13 December 2006

Moby Dick: Truth or Myth?

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 2:58 pm

The last chapter of Moby Dick ends with the sinking of the Pequod. The three masts subside, their lookouts still manned by the three harpooneers.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

The end? Not quite. There’s an Epilogue, one page long. It begins with a quote:

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” – Job

Job. The narrator begins his story by telling of a day when the sons of God came to present themselves to Yahweh, and Satan came also among them. And Yahweh said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered Yahweh, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. Yahweh gives Satan his permission to destroy everything Job has, just to see whether Job will curse Yahweh. Immediately four messengers come to Job, each one recounting a separate catastrophe. “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee,” each of the messengers concludes his story. Is this a true story about Job? No one alive can vouchsafe the messengers’ stories. And who bore witness to the conversation between Yahweh and Satan?

The Epilogue of Moby Dick continues:

The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth? – Because one did survive the wreck.

The Epilogue reminds us that we’ve been reading a story told by Ishmael, an otherwise-undistinguished crewmember of the ill-fated Pequod. It seems that Queequeg’s coffin, empty and sealed, shot up from the vortex of the wreckage. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main – until another passing whaler plucked him from the sea.

Is Ishmael’s story true? He only is escaped alone to tell the tale. Maybe he was telling a fish story. Maybe, by embellishing the mundane facts of a pointless accident, Ishmael created a legend. But we have no reason to doubt his word, do we? As it happens, we do.

About halfway through the book Ishmael notes a passing encounter with the Town-Ho, a whaling ship that had recently sighted Moby Dick near the Cape of Good Hope. He then describes in much greater detail an earlier event on the Town-Ho involving a leak, a mutiny, and a certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so-called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men. The instrument of God’s judgment, it turns out, was Moby Dick himself. Only three former crewmen of the Town-Ho lived to tell the tale, one of whom told it to Tashtego, who recounted it among his shipmates aboard the Pequod.

Ishmael doesn’t integrate the Town-Ho’s story into the rest of the narrative; he brackets the tale in quotations to preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the gilt-titled piazza of the Golden Inn. Ishmael even quotes his Spanish friends’ occasional interruptions of this prior telling. Ishmael brings the story to its dramatic, and improbable, conclusion:

“Where Steelkilt now is, gentlemen, none know; but upon the island of Nantucket, the widow of Radney still turns to the sea which refuses to give up its dead; still in dreams sees the awful white whale that destroyed him…

“‘Are you through?’ said Don Sebastian quietly.

“I am, Don.

“‘Then I entreat you, tell me if to the best of your own conviction, this your story is in substance really true? It is so passing wonderful! Did you get it from an unquestionable source? Bear with me if I seem to press.”

Ishmael calls for someone to bring him a copy of “the Evangelists” on which he can swear his honesty. No, says Don Sebastian, but there’s a priest nearby. Bring the priest also, Ishmael tells him. A man comes, tall and solemn – here is the priest, says Don Sebastian. Ishmael places his hand on the Holy Book:

“‘So help me, Heaven, and on my honor, the story I have told ye, gentlemen, is in substance and its great items, true. I know it to be true; it happened on this ball; I trod the ship; I knew the crew; I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.’”

But wait. Didn’t Ishmael say that the Pequod’s crew heard the story from Tashtego, who allegedly heard it from an eyewitness? And when would he have met the crew if only three of them survived? Maybe Ishmael had heard the tale before, on one of his prior voyages. But no: at the beginning of the book Ishmael said that he’d never been on a whaling ship before…




  1. So, Melville convinces us that the narrator is reliable but provides enough uncertainty that a subtle eye can tell that the narrator is actually unreliable….Have you ever read the whole of Moby Dick, start to finish, from the perspective that Ishmael is an unreliable narrator? (Tell me if you have, sir, and if so, I bid you to swear on the Bible. No, there is a priest nearby……)


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 2:56 pm

  2. On my word of honor as a renegade and a lout, I firmly aver etc. etc. I can’t remember now how I came upon Ishmael’s unreliable recounting of the Town-Ho tale. If I read it in someone else’s analysis I didn’t acknowledge it. I could claim that I discovered it myself, but I doubt it. I will point out though that over the interval of several months I read the entirety of Moby-Dick to Kenzie as an ongoing bedtime story when she was little. And she never fell asleep during any of the installments. My scheme as bedtime reader was to read stuff I wanted to read anyway.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 April 2016 @ 5:47 pm

  3. Yeah, I remember you mentioning that part about bedtime reading. I’m going to re-read Moby Dick here soon, it’s next in the que. I’ve not actualy “read” it in the traditional sense. My first reading was (as my next will be) the Librivox.org rendition done by Stuart Wills. There’s more than a subtle hint of irony in his cadence, which I’ve always found well-suited to Melville’s tricky tome.


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 April 2016 @ 7:03 pm

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