Of all the works of American writers, I love none so much as Moby Dick. There is a strangeness and a wildness to Melville’s great novel. Its gorgeous sentences roll over us like the vast ocean on which it is set, and its tragedy echoes in our hearts long after its narrative ceases to toll the death of Ahab and his crew. When I have read its final sentences and closed the book, I know it will not be too long before I again will feel the need to taste the chowder at the Coffin Inn and join with the crew of the Pequod as they brave “the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale.” 1
Perhaps what I love best about Moby Dick is its dreamlike splendor. For all great works of art are dreams which we have caught with the barbaric lances of our words. Poets and storytellers are the heroic harpooneers who lower away into the dark Atlantic of the mind. There they hunt their wild dreams, often at the peril of their souls.
Artists leave for the critic the messy business of cutting in and rendering down their dreams for the public. Sometimes I think there can be no more hacking and horrifying task than to take the substance of a poem or heartfelt novel and translate its sublime images into mere rational concepts. And yet, what could be more necessary than to speak of the meaning of a work of art?
If Moby Dick is a dream, there is perhaps no more dreamlike image than the one which concludes Melville’s vast tone poem. As the valiant Pequod sinks beneath the waves, an unlooked-for sight attracts the narrator’s eye. The ship’s flag has been torn off, and throughout the fight with the white whale, the Indian Tashtego has assembled his tools and mounted the mast to replace it. In the final moments, his arm rises above the waters in a futile gesture of defiance to nail the cloth in place. But as his hammer strikes, a sea hawk wheels too near. The blow pierces its wing, drawing it down with the ship to its death.
It is an irrational and surreal moment, something out of a nightmare, as beautiful and raw as a Dali painting or a scene by David Lynch. It defies credibility, and yet this image resonates so that we feel its rightness. Somehow, we know that this is a fitting image and perhaps the only icon to end Ahab’s mad quest.
The hammer, the flag, and the bird. They evoke much, but is it possible to say what this strange incident means? Can we draw out of the welter of unconscious associations some critical thought to guide us?
Perhaps the place to begin is the meaning of the white whale itself. Throughout the novel, Melville reminds us that Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick is no mere act of vengeance against a brute beast. It is, above all, a metaphysical journey. Ahab desires to punch through the mere appearances of the world to strike at Divine Providence or God or whatever supernatural agency is responsible for his wound. As he says, “The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and-Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye…I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies, take someone of your own size…No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye’ve run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags!” 2
Ahab cannot accept a world in which events occur by random chance. He cannot view the loss of his leg as a mere accident. Rather, he looks beyond the immediate physical world for the true cause of his suffering. The white whale, then, is for him an agent of a hostile supernatural power. And his pursuit of Moby Dick is the only way he can assert his human dignity in the face of divine indifference or malevolence.
Ishmael’s view of Moby Dick, and whales in general, offers a robust thematic counterpoint. Both men glimpse in these majestic creatures something transcendent. But whereas for the Pequod’s captain, the object of his search evokes rage and violence, the narrator’s attitude is one of profound wonder. He hunts these creatures, but he also reverences them. The novel’s numerous meditations on the mysteries of whales and whaling form the necessary balancing weight to Ahab’s mad quest.
With these thoughts in mind, let us return to the book’s final image. Perhaps if we examine the individual elements, it will help us approach the meaning of the passage as a whole.
The word “flag” carries with it many emotional associations. But it is essential to point out that Melville is not speaking of the emblem of the Pequod’s national origin. Instead, the flag meant is the ship’s weather vane used to gauge the prevailing direction of the wind. Apart from the practical considerations, Ahab seems personally distressed by this pennant’s loss. Even during urgent preparations for the battle with Moby Dick, he breaks off to order its repair, almost as if this banner conveys the sense of his identity. And, in fact, later, it will be simply be referred to as “the flag of Ahab.” 3
But what of the hammer that Tashtego uses to fix this flag in place? A hammer might ordinarily stand as a positive symbol. It evokes our control over our environment and reminds us of our long lineage as toolmakers and builders.
But in Moby Dick, hammers often have ominous overtones and seem mysteriously and intimately connected with Ahab’s quest and violence. We may remember at Ahab’s first proclamation of his intent to hunt the white whale, he uses a top maul to hammer a gold doubloon into the masthead. In an incident related later, Steelkilt kills a man when he is repeatedly menaced with a hammer. And just before noticing the missing flag, Ahab hears “the hammers in the broken boats; far other hammers seemed driving a nail into his heart.”4 There is a sense in all this of something corrupted, a tool that could be used to build being used instead to destroy.
As we mentioned, Ahab’s response to the transcendent is violent rage expressed in his desire to kill Moby Dick, to “dismember his dismemberer.” There is another creature that invokes for Melville this sense of the spiritual and the divine. Birds of all kinds seem invested with supernatural significance in the novel. At one point, Ishmael remarks, “Bethink thee of the albatross; whence come these clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw this spell; but God’s great unflattering laureate nature.” 5 Later it seems a portentous omen when a bird snatches Ahab’s hat and drops it into the sea. And in the passage we are investigating, he describes the sea hawk as “the bird of heaven” uttering “archangel” cries. 6
Birds, then, for Melville, are a sign of that same transcendence for which the narrator expresses such reverence and against which Ahab has directed his fury. The violent end of the sea hawk offers an image of the wounded captain’s wounded soul. Ahab has destroyed his ability to experience the kind of awe that Ishmael evinces. He has misused his soul’s capacity to draw wonder and spiritual nourishment from the thought of the divine, and neither religion nor philosophy can offer him any consolation. Nails are indeed being driven into his heart, but he is the one striking the blows. And while what is truly transcendent can never be fixed, Ahab’s perception of it is caught like the wing of the hawk and destroyed with the wreck of the Pequod.
Every act of interpretation nails the sublime nature of art to the masthead of critical thought. To say that a text means one thing and not another invites deconstruction and, of necessity, limits our perceptions of the work. But unlike Tashtego’s hammer, I hope our efforts here have built rather than destroyed and that tomorrow, “the bird of heaven” will fly free once more, inviting new insights and new interpretations.
- Melville, Moby Dick, Norton Third Critical Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, London, p. 53
- Melville, p. 239
- Melville, p. 674
- Melville, p. 669
- Melville, p. 266
- Melville, p. 674
The Hammer and the Wing, copyright 2021, Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.
Cover Art: The Final Chase by I. W. Taber, Moby Dick, Charles Scribner & Sons edition, public domain