Chapter 135, “The Chase—The Third Day”
Ahab is hoisted to the crow’s nest on the third day and sees Moby Dick. The Pequod bears down on him and three boats lower with Ahab in the lead. The whale appears tired, and Ahab hits his side with the special harpoon. The whale dives, and then rises high.
Suddenly Ahab sees the dead Parsee tied to the whale’s side in the lines of a harpoon. He has gone before and appears again! Ahab also understands that Moby Dick is the hearse that was not made by man. But a second hearse must appear.
Moby Dick again destroys the boats, and the men try to return to the Pequod, but there is a mighty crash! The White Whale has hit the Pequod head on with his gigantic front, crashing its bow. The prediction about the second hearse is guessed by Ahab: The Pequod is the second hearse, made of American wood! Ahab turns with one last throw at Moby Dick’s side with a harpoon, but the rope catches him around the neck, taking him from the boat and down with the whale. He is killed by hemp, as Fedallah predicted. The Pequod spins in the vortex left by Moby Dick and goes down, swallowed by the sea, the hearse with all souls aboard.
Analysis Chapter 135
Ahab’s last soliloquies repeat the earlier theme of being maddened by the invisible and malignant agents of the universe. Ahab shakes Starbuck by the hand before he gets into the boat, as if he knows it is good by, and Starbuck weeps. Sharks crowd around Ahab’s boat, like prescient vultures. Starbuck suddenly feels a deadly and expectant calm.
Ahab recounts each of the prophesies as they are fulfilled: the Parsee going first and reappearing; the two hearses; hemp as the means of death. The last battle with Moby Dick, during three days, repeats the usual epic formula of three days of decisive battle.
The audience has been prepared for catastrophe and so feels not shock, but the same “calm expectancy” as Starbuck. Ishmael unfolds the story as if it truly were rehearsed billions of years before the ocean rolled, with each omen and event neatly in place. Yet Ahab acts surprised at the way it turns out, hoping till the last that each omen has been cancelled. For instance, as he steps into the boat, he wonders if the sharks are for him or for Moby Dick.
Moby Dick’s “blank forehead” striking the ship repeats the image of the inscrutable “pasteboard mask” hiding God and the forces of fate. The whale has a “predestinating head” that hits the Pequod with “eternal malice” (135. 562-3).
Ahab’s last recognition that the White Whale wins, does not lessen his tragic heroic stance: “Now I feel my topmost greatness lies in my topmost grief” (135. 564). The ship goes down in Moby Dick’s concentric circles and disappears without a trace.
How do we know this story if none survived? One did survive—Ishmael, who was in Ahab’s boat and left floating in the sea. He found Queequeg’s coffin-buoy, the only thing to escape the maelstrom of the ship. He floated in it for a day and night until the Rachel, still looking for its lost son, found Ishmael, another orphan.
Ishmael, unlike Ahab, seems to have luck, for no sharks bothered him while he floated in the buoy. He has a charmed life, it seems. A survivor may always wonder, why me? The Epilogue begins with a quote from Job: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” This refers to the story in the Old Testament where God sends one disaster after another to test the faith of Job, including the death of his family.
Job is told the bad news by a single survivor. The reference to Job brings up Ahab’s question of whether or not he had been abandoned by God. Ishmael, on the other hand, is like the single survivor who reports what happened. He reflects on it, though like the book of Job, the novel does not explain God’s mysterious ways to us. Unlike Milton, Melville does not “justify the ways of God to man.”