Ahab can sense by the smell of a whale in the air that Moby Dick is near. Climbing up to the main royal-mast, Ahab spots Moby Dick and earns himself the doubloon. All of the boats set off in chase of the whale. When Moby Dick finally surfaces, he does so directly beneath Ahab’s boat, destroying it and casting its crew into the water. The whale threatens the men, but the Pequod, with Starbuck at the helm, drives it away, and the men are rescued by the other boats. The whale then moves away from the ship at a rapid rate, and the boats return to the ship. The men keep watch for Moby Dick, despite the misgivings of Starbuck and others.
Ishmael notes that it is not unprecedented for whalers to give extended pursuit to a particular whale. Ahab, despite the previous day’s loss of the boat, is intent on the chase. They do sight Moby Dick again, and the crewmen, in awe of Ahab’s wild power and caught up in the thrill, lower three boats. Starbuck again remains on board the Pequod. Ahab tries to attack Moby Dick head on this time, but again the whale is triumphant. Despite the harpoons in his side, he destroys the boats carrying Flask and Stubb by dashing them against one another. He also nearly kills Ahab’s crew with the tangle of harpoons and lances caught in the line coming from his side. Ahab manages to cut and then reattach the line, removing the cluster of weapons.
Moby Dick then capsizes Ahab’s boat. Ahab’s whale-bone leg is snapped off in the mishap, and Ahab curses his body’s weakness. Upon returning to the Pequod, Ahab finds out that Fedallah has drowned, dragged down by Ahab’s own line, fulfilling one element of Fedallah’s prophecy concerning Ahab’s death—that Ahab would die after Fedallah. Starbuck begs Ahab to desist, but Ahab, convinced that he is only the “Fates’ lieutenant,” responds that he must continue to pursue the whale. The carpenter hastily makes Ahab a new leg from the remnants of his harpoon boat.
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.
The crew seeks the White Whale for a third time but sees nothing until Ahab realizes, “Aye, he’s chasing me now; not I, him—that’s bad.” They turn the ship around completely, and Ahab mounts the masthead himself. He sights the spout and comes back down to the deck again. As he gets into his boat and leaves Starbuck in charge, the two men exchange a poignant moment in which Ahab asks to shake hands with his first mate and the first mate tries to tell him not to go. Sharks bite at the oars as the boats pull away. Starbuck laments Ahab’s certain doom. Ahab sees Moby Dick breach. The whale damages the other two boats, but Ahab’s remains intact. Ahab sees Fedallah’s corpse strapped to the whale by turns of rope and realizes that he is seeing the first hearse that Fedallah had predicted, in the sense that a hearse is a vehicle—here, the whale—that carries a corpse.
The whale goes down again, and Ahab rows close to the ship. He tells Tashtego to find another flag and nail it to the main masthead, as the Pequod’s flag has somehow been removed from its usual spot. The boats sight the Moby Dick again and go after him. Moby Dick turns around and heads for the Pequod at full speed. He smashes the ship, which goes down without its captain. The ship, Ahab realizes, is the second hearse of Fedallah’s prophecy, since it entombs its crew in “American” wood. Impassioned, Ahab is now determined to strike at Moby Dick with all of his power. After darting the whale, Ahab is caught around the neck by the flying line and dragged under the sea—the final element of Fedallah’s prophesy. Tashtego, meanwhile, still tries to nail the flag to the ship’s spar as it goes down. He catches a sky-hawk in mid-hammer, and the screaming bird, folded in the flag, goes down with everything else. The vortex from the sinking Pequod pulls the remaining harpoon boats and crew down with it.
Ishmael is the only survivor of the Pequod’s encounter with Moby Dick. He escapes only because he had been thrown clear of the area in the wreck of Ahab’s harpoon boat. Queequeg’s coffin bobs up and becomes Ishmael’s life buoy. A day after the wreck, the Rachel saves Ishmael as she continues to search for her own lost crew.
Ahab’s long-awaited encounter with Moby Dick brings to mind the drawn-out, fantastic battle scenes of myth and epic. He has sought the whale for a full year, the traditional time span of an epic quest. He now battles the whale for three days, stopping each night to rearm himself and repair the day’s damage. However, Ahab is fated to lose, and he knows it. The whale seems to toy with the audacious humans, as it surfaces directly beneath their boats and sends a cluster of tangled harpoons and lances whizzing dangerously close to the sailors. Like an annoyed god, the whale means to teach these humans a lesson; Ahab will be punished for his arrogance. By the morning of the third day, Ahab has come to an understanding of the forces that drive him. “Ahab never thinks,” he says aloud, “he only feels, feels, feels; . . . to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege.” By framing his quest as an emotional rather than an intellectual one, Ahab admits his own irrationality. Revenge, justice, and other such lofty ideals can be sought only by divine powers; man is too limited in his knowledge and his clout to do much more than react to the world around him.
A fatalist to the last, Ahab doesn’t flee the whale, although anyone with common sense surely would have sailed the Pequod out of the whale’s range at top speed after the first day’s defeats. Ahab’s death should not be read as a suicide, though. To the obsessed captain, each encounter with the whale fulfills a part of the prophecies made concerning his ultimate end. By going forward with the fight, he completes a larger design and gives his life and death a greater significance than it would have had otherwise. Only figures of importance—heroes, gods, martyrs—have their deaths foretold. By committing himself to a struggle he cannot win, Ahab becomes the stuff of legend.
Ahab’s death suggests itself as a metaphor for the human condition. Man, of limited knowledge and meager powers, lives and dies struggling against forces that he can neither understand nor conquer. By continuing to fight the whale even when defeat is imminent, Ahab acts out, in dramatic form, the fate of all men. His request that Tashtego nail a new flag to the mast of the sinking ship is a sign not of defiance but of recognition that to be mortal is to persevere in the face of certain defeat, and that such perseverance is the highest and most heroic accomplishment of man.
Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin, which had been transformed into the Pequod’s life buoy. The coffin symbolizes not only resurrection but also the persistence of narratives. Queequeg has cheated death by inscribing his tattoos on the coffin. Ahab too has cheated death, in a sense, since he will continue to live on through Ishmael’s narration. The conclusion of Moby-Dick is laced with such ironies, which are the matter of myth, for Moby-Dick, though it encompasses allegory, adventure, and many other genres, is more than anything a myth about the follies of man.