Ahab can see the corpse of Fedallah still attached to the whale by the line. Ahab is able to stab the whale with his harpoon, but when Moby Dick writhes in pain he tips Ahab's boat over. Ahab orders them to return to the ship as the whale chases them, but the whale smashes the Pequod, which begins to sink. In a possible act of suicide, Ahab throws his harpoon, becomes entangled in its line and goes along with it. As the Pequod goes down, Tashtego attempts to nail a flag to the ship, but a sky-hawk becomes caught in the flag and it goes down with the ship as well. Melville compares the ship to Satan, who "would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her."


The final day of the chase serves as the culmination of the plot of the novel, if not the crux of the character development and conflict. Ahab does not veer from his quest against Moby Dick, even though he seems to realize that there cannot be a satisfactory end to this course of action; by shaking hands with Starbuck, he wishes him a final farewell in full knowledge that he will not return alive.

While the symbolism of classical mythology has been significant during the recent passages of the book, in this final chapter Melville returns to more specifically Christian symbolism. Moby Dick comes to represent Satan, for as Melville notes, he seems possessed with the strength of all the angels that fell from Heaven. However, this is not a Manichean struggle between good and evil. In the end, when Ahab suffers his tragic end to Moby Dick, he is literally brought down to the whale's level. Ahab's death is a tragic fall caused by his hubris, and with his death he brings down his ship and his crew.

The sinking of the Pequod is a symbolic moment that recalls the omen of the hat found in chapter one hundred and thirty. The very sky-hawk that could have prophesied Ahab's victory becomes a victim brought down with the Pequod. Curiously, in this chapter Melville compares both Moby Dick and the Pequod itself to Satan, as both return to the abyss after their final battle. The story of Moby Dick thus leaves no sense of catharsis, only a sense of relief as the tainted Pequod and its captain fulfill their inevitable, tragic destiny.


Ishmael survives the wreck only because, after Fedallah's death, he took his place as Ahab's bowsman. Ishmael is nearly taken down by the vortex of the sinking ship, but he survives and remains for a whole day and night floating, untouched even by the sharks, until the Rachel sails nearby searching for her missing children and finding a different orphan.


The epilogue of the novel serves as a necessary explanatory note, showing how Ishmael could narrate the story even after the final chapter essentially states that none of the crew of the Pequod survived the attack by Moby Dick. Melville begins the epilogue with a scriptural quote from Job, "And I am escaped alone to tell thee," once again returning to a Biblical parallel. However, the journeys of Job and Ishmael in fact contain few essential similarities other than surface details. While Job grappled with the possibility of a vengeful God, Ishmael serves as a simple narrator for the novel. He is simply a witness to the tragedy that unfolded throughout Moby Dick, and in fact is Job's opposite. In the Biblical tale of Job, his suffering was random and unjustified, while in Moby Dick it is Ishmael's good fortune that is mere coincidence, allowing him, like Job, to tell his tale.