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The Mystery of Bulkington from Moby Dick – Straight up to thy apotheosis

Within Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick, there is a mysterious character who makes only two brief appearances. Literary critics have long puzzled over this figure, questioning “Why was he put in there? Did Melville have a larger role in mind for him but kind of forgot about him?” Yet others interpret him as a fully realized, symbolic character worthy of compete analysis just as he stands.

This enigmatic character is Bulkington, first introduced in Chapter 3, “The Spouter-Inn.” This is where the young narrator Ishmael prepares for his maiden whaling voyage by spending the night at this sailors’ inn in New Bedford. It’s also where the nervous Ishmael has his alarming first encounter with Queequeg, the tattooed harpooner who becomes his closest friend.

As Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn, he is struck by the rough community of veteran whalers, described in the book as follows:

“Enveloped in their shaggy watch coats, and with their heads muffled in woollen comforters, all bedarned and ragged, and their beards stiff with icicles, they seemed an eruption of bears from Labrador. They had just landed from their boat, and this was the first house they entered. No wonder, then, that they made a straight wake for the the bar—when the wrinkled little old Jonah, there officiating, soon poured them out brimmers all round. One complained of a bad cold in his head, upon which Jonah mixed him a pitch-like potion of gin and molasses, which he swore was a sovereign cure for all colds and flus whatsoever, never mind of how long standing, or whether caught off the coast of Labrador, or on the weather side of an ice-island.”

Ishmael, the novice in their midst, must be feeling a bit self-conscious observing a changing of the guard – the naive rookie in the presence of these salty, self-assured seamen who hardly notice him. It is among this crowd that Bulkington first appears, immediately catching Ishmael’s eye:

“I observed, however, that one of them held somewhat aloof, and though he seemed desirous not to spoil the hilarity of his shipmates by his own sober face, yet upon the whole he refrained from making as much noise as the rest. This man interested me at once; and since the sea-gods had ordained that he should soon become my shipmate (though but a sleeping-partner one, so far as this narrative is concerned), I will here venture upon a little description of him. He stood full six feet in height, with noble shoulders, and a chest like a coffer-dam. I have seldom seen such brawn in a man. His face was deeply brown and burnt, making his white teeth dazzling by the contrast; while in the deep shadows of his eyes floated some reminiscences that did not seem to give him much joy. His voice at once announced that he was a Southerner, and from his fine stature, I thought he must be one of those tall mountaineers from the Alleghanian Ridge in Virginia. When the revelry of his companions had mounted to its height, this man slipped away unobserved, and I saw no more of him till he became my comrade on the sea. In a few minutes, however, he was missed by his shipmates, and being, it seems, for some reason a huge favourite with them, they raised a cry of “Bulkington! Bulkington! where’s Bulkington?” and darted out of the house in pursuit of him.”

The shortest chapter in Moby Dick is also Bulkington’s funeral, graveside service and epitaph. Chapter 23, titled “The Lee Shore”, takes its name from a powerful nautical metaphor representing danger and risk at sea. A lee shore refers to a coastline that a ship is being blown towards, risking being dashed upon the rocks by powerful winds and waves. It represents navigating treacherous waters where the stakes are perilously high.

Melville uses this charged imagery to eulogize the mysterious Bulkington, who didn’t shy away from the lee shore, but felt it would have been more perilous to his soul to remain on shore. Here is the chapter in full:

“CHAPTER 23. The Lee Shore.

Some chapters back, one Bulkington was spoken of, a tall, newlanded mariner, encountered in New Bedford at the inn.

When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ’gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!

Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; 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?

But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!”

While many people faced with treacherous waters or daunting challenges may opt to steer clear of the metaphorical lee shores, Bulkington stood apart. Unable to endure the scorching stability of solid ground beneath his feet, he felt compelled to embrace the adventure, to participate fully in the hunt of the whale. There’s no indication that he knew anything about he whale, the voyage or Captain Ahab. He didn’t seem to have an axe to grind or a big role to play. He didn’t seek recognition or reward, he rejected the limelight, and his presence at the helm was not driven by acclaim but by an innate sense of duty, purpose and dependability.

Ishmael exalts Bulkington with a divine reverence, calling him a “demigod” and urging him to ascend “straight up” from the ocean spray towards “apotheosis” – a lofty glorification. However, Bulkington was no god seeking immortality or worship. He was a man, fully human, who simply lived with profound purpose and drive.

Bulkington’s “godliness” stemmed not from any aspiration to being worshipped, but from his commitment to a life at sea. He was heroically indifferent to the temptations of security and comfort on land that entice most sailors after long voyages. While others sought the safe “port” with its “hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends”, the ocean remained Bulkington’s truest home and calling.

His divinity was in this uncompromising dedication to experience, truth, and casting off the “treacherous, slavish” constraints of the shore. Bulkington inspired Ishmael not by overtly seeking glory, but by the sheer intensity of his existential stubbornness – his insistence on living and dying by the “howling infinite” vastness of the sea, no matter the peril. He was a “demigod” not of the heavens, but of the earthly planes of human willpower, perseverance and maintaining purpose.