That night, while standing at his pivot hole on deck, Ahab suddenly catches the scent of whale. At dawn, he notices an impressive, sleek wake of a large whale and soon spots Moby Dick. The chase begins. The White Whale sinks Ahab's whaleboat that first day. Moby Dick prevails the second day as well, smashing boats and apparently killing Fedallah. On the third day, Fedallah's prophecy (see Chapter 117) mysteriously proves true. The wounded whale attacks and sinks the Pequod. In a desperate last attempt to harpoon the leviathan from his open boat, Ahab inadvertently becomes entangled in the hemp harpoon line and is cast into the sea to his death.
The last three chapters of the novel contain some of the finest descriptions of dramatic action in American literature. They should be read as a unit. As the chase develops, Ahab becomes aware that Fedallah's prophecy is proving true in ways that the captain could not have anticipated.
Ahab has never doubted that his destiny is to confront the White Whale. Appropriately, he takes control of the chase from the beginning. Like a trained hound, he catches the scent of his prey during the night following his talk with Starbuck. At dawn, Ahab notices a smooth wake on the ocean, probably left by a large whale. The captain insists on taking the mainmast watch. He is not more than two-thirds of the way to the top when he shouts, "There she blows! — there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!" The boats are lowered, but the White Whale soon sounds (dives) and disappears for an hour. Suddenly a flock of white birds grows excited and approaches Ahab's boat, indicating that the whale they follow is near. At first the captain sees nothing. Then, peering toward the depths, he notices a small white spot emerging. It grows. Soon it is huge. It is Moby Dick. Ahab attempts evasion. It is too late. The enormous jaws of the White Whale chop his boat in two: "[A]s if perceiving this stratagem, Moby Dick, with that malicious intelligence ascribed to him, . . . in the manner of a biting shark, slowly and feelingly taking its [the boat's] bows full within his mouth, . . . shook the slight cedar as a mildly cruel cat her mouse . . . . [and] bit the craft completely in twain." Ahab is rescued, but that day's hunt is over.
Moby Dick seems too intelligent to be a mere fish. He manipulates each encounter like an experienced battle general. The second day, Ahab again spots his prey. The whaleboats' harpooners manage to hit Moby Dick with several barbs, but the wise leviathan uses this misfortune to his advantage. Turning on the boats, he draws them together by the harpoon ropes connected to the whale, smashing two of the boats "like two rolling husks on a surf-beaten beach." He then uses his head to flip Ahab's boat into the air, landing it upside down and leaving the crew to scramble out from under it "like seals from a sea-side cave." Ahab's ivory leg is broken. At first it seems that no one is killed. Later we learn that Fedallah is missing.
One of the devices that Melville sometimes uses in these chapters is to allow the characters to set the mood through their reactions. On the third day, Ahab again sights the whale. Upon contact, he sees that Fedallah has become shockingly lashed to Moby Dick's back, the prophet's eyes open and staring at the captain: "Aye, Parsee! I see thee again. — Aye, and thou goest before; and this, this then is the hearse that thou didst promise." All boats except Ahab's are damaged and return to the ship. Ahab manages to sink his fierce harpoon "and his fiercer curse" into the whale; but Moby Dick attacks the Pequod itself and smashes the starboard bow (right front) of the ship, sinking the vessel. From his open boat, Ahab reacts to the sinking of his proud vessel: "The ship! The hearse! — the second hearse! . . . Oh! ye three unsurrendered spires of mine; thou uncracked keel; . . . thou firm deck, . . . must ye then perish, and without me?" In a last, desperate effort, Ahab throws one more harpoon at Moby Dick but becomes entangled in the hemp line and is tossed to the sea and his death. The ship sinks in a vortex that takes all but one down with it.
The mystery of Fedallah's prophecy has been solved through the action of the chase. As it turned out, Ahab had neither a hearse nor a coffin. Fedallah died before the captain but was seen by Ahab again and served as his guide toward death. Ahab saw two hearses: one not made by mortal hands (the White Whale carrying Fedallah's corpse); the other (the Pequod) made of wood grown in America. Finally, a hemp rope killed Ahab, sending him directly to the depths of the sea.
Death has come to the Pequod and made of it a hearse. Continuing the funeral motif, Melville writes of the sea as a "great shroud" that soon rests over the dead and rolls on as it has for five thousand years, the biblical chronology of time since the Great Flood of Noah's day (Genesis 5:28-10:32).
wont usual practice, habit.
palpable that which can be touched, felt, or handled; tangible.
shiver here, to cause a sail to flutter by heading too close to the wind.
allured tempted with something desirable, enticed.
prescience apparent knowledge of things before they happen, foreknowledge.