A Better Way: The Insular Tahiti


In Moby Dick we saw where hatred led. It led to the apparent death of all the men on the ship and the whaling boats. Total catastrophe. All of this is incredibly bleak.

However, I want to take a slight meander away from all this madness of the quest to something benign. Melville offers some amazing hints about this possibility. The quest need not be malignant. There is a better way.

Ishmael asked us readers to consider an alternative. This is what he said,

“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal wars since the world began.”


That was one side of the story. Those wars are of course waged by sparring creatures such as sharks and men.  They seem interminable. Yet there is an alternative and Melville suggests we consider that. As his narrator Ishmael says,

“Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find strange analogy to something in yourself?  For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return.”


We have both the good and bad in us. The land and the sea. Ahab and Starbuck. We have choices. Starbuck offered it to Ahab. Ahab turned it down. This insular Tahiti is not just a far-off dream. It is real. Melville through his narrator Ishmael draws it to our attention at various times in this book to give us relief from the mad quest of Ahab. It is a place of peace in an otherwise often mad world of turmoil and strife.

Earlier in the novel, in pursuit of another whale, in fact a herd of whales, the ship

“glided between 2 whales into the inner most heart of the shoal, as if from some mountain torrent we had slid into a serene valley lake. Here the storms in the roaring glens between the outermost whales, were heard but not felt. In this central expanse the sea presented that smooth satin-like surface called a sleek…we were now in that enchanted calm which they say lurks at the heart of every commotion.”


There was also the time the ship the Pequod found calm sailing in the heart of the Japanese cruising ground where,

“At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe,; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Sometimes the turbulence and dangerous upheavals the sea is prone to, are quiet and peaceful and we forget about the monsters gliding by underneath.

Such times, occur even on land, and are dreamy and idyllic:

“The long-drawn virgin vales; the mild blue hill-sides, as over these there steals the hush, the hum; you almost swear that play-weaned children there are sleeping in these solitudes, in some glad May-time, when the flowers of the woods are plucked. And all this mixes with your most mystic mood; so that the fact and fancy, half-way meeting, interpenetrate, and form one seamless whole.”


Clearly, in Melville’s mind these times of peace are rare and brief. And it was acknowledged that such soothing scenes affected Ahab, though “of temporary effect” and “if these secret golden keys did seem to open in him his own secret golden treasures, yet did his breath upon them prove tarnishing.” Ahab could ruin even such golden days. Such blessed calms don’t last. “A storm for every calm.”

We get moments of peace even in our most mad quests. But they are not long-lasting. And in the end, Moby Dick midst “enticing calm” the hunters “allured by all this serenity, had ventured to assail it; but had fatally found that quietude but the vesture of tornadoes.” The serenity could be hideously deceiving. And woe to the person who forgets that. There is a tiger heart beneath.

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