The best ending is not a surprise; it is both inevitable and irrefutably stated. There’s no argument about it being the only thing that could have (would have, should have) happened. And in order for an ending to feel that way, it must be foretold. Good foreshadowing and good endings are, of course, connected. While there are no steadfast rules for foreshadowing, there is one enduring effect of a good ending upon a good reader: you may miss much of it in a first reading, but when you get to the ending, the foreshadowing you should have seen comes flooding back to you; in that instant, you see everything you missed.
When Ishmael wants to go to sea, he must first pass through New Bedford and seek lodging there; this brings him to the Spouter-Inn, where the landlord is named Peter Coffin. “Rather ominous,” Ishmael tells us, but he reminds himself that Coffin is “a common name in Nantucket.” However, our narrator must share a bed with a harpooner—not just any harpooner. Queequeg is from the South Seas; he is called, variously, “dark complexioned,” an “abominable savage,” and “a cannibal.” Queequeg travels with a shrunken head; he is heavily tattooed. (“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.”) And Ishmael wakes the next morning to find Queequeg’s arm thrown over him “in the most loving and affectionate manner.” Queequeg is not a Christian; he sees the world far differently than his fellow shipmates aboard the doomed Pequod, but Queequeg is to be trusted.
It is a long four hundred pages later when Queequeg is delirious with a fever and believes he’s going to die; he instructs the ship’s carpenter to build him a coffin—he even tests the coffin to be sure it’s “a good fit.” Then Queequeg’s health returns; he rallies his spirits, forgets about dying, and uses his coffin as a sea-chest for his clothes. Not long later, a lifebuoy is lost overboard. Queequeg drops “a hint concerning his coffin.” Thus the carpenter is engaged in converting Queequeg’s coffin to a usable lifebuoy—nailing down the lid, caulking the seams, and so forth—when Captain Ahab comes on deck and makes whimsical remarks, mostly to himself, about the suitability of putting a coffin to use as a lifebuoy. (It is worth noting that this is the same ship’s carpenter who made Ahab’s prosthetic leg.)
Now the stage is set: Queequeg’s coffin has been made into a lifebuoy, and in the very next chapter the Pequod meets another whaling vessel: the Rachel. All Ahab cares about is that the Rachel has encountered the White Whale; the Rachel has crossed paths with Moby-Dick—it doesn’t matter to Ahab that one of the Rachel‘s whaleboats is lost. The son of the captain of the Rachel is aboard the missing whaleboat; yet Ahab refuses to help the Rachel search for her crew—”may I forgive myself,” Ahab says. No one else will forgive him; it is Ahab’s refusal to help his fellow men at sea that dooms him and all hands (but one) aboard the Pequod. It is the encounter with the Rachel that underscores what Ahab muses to himself in the chapter where he reflects on the meaning of a coffin as a lifebuoy. (“So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.”) Moby-Dick sinks the Pequod; all but Ishmael drown—”and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to his friend and fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was no stranger to epilogues. The final chapter of The Scarlet Letter, which is called “Conclusion,” is an epilogue. (It begins: “After many days, when time sufficed for the people to arrange their thoughts in reference to the foregoing scene, there was more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold.”) Melville has a great epilogue in conclusion of Moby-Dick. Queequeg’s “coffin life-buoy” emerges from the sea; it floats by Ishmael’s side. “Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main.” The “unharming sharks” glide by. And here’s the ending: “On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
D. H. Lawrence called Moby-Dick “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.” In the wondrous world of the novel, there is no ending as suited to the tale as that of the Rachel rescuing the Pequod‘s sole survivor; there is no ending as perfectly foretold as that of the cannibal’s coffin becoming Ishmael’s lifebuoy.
John Irving competed as a wrestler for twenty years. His novels include The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and In One Person. His fourteenth novel, Avenue of Mysteries, was published in fall 2015. He lives in Toronto.