Reflections on Two Hundred Years of Herman Melville: Part III: Into the Vortex by Leonard Engel

This is the third of a three-part series of essays on the spiritual, metaphysical, and moral questions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, offered on the occasion of Melville’s bicentennial in 2019. Part I ran in our December 2019 issue, and Part II followed in our January/February 2020 issue—Ed.

In chapter 87 of Moby Dick, “The Grand Armada,” the Pequod comes upon an enormous pod of whales, with male whales swimming in wide circles around mothers and babies in the inner circles. Ishmael’s boat, led by Starbuck steering in the stern and harpooner Queequeg in the bow, slips through the massive outer circle, which immediately closes behind them. They float through the circles of whales until they get to the inmost circle and see the mothers and babies in an “enchanted calm.” “Like household dogs they came snuffling round us,” Ishmael describes, “till it almost seemed that some spell had suddenly domesticated them. Queequeg patted their foreheads; Starbuck scratched their backs with his lance.”

But far beneath “this wondrous world upon the surface,” Ishmael relates, “another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side.” The shipmates witness nursing mothers and females about to give birth. The water is “exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while suckling will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast . . . and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whales seem looking up toward us, but not at us.” This beatific vision has turned the violent, bloody world of the whalers upside down; instead of throwing the harpoon and stabbing with the lance, these veteran whalers are patting the heads and scratching the backs of their adversaries—all while the newborns reminisce on spiritual splendors from which they have just arrived.

As Ishmael later reflects on this vision of creation and its effect on him, he recalls the angst he felt when he shipped out on the Pequod: “amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being do I myself still forever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.” What a stunning contrast—the blissful tranquility of this inner circle of mothers and babies juxtaposed against the mighty male whales crashing in the outer circles! The dramatic imagery mirrors that of Ishmael’s reaching a “deep inland” of peace, bathing him “in eternal mildness of joy,” despite the chaos and violence surrounding him in the whaling world and the mission he has committed to. The “wolfish world” he felt before beginning his journey has been replaced by a deep and abiding peace.

How can Ishmael embrace this joyful, unearthly image, yet still hold to Ahab’s murderous vision of the white whale with its “inscrutable malice”? This is answered in chapter 96, “The Try-Works,” when Ishmael is steering the ship on a midnight helm while the “pagan” harpooners are boiling blubber of a recently killed whale in large iron try-pots on the deck below. Ishmael relates this eerie, gothic scene with the huge white skeleton of the whale lashed to the side of the ship and the harpooners depicted in demonic imagery:

[A]s the wind howled on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastedly shot her red hell further and further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that blackness of darkness seemed the material counterpart of her monomaniac commander’s soul.

Guiding the ship by the binnacle lamp and staring into the fire, Ishmael becomes drowsy and momentarily dozes off. Suddenly awakened, he somehow has turned himself around so that he is “fronting the ship’s stern, with [his] back to her prow and the compass.” He realizes the ship is about to capsize and corrects the tiller without a second to spare. Reflecting on the near disaster brought on by his staring into the fire, he states:

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! . . . believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars! Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me.

Not only is Ishmael talking about the near disaster he was able to prevent; he is also talking about his, and the crew’s, being consumed by the blaze of “perdition’s flames” Ahab speaks of in “The Quarter-Deck” chapter. In correcting the tiller and saving the ship from capsizing, Ishmael is also saving himself from the doom to which Ahab is leading the crew. We might see this scene as Ishmael’s withdrawal from the fiery hunt; he can’t literally extricate himself from the ship, but his narration from this point on becomes more objective, more distanced. After the otherworldly experience in “The Grand Armada” and this conflagrant nightmare in “The Try-Works,” he knows the evil of Ahab’s mission and that it is no longer his. He goes through the motions of his work, but does not mention his commitment to the hunt. There is also a decided shift in the story; Ahab becomes more prominent and frequently unleashes fiery diatribes, especially in chapter 113, “The Forge,” when he “baptizes” the harpoon he believes will kill Moby Dick as the “malignant iron scorchingly devour[s] the baptismal blood” of the harpooners.

Ahab reaches his ultimate defiance of God in chapter 119, “The Candles.” In the middle of a highly charged lightning storm, he grasps a main-mast link, and with “the last link held fast in his left hand, he [puts] his foot upon the Parsee; and with fixed upward eye, and high-flung right arm, he [stands] erect before the lofty tri-pointed trinity of flames,” stating: “I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance. Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”

Ahab should be electrocuted in this scene; but because he isn’t, he interprets his actions as God’s approval of the hunt, stating, “the white flame but lights the way to the White Whale!” This chapter depicting Ahab’s monumental defiance is Melville’s crowning glory. It’s the Ninth Symphony of 19th-century Romanticism—the ultimate literary rendering of the defiant hero who goes out, not with a whimper, but with a resounding bang!

The events that follow this chapter are almost anticlimactic, and Ishmael records them without comment. We are then jolted back by the famous quote prefacing the book’s epilogue: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” This sober statement drawn from the Book of Job returns us to Ishmael’s “escape”—he is saved while Ahab and the rest of the crew perish in the Pequod’s drowning.

We soon learn that Ishmael took the Parsee’s place as Ahab’s bowsman and was thrown from the whaleboat, so he is not near the Pequod when it sinks in a vortex created by the white whale. Although he is at the periphery and is slowly drawn toward the “vital centre” by the “slowly wheeling circle” of water, he is saved by Queequeg’s “coffin life-buoy” that pops up and floats by his side. “Buoyed by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main,” he relates. In images that recall the peace and tranquility of the inner circle of whales in “The Grand Armada,” he describes how “the unharming sharks” had “padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with their sheathed beaks.” Ironically, he is saved by a conveyance of death, Queequeg’s coffin, then the “devious-cruising Rachel” (which the Pequod encountered earlier), desperately searching for her whaleboat containing the captain’s son, rescues Ishmael.

As I indicated earlier, there are many ways to interpret this book, including these final events, and Melville doesn’t give his reader much direction. If asked, I think he would say, “Look! I’ve given you the story, draw your own conclusions!” So, with trepidation, we must. I will suggest only one: Why does Ishmael survive? Although he initially raises his voice for Ahab’s quest, he survives because he withdraws consent from that quest, believing it is evil, as witnessed in “The Try-Works.” But this happens after the goodness he sees in “The Grand Armada.” In short, Ishmael is able to experience both good and evil and keep them separate, ultimately choosing good. Whereas, for Ahab, good and evil are inextricably bound to the point that he can no longer distinguish between them, and is so angry that he can’t (“the inscrutability is chiefly what I hate”) that he will go to his death lashing out at what he views as the core of that inscrutability—the white whale.

So what has Ishmael accomplished on this journey? If we view only the surface story, it appears not much: he’s alive, but is still an “orphan,” saved by a ship looking for someone else. However, if we examine the details—the recognition of good and evil, and the final choosing of good—Ishmael has had a long and complicated struggle, foreshadowed in the New Bedford chapel by Father Mapple in his sermon on Jonah. Mapple states the hard truth which I believe reverberates in Ishmael’s mind: “. . . if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists.”

After three days in the belly of a whale, Jonah (who tried to escape God) repents, promises to do God’s will, and is spewed up on the shore. Although Ishmael doesn’t literally spend time in the belly of a whale, figuratively he has an underworld experience, struggling with good and evil, belief and commitment. Finally, in “The Grand Armada,” “while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy,” he chooses the good—while “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at 


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.