What are some purposes and effects of Chapter 23 ("The Lee Shore") of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chapter 23 (“The Lee Shore”) of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick has a number of different purposes and effects, including the following:

  • By opening by referring to an earlier section of the novel, this chapter helps contribute to the unity of the book.
  • By referring to the Pequod’s “vindictive bows,” this chapter helps foreshadow and highlight a major theme of the novel: vengeance.
  • By referring to the “cold malicious waves” of the sea, this chapter helps remind us that all ocean voyages during Melville’s day were inherently dangerous. This was particularly true of the extended voyaging of whale ships, as when Ishmael mentions here a “four-years’ dangerous voyage.”
  • By saying that he looked upon Bulkington with “fearfulness,” Ishmael foreshadows Bulkington’s fate and at the same time characterizes himself as a man of sympathy and common sense: he is not stupidly brave.
  • By saying that he offers this chapter as a “stoneless grave” for Bulkington, Ishamel indicates that at least one man – perhaps more – will die as a result of this voyage. His intention to commemorate Bulkington shows Ishmael’s own decency and concern for other people. The foreshadowing of Bulkington’s death already contributes to the tragic tone of the book.
  • By referring to the forthcoming voyage of the Pequod as a “tempestuous term,” Ishmael hints that the voyage will not be an easy one.
  • By characterizing Bulkington as a man ever in pursuit of goals besides comfort, Ishmael implies his admiration of the bravery of whale-men in general and thereby also implicitly characterizes himself as a brave man.
  • By describing a ship as rushing

for refuge's sake forlornly . . . into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Ishmael reveals his taste for paradox and his appreciation of the complexities of life.  Ishmael is not a simplistic thinker, as passages such as this already imply.

  • By directly addressing the reader (as when he asks, “Know ye, now, Bulkington?”), Ishamel engages in a kind of conversation with the reader, making the tone of the book more intimate and literally dialogical.
  • At one point Ishmael declares that

all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?

By expressing admiration for such thinking, he thereby characterizes himself as an intrepid soul intent on keeping his independence and avoiding slavishness.  It remains to be seen whether Captain Ahab will also emerge as such a person. In any case, this passage foreshadows a major theme of the novel: life itself as a kind of metaphorical voyage.

  • By declaring his admiration for people who take brave risks rather than living merely comfortable lives, Ishmael raises a major question posed by the book: should Ahab be seen as such a person, or is he something else, something smaller?