The scene depicted is from Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick. In chapter 87, "The Grand Armada", the Pequod's crew gives chase to a large herd of sperm whales, and the ensuing hunt is the primary inspiration for Milloff's painting. The title is derived from a quote in that chapter, in which Ishmael states the need for them to find "a breach in the living wall" that has closed in around them. In the painting that wall becomes the backdrop for a chaotic and bloody composition.
In Atacking the Pod, or The Living Wall, a blustery blur of activity is in progress as the whalers try to kill as many whales as they can. There are sixteen figures taking part in the action, three of which are primary figures in the novel as well. These three harpooneers--Fedallah, Queequeg, and Tashtego--all represent three different qualities that man possesses in extreme situations such as shown in this scene.
The Parsee Fedallah stands out as the most inherently evil of the three. Poised to fight, with a wild-eyed smile on his face, he appears excited about the activity around him. He is stereotypically rendered, and his two-dimensionality makes him easy to dislike. With his pointy beard and pitchfork, he could almost be a demonic avatar watching over the bloody "battle" between man and beast.
Queequeg rides on the stern of a second whale boat, preparing to launch a harpoon into one of the whales. He also is caught up in the moment, and grins maliciously at the viewer over his shoulder. In Queequeg Rescues Tashtego, another piece based on the same novel and completed the same year as Attacking The Pod, Milloff presents Queequeg as the hero, diving into the whale's head to pull Tashtego to safety. If this makes his behavior in Attacking The Pod seem inconsistent, it can be explained by the vast difference between the two circumstances. In Queequeg Rescues Tashtego, the latter falls into danger, and it becomes up to nearby Queequeg to save him. Queequeg was not in the middle of a life-threatening situation himself, and so his altruistic nature shows through. However, when he becomes threatened by the "living wall" around him, and gets caught up in the violent actions that h and his mates have signed aboard ship to do, he becomes a different person, reveling in the chase and the kill. Elizabeth Schultz has said that the proximity of danger and the presence of Fedallah nearby is such "that even the good Queequeg is pressured into the devil's service."
Partially hidden behind Queequeg, Tashtego performs a similar act of altruism as was done for him in Queequeg Rescues Tashtego. He is bending into view, pulling one man from the sea by his arm even as he holds another by his hair, bringing them both to safety. This selfless action sets Tashtego apart from the rest of the people in the scene, who are either in a state of panic or murderous ebullience. He is the antithesis of Fedallah, while also serving as a background reminder of Queequeg's good side.
Milloff places two other figures in the middle of the scene that deserve mention. Directly below the drowning man (being pulled to safety by Tashtego) is a man emerging from the sea foam with outspread arms. He is described by the artist as being "a mad prophet come to bless the sea," and does so with the look of a kouros on his face, as though he is witnessing the activities of the gods themselves. and directly below this prophet is a second figure, a dark-haired man caught in the crushing jaws of a shark, displaying the same expression as the prophet, except with eyes closed. he points to the scene around him. milloff claims this to be a self-portrait, and it could well represent how he views his place in the art world.
the scene is highly mythologized in terms of poses, facial expressions, and the artist's use of overlapping narrative. milloff uses exaggerated positions and many different facial expressions to bring across the feeling that this is an event on the order of myth or religious parable, and is therefore not meant to be taken merely at face value. he also uses overlapping narrative as a technique for creating balance to the work, giving the viewer something to rest his/her eye on which isn't so outwardly violent.
there are several scenes that take place in chapter 87, either one after another or concurrently (though always expressed linearly). two of these milloff chooses to focus his attention on. one is the whale hunt itself, in which most of the action--and therefore the visual interest--lies, with the swirling masses of bodies and foam contrasted against the linear harpoons and oars that cut across the scene at random angles. the other is from that point in the chapter where the crew find themselves in the center of the lake, where the cows and calves of the herd are being kept safe from the whalers. here the boats are greeted fearlessly by the little whales, who have not been privy tothe deadly role the whalers play. milloff brings the mood of this moment into his painting with the addition of more benign animals--dolphins and porpoises--to the periphery of the scene. one in the upper left even points to a way through the "living wall" with his tail, the flukes surrounded by a small patch of blue sky in the corner.
This composite composition--the fusion of two different scenes into one picture--is an old practice going back to the 6th century B.C. in Greece, where it served as a method of reducing a story to one basic image with enough familiar imagery from the story being told that it becomes immediately recognizable. It was also used in some Hindu art, a religion of interest to Melville. For Milloff it is also a means by which he can balance out the violent activity in the painting, much as Tashtego serves to balance out the dastardly deeds of Fedallah and the wicked look on Queequeg's face. By slipping out of time Milloff is able to make a chaotic large-scale work coherent and enjoyable.