Ahab’s long-awaited encounter with Moby Dick brings to mind the drawn-out, fantastic battle scenes of myth and epic. He has sought the whale for a full year, the traditional time span of an epic quest. He now battles the whale for three days, stopping each night to rearm himself and repair the day’s damage. However, Ahab is fated to lose, and he knows it. The whale seems to toy with the audacious humans, as it surfaces directly beneath their boats and sends a cluster of tangled harpoons and lances whizzing dangerously close to the sailors. Like an annoyed god, the whale means to teach these humans a lesson; Ahab will be punished for his arrogance. By the morning of the third day, Ahab has come to an understanding of the forces that drive him. “Ahab never thinks,” he says aloud, “he only feels, feels, feels; . . . to think’s audacity. God only has that right and privilege.” By framing his quest as an emotional rather than an intellectual one, Ahab admits his own irrationality. Revenge, justice, and other such lofty ideals can be sought only by divine powers; man is too limited in his knowledge and his clout to do much more than react to the world around him.
A fatalist to the last, Ahab doesn’t flee the whale, although anyone with common sense surely would have sailed the Pequod out of the whale’s range at top speed after the first day’s defeats. Ahab’s death should not be read as a suicide, though. To the obsessed captain, each encounter with the whale fulfills a part of the prophecies made concerning his ultimate end. By going forward with the fight, he completes a larger design and gives his life and death a greater significance than it would have had otherwise. Only figures of importance—heroes, gods, martyrs—have their deaths foretold. By committing himself to a struggle he cannot win, Ahab becomes the stuff of legend.
Ahab’s death suggests itself as a metaphor for the human condition. Man, of limited knowledge and meager powers, lives and dies struggling against forces that he can neither understand nor conquer. By continuing to fight the whale even when defeat is imminent, Ahab acts out, in dramatic form, the fate of all men. His request that Tashtego nail a new flag to the mast of the sinking ship is a sign not of defiance but of recognition that to be mortal is to persevere in the face of certain defeat, and that such perseverance is the highest and most heroic accomplishment of man.
Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin, which had been transformed into the Pequod’s life buoy. The coffin symbolizes not only resurrection but also the persistence of narratives. Queequeg has cheated death by inscribing his tattoos on the coffin. Ahab too has cheated death, in a sense, since he will continue to live on through Ishmael’s narration. The conclusion of Moby-Dick is laced with such ironies, which are the matter of myth, for Moby-Dick, though it encompasses allegory, adventure, and many other genres, is more than anything a myth about the follies of man.