Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Moby Dick: A tale of two endings

There. We did it. We finished reading Moby Dick. That wasn't so bad, was it? I mean, if we were reading The Brothers Karamazov, which it kinda seems like we (I) will be doing next, we'd (I'd) only be halfway done. Fortunately, Borrowed Fire, like writing itself, is a journey, not a destination. So expect a leisurely crawl through BK, starting, oh, next week or so. We'll see what I finish first: BK or my novel.

Anyway, let's talk about the ending of MD. Or, rather, its endings. I'm certain there's an academic book out there about the double ending, which seems quite common in literary fiction. What do I mean by double ending? It varies. There can literally be two endings, as we have in Moby Dick--the Pequod's demise, followed by the Epilogue that explains how Ishmael survived (more on this in a moment). Or you can have the did-it-happen-or-not ending, as in H.G. Wells' "The Door in the Wall," which is intended to make us question the relationship between reality and fiction. In a variant of this ending, in "The Overcoat," justice happens in the realm of the fantastic, but remains elusive in the "real" world in which Akaky lives and dies. I recently took another stab at the possibly useless question of what separates literary from genre fiction, and at this moment it seems to me that it has less to do with relative emphasis on character, than with the role of ambiguity. Genre fiction, on the whole, eschews it. It may bring up difficult political or philosophical issues that it doesn't fully resolve, but the main purpose of its storytelling is to answer questions. Who did it? Do they catch that rogue shark? Does she escape from that awful basement, and how? Literary fiction prizes ambiguity, and the double ending affirms it by placing it front and center. Such an ending holds ambiguity up to the light so we can see its facets. The ambiguity derives from the acknowledgment of different levels of experience--fantastic (or fictive), real-world, personal, collective, intellectual, emotional, etc.--which occur at the same time, intersecting, colliding, and diverging.

So: the first and most obviously necessary ending is the final battle with Moby Dick, after which the Pequod and all its sailors (but one) are dragged by the whale into a watery hell. The whole bit's pretty impressive, I must say! Action packed! Gory (thanks to poor Fedallah in particular)! Foamy! All capped off with a stunning final image, followed--and blanketed, so to speak--by the biblical flood:

But as the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the mainmast, leaving a few inches of the erect spar yet visible, together with long streaming yards of the flag, which calmly undulated, with ironical coincidings, over the destroying billows they almost touched;--at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar. A sky-hawk that tauntingly had followed the main-truck downwards from its natural home among the stars, pecking at the flag, and incommoding Tashtego there; this bird now chanced to intercept its broad fluttering wing between the hammer and the wood; and simultaneously feeling that etherial thrill, the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there; and so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

So, you know, that's pretty good. You've got your heaven and your hell; the sea swallowing the just and the unjust alike. And then the sea rolls on--it's already over (literally) this particular story. So why then do we need Ishmael's Epilogue? Melville / Ishmael asks the same question:


The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth?-- Because one did survive the wreck.

It so chanced, that after the Parsee's disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

Of course, this ending takes care of the logistical question of how this story got told if everyone on board (as it first appears) perished. It also brings back the thread of Ishmael's friendship with Queequeg, which has been dropped for the bulk of the story. It's Queequeg's coffin, which he had made when he thought he was dying--but wasn't, yet--that saves his beloved Ishmael from drowning. It's a last gesture of love, though accidental, from the unmarked grave.

It seems the sinking of the Pequod and the image of the rolling sea was too "big" a place for Melville to leave the story. He wants to go out with both the bang of the great ocean, and the whimper of the single, radically alone human being. The rolling sea of five thousand years ago is stirring and appropriate, but that word "orphan" is a little harpoon in the reader's heart.

So, yes, writers, you can have it both ways. Try going for the double ending--with each one unfolding on a different plane.

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