Moby-Dick (finale)

A major opposition in Moby-Dick: human beings vs. the environment.  Consider how Melville represents this tension throughout the book.  Now turn to the cataclysmic ending.  Who wins the battle of man vs nature in the book?  What, if any, is the statement Melville seeks to make in his contribution to American Literature?

Please answer in 100 words. Although I will count this as participation, it will serve as an important indicator of how well you have kept up with the reading, and how much you’ve absorbed class materials.

Your responses are due this Thursday by noon.  I will be posting my own long response to your submissions at 3:30 pm on that same day (our normally scheduled class period).

25 thoughts on “Moby-Dick (finale)

  1. The climatic battle between the Pequod and Moby Dick spans over a three day chase and three encounters. The first two encounters are met with defeat and losses, with Fedallah being pulled under after Moby Dick’s attack. The third day is the ultimate final battle for the crew, with Ahab seemingly offering one final goodbye to Starbuck before heading off into the fight. Though Moby Dick is worn down from the chase, he still manages to overcome Ahab’s tenacity and decides to sink the Pequod. Ahab makes a desperate move to harpoon the whale, but gets caught on his own line and drowns into the water. The Pequod is destroyed with no survivors, save for our narrator Ishmael. Moby Dick wins out in the long, tiresome battle.

    The journey with the Pequod, as well as Ahab’s determination, culminates the struggle of man facing the impossible challenges ahead. Despite being given numerous chances to turn away and end his blood feud with the white whale, Ahab was too far into his journey to back out. The human spirit to conquer and overcome any obstacle drove Ahab to face his greatest challenge, but his lack of foresight and reason costed him the lives of himself and his crew.

    Moby Dick is played off as a godlike monster compared to the crew. The tiresome endeavor of overcoming the forces of nature leads to the demise of those who stubbornly set their sights on achieving glory or satisfaction. However, it is through Ishmael’s survival that the epic tale of this journey and the crew of the Pequod may live on in legend and history about the human spirit’s drive to face any obstacle despite the impossible odds.

  2. Considering the climactic battle at the end of Moby Dick, one thing that occurred to me was this: while the whale did kill virtually the entire crew, it is never specified that Moby Dick lived or died, while at the same time Ishmael undeniably escaped. The story of Moby Dick is one owned by man and told by man; nobody could know this tale with out Ishmael. A potential message Melville seeks to make is that the battle between man and nature is just that, an ambivalent, subjective, ongoing fight. While Moby Dick may have won the battle, it appears that man is winning the war.

    • I do see and like where you are coming from Mary-Gayden, another perspective on this topic is not necessarily an ongoing battle which I do think is still present, but a mutual respect Ishmael has gained for the Whale and nature. It is impossible to fully understand each side whether it is nature or man and I believe that with the telling of this tale Ishmael conveys a message of becoming humble and content with the life he has lived. Ishmael has seen first hand the incredible power nature has over man and Ishmael respects that and understands that man cannot control nature but Man can only control Man itself.

    • What war, though? After all, Ahab originally sought Moby Dick for vengeance for his leg, only ascribing deeper meaning to the whiteness of the whale when already embarked on his quest. Wars are fought for reasons, ideologies, beliefs. What belief drives the hunting of a whale, save for the belief in superiority? Maybe the conclusion is meant to impart a sense of justification, of vindication. As you said, only Ishmael survives, only he knows the story of what happened. His description of events may be his way of granting the whole matter a grandiosity that others can accept and venerate. Who knows what truly happened out on the sea, who truly won? I agree, the ending suggests an ambivalent struggle, but to me it also suggests an ambivalence towards the whole nature of the struggle at all.

  3. George, I love what you’re saying with regards to ideology. What is the whale fighting for? Is Moby Dick hostile in the way Ahab thinks it is? The final section brings the ship and the whale closer together symbolically as well as physically; the ship’s crew’s actions become more predestined and mechanical, while we confront (in keeping with the whole book) the question of the whale’s capacity for evil. And at the end? We know Ahab dies, and we know Moby Dick might or might not, and we know it’s the fact of the struggle between the two that kills the crew, on both a large and an immediate scale. If there’s a meaning I can get out if this, it’s that confrontations between nature and humanity happen inevitably, and that they happen destructively regardless of the outcome.

    • I too like what you are saying about the ideology of the whale George. Katia, you asked what the whale is fighting for and maybe that’s just it, is that all it is trying to do is survive. Ahab is hunting this whale out of an obsession with revenge and some sense of justice. So maybe it’s not a question of did nature or humans win the battle, it is more like the humans lost as soon as they moved beyond simply trying to survive. The harmony between humans and nature only can occur when both are going their natural course. As soon as Ahab waged war, he had already lost, because you can’t disrupt that harmony without suffering the consequences.

  4. I believe that Moby Dick did fall at the hands of those that hunted him. He did not fall for the thrill of the tale but rather for the poetic ending that such a despised creature needed. The anger and hatred of men caused the downfall of nature, which is explicitly shown in the open-ended fate of the whale so eagerly hunted. I feel the open-ended fate shows the reader that Moby Dick could have been just a hostile whale who disliked being bothered. He did not have to be the bloodthirsty monster that men had made him out to be. This narrative by Ishmael, tells the story in a way that makes Ishmael the hero. He threw an animal, who could not fight back with his words, under the ship as the villain of the tale.

  5. In the battle between man and nature represented in Moby Dick, Melville comments on the tension between human progress and the taming of wilderness in the westward movement of the frontier line across America during the nineteenth century. Ultimately Ahab is destroyed by the wildness of the whale because of the singularity of his purpose; Ahab is driven in his madness to see only retribution and not the benefits of continuing with the work of whaling. This single mindedness replicates the intense drive to “tame” the American wilderness without regard of the consequences to the environment. Through Ahab, Melville reflects the American belief in Manifest Destiny, that only Ahab is fated to be the one to kill the whale and only Americans are fated to move west and claim the land and its resources.

  6. Throughout this film, Ahab is constantly searching for revenge despite the wishes of his crew members. The prophecy foretold at the beforehand creates a tension that isn’t resolved until the crew faces Moby at the climax. I believe that nature wins in this film as Ishmael is the only survivor as the movie comes to an end. While Moby’s fate is not revealed, I do believe that he died in the attack. While this may seem as if man won, I believe that the revenge Ahab sought could not be fulfilled due to his death. Melville’s contribution to American literature lies in his take on westward expansion and the taming of the uncontrollable wilderness.

  7. Captain Ahab, to put it simply is a man who thinks he is invincible to everything he crosses paths with. At the end of the novel, for him to do things such as crush his quadrant, which acts as a navigation device, as well as refusing to let the crew to raise the lightning rods during the storm shows that Ahab is absolutely determined to meet his fate while putting the entire crew’s lives at risk. He is selfish and only sees his own wants over the needs of others. At the end, his lasting battle with fate proves his loss. He dies at the hands of nature. The statement, I can only assume, that Melville wants to make is that in a battle between nature and man, nature will always prevail.

  8. It appears that nature triumphed by ridding the oceans of Ahab and his devices, just as Melville attempted to show what could happen to the natural world’s lands, animals and indigenous peoples in the western U.S. Ahab, the crew and their technology in the story represented man and machine on land in the 1800s, destroying the West through greed and the ideology of Manifest Destiny. This is a tale of foreboding, but perhaps not as Melville intended. He stated that whale hunting was nothing like the hunting of bison to extinction because the whale will live to eternity. We now know that to be false.

  9. A good way to gauge who won the battle of man vs nature in Moby-Dick, is by looking at Ahab’s progression into psychosis. Going through the book, you can see Ahab and his crew fall further from reality especially during the scenes where the Pequod is met by another whaling boat. It’s in these scenes that the reader gets to see how things could be on a whaling boat, but because of Ahab’s psychotic need for revenge, the Pequod is stuck in a state of tension, constantly working to fulfill this revenge. To be more specific, Ahab’s goal is to battle nature (a giant whale) and come out the victor. We aren’t ever explicitly told who the victor was, but we do know that Moby Dick killed all but one crew-member of the Pequod and now the classic tale is of how man became crazed to conquer nature and lost.

  10. Melville ended his novel with the Pequod sinking along with most of the crew. After all this time – the whale chases, the talk about whale skeleton measurements and kinds of whales, the adventure across the ocean – Ahab ultimately failed in his quest. Not only did Ahab fail but the ocean moved on as though he had never been there at all. I think that nature defeated man in Moby Dick, and that the great white whale itself was a metaphor for all that is unknowable and unreachable to mankind. Ahab tried to kill it and learn its secrets and as a result was swallowed up by the sea.

  11. Despite Ishmael’s survival, the moment is not one of triumph as much as it is a moment of reflection for him, Melville, and readers. Melville sets his audience up early on in knowing the fate of the Pequod through different prophecies being delivered, Ishmael’s own insight of knowing the ending, and the extension of the quest to hunt down Moby Dick. Despite everything that is done by the narrator and those aboard the ship, Moby Dick still prevails and takes down Ahab and those who follow him. This appears as meaning that despite the work of man to preserve what they have, nature will inevitably triumph over man.

  12. I believe that in this battle of nature vs. man, nature won. Throughout the novel, it is apparent that Ahab, in his own selfish ways, was so focused on getting revenge without thinking about the dangers he may be putting himself and his crew members in, ultimately leading in all but one death, including himself. Although Moby Dick’s fate was not revealed, this still goes to show that nature will always prevail, especially in situations of greed and selfishness.

  13. It wasn’t until the final few chapters of this book that I was fully struck by the tale’s similarity to a Greek tragedy. I’ll be the first to admit that I lost some steam in my literary analysis for the middle chunk of this book, but here in the end I find myself reinvigorated. This has been a story of subtle and unsubtle predictions and prophecies; nearly every aspect of the finale of this book had been foreseen by either a character earlier in the story, or symbolized by happenings experienced by the characters, whether it be Falledah dying before Ahab, or his being tied to whale, transforming Moby Dick into the first of many hearses. My knowledge of Greek tragedy is limited, but I found myself comparing Ahab to Oedipus, a man who refuses to listen to omens of doom which proclaim his death, instead pushing on forward, the difference being that Oedipus seeks to deny fate, while Ahab sees his own demise as inevitable. If this is a matter of Man v. Nature, it is obvious that Moby Dick, a force of nature more than a whale, won. Though it is unsure whether or not it survives in the end, its legacy of destruction far surpasses the legacy of any one of the hunters who sought after it. The Pequod is just one of many ships it has encountered, and subsequently destroyed.

  14. Taking more time to think after my first response, I feel as if there is no deeper meaning within this text and that the blatant story is overlooked. We see a man take on a voyage he has never experienced, and witnessed several new people who all have stories and books of their own to tell. Ishmael simply witnessed and experienced true beauty in the world by understanding and contemplating the true forces of nature, as well as the driving fire and spirit within man. I cope very closely to the emotions and internal feelings one must experience in Ishmaels position and if thought long enough I feel strong emotions of gratitude and complicity to a point of which I am thankful for Moby Dick. It has taught me to appreciate the things that we as people are unable to explain such as natural beauties, the Grand Canyon, Mt. Everest, or even more simply the Ocean. Man will always be on the quest to conquer such Incredibles but will never achieve such. The only thing we, as Man, are able to do is represent our gratitude of life in bearing witness to amazing natural anomalies and simply being appreciative and not taking these gorgeous acts of the natural world for granted.

  15. When looking at the ending of this tale you can see the messages of ongoing struggles between man and nature. With the climatic ending speaking not being a clean-cut one, where we aren’t sure who definitely lives and who dies. Though most of the crew did die. We aren’t sure if Moby dick dies and what happened to Ishmael. By doing this it creates an ending with a cliff hanger, making it seem though the fight is not yet over between man and nature.

  16. Thank you for all of these thoughtful reflections. You have mentioned much that bears repeating: the ambivalence of the ending (is the White Whale alive?); the healthy awareness of human limits; the potential that we’ve just witnessed a justified revenge (from the whale’s perspective); the tragic dimensions in line with the Western classical tradition; the historical nineteenth-century unfolding that parallels this fictional disaster, without which the end lacks complete sense.

    Here are some of my thoughts. First off, I’d like to say that–even after a number re-readings–I share that sense of catharsis a few of you described. It’s a long ride and there is something satisfying (tinged with some sadness, certainly) about closing this chapter of our lives. After all, unlike poetry or short stories, long novels compel a long term relationship with readers. I think all such long novels set us up for this moment of exhaling before closing a heavy book. We feel as if we’ve just fed our brains a ten-course meal; it will made more resilient, wiser.

    As for analysis, I’m interested in both the immediate historical reading, and a second interpretation that gets into bigger questions exceeding specific contexts.

    *The First*:
    The 19th century course of manifest destiny (the ideology of U.S. dominion over North America) is a key component. What do we see at he end if not a U.S. “ship of state” (comprised of many nations as per the whaling roster) led by a egotistic leader crashing headlong into the uncharted territory represented by the whale? Ahab uses measurement instruments to pin down this monster he covets, but he fails throughout. He dies in full megalomania by giving up not the “ghost,” but “the spear” (409). The final image of Tashteego (the native character), and the flag and eagle in a whirlpool suggests an imperiled national icon. Seen from this perspective, “Moby-Dick” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked free will inside an industrializing nation. Melville is a prophet, and American Literature is an unfolding critical tradition of contesting authority. If “Moby-Dick” is the Great American Novel, there is certainly nothing jingoistic about it by the end.

    *The Second:*
    Now let us turn to bigger questions. The ending relates the fragility of man’s efforts to control the environment. I don’t only mean hunting whales and hurting innocent nature. I mean the types of natural disasters and seemingly random processes that are beyond man’s control, yet guide his/her destiny. Ishmael (as Ahab does aggressively) tries to map the whale and name the parts, penetrate it from near and far. This works throughout the book as a palliative, a way of giving form to unknown forces operating in the world (Ishmael calls it “evil” for convenience). It’s a psychological crutch that has much to do with the way the book deviates time and again from reaching its destined port. And what stands in that end? The same as always: Death. Melville has written literature hostile to transcendentalists like Emerson, who felt nurtured by sublime aspects of the wild.

    So nature wins, right? Well, what is also clear is that the one thing that stands a chance inside the natural order is writing–man’s capacity to create meaning despite the perpetual undercurrents of the whirlpool–the ravages of time and the absurdity of existence. The end of the book coincides with the end of the ship–both die. And yet the ending does not so much create closure, as it does a circle. Like a war veteran, Ishmael survives to tell the tale. He calls the Pequod and the crew back to life through the magic act of authoring a novel. He is picked up by the “Rachel,” a ship that Ahab turned his back on a few chapters earlier (thus creating a circle). The rescuing ship shows a humanity that Ahab lacked. As such, it shows that social ties can fight against life’s maladies. The orphan state Ishmael finds himself is the orphan state of American Literature. But it’s traumatized narrator has learned lesson in humility as he stares into the jaws of death. It’s man that wins, perhaps, but not via a triumphal hubris. Quite the contrary: the glory of man comes via some combination of humility and persistence. There is human boldness and respect for nature in equal measure in “Moby-Dick.” The ending of the novel can be thought of as a Biblical apocalypse, where ending and beginnings merge together in the imagination. Not an end, but a new afterlife.

    • The question of writing as a way of triumphing over (or holding one’s own within) the natural order connects to an observation I hadn’t had space to make in my first blog post: Ishmael, while still telling the story, effectively disappears from the narrative for a good portion of the book’s middle and even leading up to the end. We see him occasionally, but in contrast with the individual figure he is in the book’s opening chapters, his primary purpose is that of a vehicle to relate events centering around ‘larger’ characters than him. Even while he’s a narrator who introduces himself with “Call me Ishmael,” the significance of Ishmael’s name or nature to the events in Moby-Dick exists only insofar as he is telling the story. But he IS telling the story, and if it weren’t for his ability to survive to tell it, Ahab and the whale and everybody else on the Pequod would be entirely robbed of their ‘significance.’ All of which is kind of obvious, but my bottom line is that Ishmael’s isn’t American literature’s only famous observer-narrator (think Nick Carraway), but the degree to which he becomes a non-entity in key parts of the book is unusual. It’s as if so long as he’s with the Pequod, his selfhood (outside of narrator status) is secondary to the collective selfhood of the ships’ crew.

      • The collective selfhood is, I think, a key to Mendelson’s sense of the novel as encyclopedic, rather than epic (which deals with one hero).

  17. I had some trouble in proclaiming whether or not Moby Dick (nature) was truly the victor in the conflict, if I’m being honest. I eventually sided with the whale, but I feel like a life in which you are constantly hunted down by others with violent intent, whether or not you survive, is not a very pleasant life to lead. And I agree with the statement that, due to the ambiguos ending of the book, the only thing that definitively surivived is the writing. Ahab may have perished in the physical sense, but his struggle lives on in the written word, and in that sense, man prevails.

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