A Burning Ship Bound for Hell


I am not quite finished with Moby Dick. That might disappoint some of you, but so be it. This book is a classic. It really does repay attention.

Ishmael, the narrator of the novel, pointed out that when a whale is boiled it delivers an awful sight and an even worse smell. Wood is only needed to ignite the flames under the huge pots called “try-works.” “Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and burns by his own body.”

But like I said the smell of the burning whale was worse. “…for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you must, and not only that, but you must live in for the time. It has an unspeakable, wild Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funeral pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.” Again he suggests that this religious quest is not a holy one. We must remember as well that the whale in the novel stands in for God.  So in a sense, the whalers have killed god.


The work was done at night when the “wild ocean darkness was intense. But that darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals forked forth from the sooty flues and illuminated every lofty rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful deed.” It was indeed the ship for a captain driven by revenge lust. It was the ship in hell.


The “pagan harpooneers” use huge, pronged poles to pitch hissing masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces.”

Men stood around watching,

“looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched in their heads.  Their tawny features, now all begrimed with smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter forked upwards out of them, like flames from the furnace; as to and fro, in their front the harpooneers wildly gesticulated with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled on , and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and yet steadfastly shot her red hell further into the blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all sides; then 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 commander’s soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long hours silently guided the way of this fire ship on the sea. Wrapped for that interval, in darkness, myself, I but the better saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my soul.”


Have you ever read a more profound description of hell than that? Do you want to? Can there be any doubt that this was a quest for hell not heaven? Yet the ship finds both heaven and hell. “Whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern.”

Yet though Ishmael says in the light of day, the only true light, “those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in the far other, at least gentler relief; the glorious golden sun, the only true lamp—others but liars.”

Maybe this hell at night on the dark sea is only an illusion. Maybe heaven will be found in the morning. Or is heaven an illusion? And in a way it was found. The heaven of Tahiti! I will explain more about this later.

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