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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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EPILOGUE

Ishmael explains how he survives to tell the story. After Fedallah's disappearance he is moved into Ahab's boat, and fate further ordains that he be the man tossed out when Moby-Dick smashes against the craft. Drawn more slowly into the whirlpool than were the rest of the victims, he is saved when Queequeg's coffin-turned-life-buoy shoots up from the sinking Pequod. He clings to the coffin for nearly a day. The sharks for some reason don't bite him, and the sea hawks don't attack. The Rachel, still searching for its lost boat, finds him, "another orphan."

NOTE:

In this somber postscript, Melville repeats a number of the questions that run through the book: Is the universe good? Evil? Is it possible to know?

The question is raised by the quotation, "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee," which comes from the Book of Job in the Bible. Pious Job was tormented by God as a test of faith, losing his livelihood, his health, his family. Job's faith endured, and God rewarded him with a new life. Yet to some readers of the story, the God of Job is an awful God, one deserving defiance not respect. Is this quotation a signal that Melville feels Ahab is essentially correct-that Moby-Dick is an evil representative of a universe fully as evil? Perhaps. If so, the last word of the novel, "orphan," can be taken to mean that Ishmael, too, has lost whatever faith he possessed at points in the novel, and is once again as alone as he was at the book's beginning.



But some readers take another view. The fact that Ishmael survives, and survives using Queequeg's coffin, is for them a sign of Melville's belief that, although the world can be cruel, in brotherhood with one or two other people we can find salvation. Perhaps there even is a force for good in the universe, for the sharks glide by Ishmael as if they have padlocks on their mouths.

Or perhaps the mixture of beauty and ugliness, cruelty and generosity, life and death, that we see in the epilogue as we see in the rest of Moby-Dick, is a sign that the universe will be forever a mystery to man.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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