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Moby-Dick

Herman Melville

Important Quotations Explained

Chapter 133–Epilogue

Key Facts

1.
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.

This passage comes at the end of Chapter 10, when Ishmael is forced to share a bed with the tattooed “savage” Queequeg at the Spouter-Inn. At first horrified, Ishmael is quickly impressed by Queequeg’s dignity and kindness. The homoerotic overtones of their sharing a bed and staying up much of the night smoking and talking suggests a profound, close bond born of mutual dependence and a world in which merit, rather than race or wealth, determines a man’s status. The men aboard the Pequod are everything to one another, and the relationships between them are stronger and more meaningful than even that between man and wife. Ishmael’s willingness to describe his relationship with Queequeg in such conjugal terms (“honeymoon”) symbolizes his openness to new experiences and people.

2.
Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

Ahab speaks these words in his soliloquy in Chapter 37, daring anyone to try to divert him from his purpose. Though he is defiant, he is also accepting of his fate, asserting that he has no control over his own behavior—he must run along the “iron rails” that have been laid for him. The powerful rhetoric and strong imagery of this passage are characteristic of Ahab’s speech. He uses his skill with language to persuade his crew to take part in his quest for vengeance, stirring them with suggestions of adventure (“unsounded gorges,” “rifled hearts of mountains”) and inspiring confidence through his apparent faith in himself as “unerring.” Just as Ishmael occasionally gets lost in digressions, Ahab occasionally gets lost in language, repeating the phrase “swerve me” until it becomes almost meaningless, merely a sound. His speeches thus become a kind of poetry or music, stirring the listener with their form as much as their content.

3.
All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

This quote, from Chapter 41, is the existential heart of the book; appropriately, the chapter from which it comes shares its title with the White Whale and the novel itself. While many sailors aboard the Pequod use legends about particularly large and malevolent whales as a way to manage the fear and danger inherent in whaling, they do not take these legends literally. Ahab, on the other hand, believes that Moby Dick is evil incarnate, and pits himself and humanity in an epic, timeless struggle against the White Whale. His belief that killing Moby Dick will eradicate evil evidences his inability to understand things symbolically: he is too literal a reader of the world around him. Instead of interpreting the loss of his leg as a common consequence of his occupation and perhaps as a punishment for taking excessive risks, he sees it as evidence of evil cosmic forces persecuting him.

4.
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

This passage comes at the end of Chapter 96, as Ishmael snaps out of a hypnotic state brought on by staring into the fires of the try-works. The image that Ishmael conjures here is typical of his philosophical speculation and his habit of quickly turning from a very literal subject to its metaphorical implications. This passage is a warning against giving in to escapism—fantasy, daydreaming, suicide—and suggests that woe and madness can be profitable states for one with enough greatness of soul. For one who is intelligent and perceptive—whose soul is “in the mountains” and greater than the average person’s—such states of mind provide a higher plane of existence than contentedness and sanity do for a normal person. In other words, Ahab may be insane and “for ever . . . within the gorge,” but his inherent greatness makes even his destruction more important than the mere existence—the “soar[ing]”—of other, more banal individuals.

5.
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!

Ahab utters these words—his last—after Moby Dick destroys the Pequod, in Chapter 135. As the action picks up pace, the sense of tragedy becomes heightened. These words, Shakespearean in tone, are meant to match the dramatic nature of the situation in which they are spoken. Ahab dies as he began, defiant but aware of his fate. The whale is “all-destroying but unconquering”: its victory has been inevitable, but it has not defeated Ahab’s spirit. In an ultimate demonstration of defiance, Ahab uses his “last breath” to curse the whale and fate. He is, spiritually, already in “hell’s heart,” and he acquiesces to his own imminent death. This final climactic explosion of eloquence and theatricality is followed by an overwhelming silence, as the whale disappears and everything and everyone but Ishmael is pulled below the ocean’s surface.

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