Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

In this short chapter, Ishmael addresses the reader and points out that the man at the helm of the Pequod, as it first left shore, was Bulkington, under orders from Starbuck—the same Bulkington who was referred to in adulatory tones in the Spouter Inn in New Bedford. Ishmael tells the reader that Bulkington goes down with the Pequod at the end of the tale—an early reference to the ship’s demise—and that boats and human souls seem designed for adventure, even when those adventures end in death and destruction. Ishmael states that “the highest truth” is “shoreless and indefinite,” like God—that man must seek for this highest truth out in the waves, in the terror of the unknown. And he leaves this chapter as a “six-inch stoneless grave” to Bulkington, brave pilot of the doomed vessel.
In one of the novel’s stranger passages, Ishmael sings the praises of the man, Bulkington, whom he mentioned very briefly in an early chapter regarding the Spouter Inn. Critical theories abound about Bulkington: some critics contend that he was to have a larger part in the narrative, but Melville simply forgot about him. Others claim that Bulkington is a symbol of the many crewmembers of the Pequod whose stories were not told in the novel—who were simply subsumed into the hunt for Moby Dick, and whose lives could form the basis for other books not yet written. In any event, Bulkington is to remain a mystery in the novel—never fully explained or characterized.
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