Restless Souls: “Phantoms” in Moby-Dick
Melville’s Moby-Dick is populated by many ghosts. They float through the text, elude meaning, and are not confined to the realm of the dead. These entities consist of various substances yet are united linguistically by the word “phantom.” Moby-Dick, Fedallah, fear, and whiteness take turns possessing this word; at one point, the phantom may be the mist rolling on the sea and at another it is Starbuck’s dead future. The word’s multitudinous meanings frustrate any one interpretation: what is this “phantom” that wanders the text? Once introduced, “phantom” haunts the novel in two dimensions. On a terraneous level, the word surfaces often, indiscriminate of the various modes that furnish the novel, and on a teleological plane the word is but a form for its meaning, a meaning that haunts and evades the crew and readers. Yet by the novel’s end, the word guides readers and crew to understand that this “phantom” is a fear of restlessness that death cannot relieve.
Ishmael begins his tale explaining that the sea cures his depression. With an inexplicable magnetism the water draws him back again and again and substitutes itself for flourished suicide. Thus returning to the sea, he meets Queequeg and their comical friendship begins. However, bookended by this comedy, Ishmael relates his youthful encounter with a ghostly presence, a moment characterized by unadulterated fear:
..but a supernatural hand seemed placed in mine. My arm hung over the counterpane, and the nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom, to which the hand belonged, seemed closely seated by my bedside…I lay there, frozen with the most awful fears…waking in the morning, I shudderingly remembered it all, and for days and weeks and months afterwards I lost myself in confounding attempts to explain the mystery. Nay, to this very hour, I often puzzle myself with it. 37-8
The phantom hand reinserts itself into Ishmael’s consciousness and interrupts the comedic mode that surrounds this passage. It not only haunts Ishmael, unable to be put to rest, but this passage surfaces then submerges quickly and anomalously. Thus, the passage turns into a sort of phantom itself, and the passage’s essence, the “phantom”, will continue to haunt future text.
This spectral hand haunts Ishmael and inspires him to reassume solving its mystery, and in a similar way the color white unsettles Ishmael who, in an attempt to eradicate its ghostliness, dedicates an entire chapter to exploring its nature. He suggests that the color’s inextricable association with death may be what upsets the living: “Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms” (162). The living project the dead’s pallor onto their meandering souls, and this connection may be what make’s Moby-Dick’s color unsettling. However, it is not death alone that makes Ishmael shudder. He discusses Lima, a woeful city, and he postulates what causes this sorrow;
For Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizarro, this whiteness keeps her ruins for ever new; admits not the cheerful greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own distortions. 163
Like costuming a person as a ghost by throwing on a sheet, Lima is shrouded in white, a ghost itself. It is not its death that upsets Ishmael but its inability to decay, to rejoin the earth. Lima is caught in a state of living rigor mortis. It is this idea, an animate death, that is so horrifying. After all, what is a phantom but death animated, lacking the finality of decay?
Thus far, phantom has been used to describe formless matters such as the supernatural hand and whiteness. Yet the word reemerges on pages 180 and 181 and describes Fedallah and his crew. They seemingly materialize from the air and walk about noiselessly like ghosts. It may be sufficient to think that Melville chooses to describe them as phantoms because that is what they resemble. However, these two instances in two consecutive chapters are bookended by chapters of different modes. The two preceding chapters to chapter 47, the first appearance of Fedallah and his crew, progress together toward this introduction. Chapter 45 is a collage of histories concerning the sperm whale. Directly following is a chapter that revolves around Ahab’s monomania, Moby-Dick. Then, reassuming the plot, the next chapter ends with a phantasmal image, and this same picture begins chapter 48. From chapter 48, comedy resumes its place when Ishmael decides to draft his will saying to Queequeg, “come along, you shall be my lawyer, executor, and legatee” (189). It is another instance in which this spectral meaning breaches the text only to submerge once more before meaning may be assigned to it.
Likewise, Fedallah and his crew retreat to the backdrop for chapters at a time, but Fedallah’s relationship with Ahab illuminates what the text’s “phantom” truly is. Toward the novel’s end, a brief interaction between the captain and the Parsee provides insight into the phantom’s meaning:
…even Ahab’s eyes so awed the crew’s, the inscrutable Parsee’s glance awed his…such ceaseless shudderings shook him; that the men looked dubious at him; half uncertain, as it seemed, whether indeed he were a mortal substance, or else a tremulous shadow cast upon the deck by some unseen being’s body. 401
The crew, even Ahab, pay into the supernatural aura surrounding Fedallah, doubting his humanness, believing that he may be the projection of some immortal essence. But the Parsee seems uncannily tied to Ahab: “..but still fixedly gazing upon each other; as if in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned substance” (401). They are linked like a body to a soul; Fedallah is the soul or shadow incarnate, and Ahab the abandoned body. This passage banally states the obvious – a phantom is an immaterial substance, a shadow, but why is a living man described thus? He ceaselessly shudders, an image that foreshadows the phrase “tremulous shadow,” and a tension arises between Fedallah’s physical existence and this never-ending movement. It is unnatural and puts into question his mortality, and the Parsee’s ghostlike presence perturbs Ahab, the only one on the ship anticipated to be un-phased by such a thing.
Why does Fedallah unsettle Ahab? It could be that their fates are inextricably tied and both know this. Fedallah prophesies that Ahab will perish once he sees two hearses; “the first not made by mortal hands” and the other “the visible wood…must be grown in America” (377). Also, the Parsee will die before Ahab does, and Ahab will be killed by rope. The prophesy comes true. Fedallah’s hearse is Moby-Dick and Ahab’s his sunken ship, and Fedallah’s death is by hemp, Ahab’s own rope. Together they are body and soul, and the rope that literally ties them leads to Ahab’s death by Moby-Dick, the “grand hooded phantom” (22). So Ahab’s phantom half, Fedallah, is killed by Ahab’s pursuit of a phantom, Moby-Dick. These two phantoms converge twice. The first, when Ahab stares into the sea “but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there. Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail” and when Fedallah’s corpse hangs from Moby-Dick’s mouth (407, 423). Ahab’s pursuit of Moby-Dick is like Narcissus pursuing his reflection – ultimately he drowns, and his soul becomes one of those restless phantoms like Lima, unable to reach eternal rest.
It is an eternal restlessness that Ahab sees in Fedallah, and though he tries to shun the Parsee, Fedallah always hovers near, reminding Ahab that what he searches for, revenge against Moby-Dick, will lead to nothing but more madness and restlessness. Not even death allows Ahab respite; his bones belong to the ocean, forever tossing in underwater currents, forever denied a resting place. He becomes a phantom, the sea offering a restless grave in which he and Fedallah may unite. It is the same restlessness that characterizes the text. It switches genres: from comic, to scientific, to horror. The resurfacing of the word “phantom” serves to remind and warn readers of life’s meaning, and the perils of searching for it. It is “the ungraspable phantom of life” that Narcissus drowns after (20). Yet, this sentence ends with “and this is the key to it all.” Whether Ishmael means his tale, it is unclear. But what is clear is that to search for meaning is to forfeit one’s soul to an eternity of searching, of chasing after Moby-Dick, who breaks the ocean’s surface only to dive down in its depths forever elusive.