Actor John Moschitta, Jr., in a one-minute, fast-talking summary of Moby-Dick, ends by saying "and everybody dies but the fish and Ish." While that pretty much sums up what happens at the end of the book, we’re left with plenty of questions about why it concludes that way.
It seems unusual for a quest narrative (see our "Booker’s Seven Basic Plots Analysis") to end without fulfilling the quest: usually, Sauron is destroyed, or Odysseus makes it home, or whatever. But in Moby-Dick, Nature’s calm, impersonal strength beats Man’s frenetic desire for revenge. The whale wins. Why?
One possible answer is that, over the course of the novel, we switch plot types, moving from a quest into a tragedy. By the end, the goal of the quest has disappeared entirely and been replaced by the bloody ending a tragedy requires. Ahab is less like Odysseus trying to get home than like Achilles trying to be a hero in spite of that pesky heel of his. Or, to make the comparison a little less Homer and a little more Tolkien, Ahab is less like Aragorn facing up to his destiny and more like Boromir trying to be noble in spite of his character flaws. Remember, throughout the novel, Melville’s been concerned with establishing not only Ahab’s monomaniac obsession with his quest, but also his tragic grandeur:
But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess: and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air! (33.7)
Melville, a master of delicate balance, makes Ahab both a tragic hero with a single telling flaw (his obsession with revenge) and a plain Nantucket whaling captain, a rough laborer who can represent the common man and the American spirit for adventure.
Moby-Dick has become famous as a great American novel, and one of the most important things about its American-ness is the way that it demonstrates that a whaling captain from Nantucket can be a grandiose, tragic figure comparable to Homer’s Achilles or Shakespeare’s King Lear. There’s something wonderfully democratic about the fact that the destruction of the Pequod and the death of everyone aboard her except Ishmael, is reminiscent of one of the most famous revenge tragedies ever, Hamlet, in which (spoiler alert!) everyone dies except the bystander, Horatio.
Which brings us to another point: the ending of the novel also moves us out of Ahab’s part of the plot and back into Ishmael’s. For the latter half, or maybe even the latter two-thirds, of Moby-Dick, we kind of forget about Ishmael as we have been getting obsessed with the White Whale in Ahab’s wake.
When Melville uses words from the book of Job to describe Ishmael in the epigraph to the epilogue – "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee" – we remember that Ahab’s quest and Ahab’s tragedy are both (in some sense) stories within Ishmael’s story. Ishmael’s miraculous survival, of course, is the result of Queequeg’s coffin, which acts as his life preserver in the whirlpool caused by the sinking of the ship:
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 dirge-like main. (Epilogue.2)
There’s something not very noble about Ishmael’s survival. He lives by clinging to Queequeg’s coffin, a coffin that Queequeg himself will never inhabit because he’s gone to Davy Jones’s locker, as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s the death of Ishmael’s most faithful, principled, steadfast companion, who just happens to be a South Sea Islander, that enables Ishmael to survive and prosper and tell his story.
During the novel, we’ve enjoyed a fantasy of racial and cultural diversity and (mostly) harmony aboard the Pequod. All of that must literally die so that a single white male representative of "American-ness" can come forward and tell a story that defines what it means to be American. In destroying the Pequod, Melville thrusts in our faces the enormity of what is lost when we reduce a shipful of personalities into one (rather faceless) New Englander.
Yet, in one way, Ishmael’s very facelessness makes him an appropriate vessel for all of these intertwined tales. His salvation takes on profound Biblical connotations: like Job, Ishmael endures a variety of trials from which he is eventually delivered; like Jonah, he is swallowed up by a whale (only in Ishmael’s case, it’s a metaphorical swallowing); and like the Ishmael of Genesis, he is marooned in a featureless landscape and sustained only by Providence.
There’s one other personality present at the end of the novel besides Ishmael or Moby Dick: the reader. If Ishmael is like Job, "escaped alone to tell thee," then that "thee" figure, thee the reader (yes, you!), is an important part of the novel’s conclusion. At the start, "call me Ishmael" creates an instant, if complicated, relationship between the narrator and the reader; at the end, "I...am escaped...to tell thee" reestablishes that same relationship in the midst of the novel’s destruction. This gives the both the beginning and the end of the novel a quiet, personal aspect that bookends the whaling voyage at the center.