The moral ambiguity of the universe is prevalent throughout Melvilles Moby Dick. None of the characters represent pure evil or pure goodness. Even Melvilles description of Ahab, whom he repeatedly refers to “monomaniacal,” suggesting an amorality or psychosis, is given a chance to be seen as a frail, sympathetic character. When Ahabs “monomaniac” fate is juxtaposed with that of Ishmael, that moral ambiguity deepens, leaving the reader with an ultimate unclarity of principle.
The final moments of Moby Dick bring the novel to a terse, abrupt climax. The mutual destruction of the Pequod and the White Whale, followed by Ishmaels epilogue occupies approximately half a dozen pages. Despite Melvilles previous tendency to methodically detail every aspect of whaling life, he assumes a concise, almost journalistic approach in the climax. Note that in these few pages, he makes little attempt to assign value judgements to the events taking place. Stylistically, his narration is reduced to brusque, factual phrases using a greater number of semicolons. By ending the book so curtly, Melville makes a virtually negligible attempt at denouement, leaving what value judgements exist to the reader.
Ultimately, it is the dichotomy between the respective fortunes of Ishmael and Ahab that the reader is left with. Herein lies a greater moral ambiguity than is previously suggested. Although Ishmael is the sole survivor of the Pequod, it is notable that in his own way, Ahab fulfills his desire for revenge by ensuring the destruction of the White Whale alongside his own end. Despite the seeming superiority of Ishmaels destiny, Melville does not explicitly indicate so. On the contrary, he subtly suggests that Ishmaels survival is lonely and empty upon being rescued: “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” (724) That single instance of the appellation “orphan” as applied to Ishmael speaks volumes when taken in light of the destruction of the Pequod and her crew. Melvilles inclusion of Ishmaels survival as an epilogue, a suffix attached to the dramatic destruction of the Pequod, suggests that Ishmaels survival is an afterthought to the fate of Ahab and the rest of his crew. Ishmaels quiet words at the beginning of the chapter, “Why then here does any one step forth? Because one did survive the wreck,” (723) indicate a deep humility on Ishmaels part.
The question is then raised of why Ishmael is the sole survivor. It is clear that Ishmael significantly differs with Ahab concerning their respective perspectives of the White Whale. Ishmael clearly indicates in the chapter “The Try Works” how disagreeable he finds the mission and mentality of those around him: “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 commanders soul.” (540) Here, Ishmael breaks his usual detached observancy and boldly divorces himself from Ahabs mission and those whom Ahab has recruited to aid him.
Ishmael further distinguishes himself from the rest of the crew by being the sole non-exploiter of whales in general. Melville makes it clear early on that Ishmael initially chooses to ship on the Pequod for the experiential value of whaling. It has been indicated that his outlook on the whale is the only significantly benign one. Whereas Ishmael is terrified by the “whiteness of the whale,” Stubb sees economic gain in the valuable whale oil, subtly hinted at by his overbearing gloating upon his first kill. In the harpooneers, we see a violent savageness, even in Queequegs otherwise loving nature. To Ahab, the whale is a emblem of pure evil. Even prudent, rational Starbuck looks on the whale as a dumb animal, which it is his duty to exploit.
The terror that Ishmael perceives is a consequence of his own vague fear of the whales “nothingness.” What Ishmael fears is the mystical, terrifying manifestation of white in the natural world, coupled with its subversion of the sense of purity attached to whiteness in the human world. Ishmael is distinguished from the rest of the crew in his ability to consider the perspectives of the others. In his role as narrator, Ishmaels ability to detachedly analyze the viewpoints of those around him may be what saves him. Note also, that in his narration, Ishmael is the one character to cast any reverence upon the grand scale of the whale. Unlike the values the others place on the whale, Ishmael is capable of viewing the whale solely for its being, as one of the many viewpoints that he considers through the course of the novel.
In contrast, Ahabs views of the whale are singular and focused. Melville describes it as a “monomaniacal” obsession, but it is clear in Ahabs complexity that there are other factors at work. Ahab remains virtually unidimensional until the chapter “The Symphony,” where he freely shares his feelings with Starbuck. In allowing us to see the subtle complexities of Ahabs obsession, Melville makes it clear that Ahab is not an inhuman machine of revenge. Ahabs questioning of “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me?” (685) replaces his previous portrait as the depraved lunatic.
The reader is now left to question whether Ahab is indeed maddened by his obsessive hatred, or simply overwhelmingly determined, but blinded by his anger. Note though, that despite whatever end comes of him, Ahab succeeds in avenging himself upon the whale. Although he is swallowed up by the sea before he can be fully aware of his success, he does expend his last moments fulfilling his mission. At the last, he proclaims, “from hells heart I stab at thee; for hates sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Whatever Ahabs motivations, it cannot be discounted that this objective of is his being realized even with his dying breath.
With the characters of Ishmael and Ahab structured into their respective places, the stage is set for the novels finale. The ambiguous circumstances of the last chapter “The Chase Third Day,” are further complicated by the portrait of the whale that Melville himself composes. Melville portrays whales methodically throughout the novel, approaching them from a scientific, sociologic, philosophic and even poetic points of view. Despite the relative benignness of the novels previous leviathans, Melville makes the White Whale markedly different: “Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven.” (715)
Despite the seemingly lunacy implied by Ahabs insistence that the White Whale is an evil force, the ruthless efficacy with which Moby Dick defends himself seems to vindicate Ahab in the end. It is this mutual malevolency that is the impetus for the downward spiral of violence begetting violence that culminates in the mutual destruction of Ahab and Moby Dick. In being left to valuate the respective fates of Ishmael and Ahab, the reader is forced to examine what each character has accomplished or lost in his choice of actions. Ishmael is fortunate enough to be the sole survivor of the Pequod, but it is left unclear to what traumas he faces.
Ahab ultimately succeeds in his goal, but does so at the expense of his life, his ship and his crew. Melville makes no attempt to delineate for the reader a moral hierarchy, and in doing so, completes the ambiguity. The reader is then left with the possibility of assigning symbolic relations between the characters. If looked at from the grandest scale, it is possible to see the whale and the sea as a morally ambivalent cosmos. If so, then the fault of Ahab and the crew of the Pequod is their futile attempt to master a force of nature far beyond their comprehension, and are destroyed for it. The image of Ishmael floating helplessly upon the ocean, without even the wreckage of the Pequod then becomes a strikingly lonely image of humanity adrift in a universe neither good nor evil.