The final phrase fuses the two halves of the comparison, the men become identical with the ship, which follows Ahab's direction. The concentration only gives way to more imagery, with the "mastheads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs". All these images contribute their "startling energy" to the advance of the narrative. When the boats are lowered, the imagery serves to dwarf everything but Ahab's will in the presence of Moby Dick. These similes, with their astonishing "imaginative abundance," are not only invaluable in creating the dramatic movement, Matthiessen observes: "They are no less notable for breadth; and the more sustained among them, for an heroic dignity."
Editors Bryant and Springer suggest perception is a central theme, the difficulty of seeing and understanding, which makes deep reality hard to discover and truth hard to pin down. Ahab explains that, like all things, the evil whale wears a disguise: "All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks" — and Ahab is determined to "strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside, except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall" (Ch. 36, "The Quarter-Deck"). This theme pervades the novel, perhaps never so emphatically as in "The Doubloon" (Ch. 99), where each crewmember perceives the coin in a way shaped by his own personality. Later, the American edition has Ahab "discover no sign" (Ch. 133) of the whale when he is staring into the deep. In fact, Moby Dick is then swimming up at him. In the British edition, Melville changed the word "discover" to "perceive", and with good reason, for "discovery" means finding what is already there, but "perceiving", or better still, perception, is "a matter of shaping what exists by the way in which we see it". The point is not that Ahab would discover the whale as an object, but that he would perceive it as a symbol of his making.
This novel was on the syllabus of the 19th century literature course I studied when I was a second year university student, back in 1977. About half way through, I got bored. Then I fell ill and I didn’t finish reading it. Notwithstanding the fact that I hadn’t read the entire novel, I managed to write a paper about it and pass the exam thanks to very detailed lecture notes borrowed from a friend. After that, Moby Dick receded into my past and I had no intention of revisiting it.