Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore”
As the Pequod goes to sea, Ishmael is surprised to see the sailor, Bulkington, whom he met at the Spouter-Inn, standing at the helm looking out to sea. Bulkington is the 6 ft. mariner from the mountains of Virginia, who has just been to sea for four years and is now signed on for another three with no break. This short chapter, says Ishmael, is his epitaph, for this will be his last voyage. He celebrates Bulkington as a type of the mystic seeker after truth who scorns the lee or sheltered side of the ship and seeks the open sea: “in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee . . .” (23.105) Even from his sea grave, Bulkington leaps up as a demigod.
Bulkington was set apart from the other rowdy sailors at the Spouter-Inn, a quiet non-drinker, pure and aloof from crudeness. Here he is celebrated as the type of man willing to risk everything for a truthful and simple life, away from the land and attachment, to look God in the face on the shoreless sea. In many ways, Bulkington is like Ahab himself, except with more benign motives, for he is the man of virtue. He symbolizes the soul seeking its source.
Yet placing this memorial to Bulkington at the beginning of the voyage is eerie, for it means disaster is coming, and a man’s goodness is no protection. Looking God in the face seems to be dangerous, though Bulkington is rewarded for his courage with “apotheosis,” becoming a god who does not die. Of all the men on the ship, only Ishmael can hope to follow Bulkington’s path and live to tell of it.