The moral ambiguity of the universe is prevalent throughout Melville’s Moby Dick. None of the characters represent pure evil or pure goodness. Even Melville’s description of Ahab, whom he repeatedly refers to “monomaniacal,” suggesting an amorality or psychosis, is given a chance to be seen as a frail, sympathetic character. When Ahab’s “monomaniac” fate is juxtaposed with that of Ishmael, that moral ambiguity deepens, leaving the reader with an ultimate unclarity of principle.
The final moments of Moby Dick bring the novel to a terse, abrupt climax. The mutual destruction of the Pequod and the White Whale, followed by Ishmael’s epilogue occupies approximately half a dozen pages. Despite Melville’s previous tendency to methodically detail every aspect of whaling life, he assumes a concise, almost journalistic approach in the climax. Note that in these few pages, he makes little attempt to assign value judgements to the events taking place. Stylistically, his narration is reduced to brusque, factual phrases using a greater number of semicolons. By ending the book so curtly, Melville makes a virtually negligible attempt at denouement, leaving what value judgements exist to the reader.
Ultimately, it is the dichotomy between the respective fortunes of Ishmael and Ahab that the reader is left with. Herein lies a greater moral ambiguity than is previously suggested. Although Ishmael is the sole survivor of the Pequod, it is notable that in his own way, Ahab fulfills his desire for revenge by ensuring the destruction of the White Whale alongside his own end. Despite the seeming superiority of Ishmael’s destiny, Melville does not explicitly indicate so. On the contrary, he subtly suggests that Ishmael’s survival is lonely and empty upon being rescued: “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.” (724) That single instance of the appellation “orphan” as applied to Ishmael speaks volumes when taken in light of the destruction of the Pequod and her crew. Melville’s inclusion of Ishmael’s survival as an epilogue, a suffix attached to the dramatic destruction of the Pequod, suggests that Ishmael’s survival is an afterthought to the fate of Ahab and the rest of his crew. Ishmael’s quiet words at the beginning of the chapter, “Why then here does any one step forth? ?Because one did survive the wreck,” (723) indicate a deep humility on Ishmael’s part.
The question is then raised of why Ishmael is the sole survivor. It is clear that Ishmael significantly differs with Ahab concerning their respective perspectives of the White Whale. Ishmael clearly indicates in the chapter “The Try Works” how disagreeable he finds the mission and mentality of those around him: “?the 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.” (540) Here, Ishmael breaks his usual detached observancy and boldly divorces himself from Ahab’s mission and those whom Ahab has recruited to aid him
Ishmael further distinguishes himself from the rest of the crew by being the sole non-exploiter of whales in general. Melville makes it clear early on that Ishmael initially chooses to ship on the Pequod for the experiential value of whaling. It has been indicated that his outlook on the whale is the only significantly benign one. Whereas Ishmael is terrified by the “whiteness of the whale,” Stubb sees economic gain in the valuable whale oil, subtly hinted at by his overbearing gloating upon his first kill. In the harpooneers, we see a violent savageness, even in Queequeg’s otherwise loving nature. To Ahab, the whale is a emblem of pure evil. Even prudent, rational Starbuck looks on the whale as a dumb animal, which it is his duty to exploit.
The terror that Ishmael perceives is a consequence of his own vague fear of the whale’s “nothingness.” What Ishmael fears is the mystical, terrifying manifestation of white in the natural world, coupled with its subversion of the sense of purity attached to whiteness in the human world. Ishmael is distinguished from the rest of the crew in his ability to consider the perspectives of the others. In his role as narrator, Ishmael’s ability to detachedly analyze the viewpoints of those around