In 1851 Herman Melville published the story of a whale and the mad man who hunted it. He originally titled it “The Whale”, but later changed the name to “Moby Dick”. It was a failure and out of print at the time of his death 40 years later. But, then during the 20th century it began to catch it’s fame. Writers such as William Faulkner praised the story for the masterful work it is.
“Moby Dick” is a full of biblical references. The famous opening line, “Call me Ishmael” is a reference to the illegitimate son of Abraham, expelled from the tribe to die in the desert with his Egyptian slave mother, only to be saved by God. With that one line, the reader knows this is an alias the narrator uses, and that he is an unwanted son, himself. He has decided to seek his fortune at sea, and therefore heads to Nantucket. Strong young men would spend some time on the whaling vessels to make their fortune bringing in the valuable whale oil.
Ishmael’s adventure begins when he arrives in New Bedford on his way to Nantucket to find little “room at the inn”. He must share the bed with a man who originally terrifies him, due to his dark skin, rough mien and tattoos, but they become best friends as the book progresses. The man’s name is Queequeg, a Polynesian harpooner, who is signing on to the Pequod, a whaling ship. He persuades Ishmael to join him since he needs a job. When they enlist, they discover the new captain of the ship is a man called Ahab (named for an Israeli king who, because of his obsession with his wife, Jezebel, abandoned his people and God to worship other gods). The business men who own the ship, do not know their new captain will be chasing after the great white whale that destroyed his previous ship and took his leg as well.
On the ship, Ishmael discovers a life he never imagined. The work is hard and dangerous and the men are a diverse lot. They are from all walks of life and from all over the world. Shortly after setting sail, the crew discover the true purpose of Ahab when he sticks a gold doubloon to the mast head stating the first man to see the white whale will have the gold piece. Then out of the bottom of the ship emerge rough looking men who Ahab has taken on with the sole purpose of killing the white whale.
Ahab asks every ship they meet for news of the whale and grows more and more obsessed with its destruction, even though the prophesies warn he and his ship will not survive. At one point Queequeg becomes deathly ill and has a coffin made for him by the ship’s carpenter. After the final battle with the whale, when all men are lost, the coffin becomes the saving buoy for Ishmael who was thrown from the ship earlier and watched to scene unfolding from a distance. The ship is attacked by Moby Dick causing a vortex when it sinks, pulling all the surrounding boats and men into the ocean to their deaths. But, Ahab has the rope from the spear he threw at the whale wrapped around his neck and he is pulled away by the whale to his death. Moby Dick survives, as does Ishmael who is rescued by the ship, Rachel (another biblical name referencing the wife of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson) who is looking for their own men lost from an earlier battle with the great white whale.
The story begins with a young man seeking adventure aboard a whaling ship leaving from the coast of New England in the early 1800’s. We don’t know his actual name, he just says, “Call me Ishmae”. From this we know he is probably estranged from his family. He arrives at an inn in New Bedford. His original plans were to sail from Nantucket, the more common place for men seeking adventure on a whaling vessel to set off, but, he must spend a few days in New Bedford, Massachusetts while he waits for transportation. He wanders around looking for affordable lodgings and comes across an African American church service preaching on the “blackness of darkness”. Trying not to be unnerved he moves on to an inn called the Sprouter-Inn, run by an aptly named Peter Coffin.
The Inn becomes a character in itself. The artwork, the patrons, and furniture are all imposing and nautical in a creepy way. The bar is made of a right whale’s head, there are weapons and tools hanging on the wall as decor, on has human hair tied to it. The proprietor tells Ishmael he will have to share a bed with a harpooner because all the beds are taken. He agrees, then questions his decision when he is told the harpooner, Queequeg, is out trying to sell shrunken heads. Wanting to get a look at the man he would be sharing a bed with, Ishmael spends some time watching the local men come in and out. But, soon he becomes too tired to keep waiting and decides to go to bed. When he reaches the room he sees a few curious things belonging to Queequeg and wonders who his new bedmate is. These questions are answered when Queequeg finally arrives. Ishmael is frightened by his huge, dark aspect and further by his many tattoos. Then while he watches Queequeg pray to an idol, his fears rise. But, the true terror happens when Queequeg notices Ishmael in his bed and tries to kill him with a tomahawk. Ishmael screams for the innkeeper, who explains the situation to Queequeg and calms him down.
The next morning Ishmael wakens to find Queequeg cuddled up close to him and his arm thrown over him. As he tries to ease his way out from under Queequeg he finds himself also cuddled up with the tomahawk. Finally, after much shaking and shouting, Ishmael is able to wake him and is surprised to see Queequeg dressing in a nice hat and boots, even shaving himself. Since, Ishmael assumed Queequeg was a cannibalistic savage, he was surprised to see a semblance of a gentleman. At breakfast, expecting to find the same raucous behavior from the night before, Ishmael finds the company of whalers quiet and reserved. No stories of adventure. The only excitement was when Queequeg used his harpoon to reach across the table for meat. But, Ishmael was the only one who found this remarkable.
After breakfast, Queequeg sits down to smoke his tomahawk pipe and Ishmael goes out to explore New Bedford. He notices the well dressed women and men. Noting the money whale- oil has brought to this small seaside town. Soon, he wanders into the chapel. There are plaques on the walls dedicated to sailors lost at sea. While reading some of them Ishmael thinks about heaven and wonders why those left behind lament for their dead if they have moved on to a better place. Oddly enough, he also finds Queequed in the chapel. Father Mapple arrives, climbing up a rope into the pulpit that is shaped like the bow of a ship. The mariners love his sermons because he speaks their language and makes the sermons relevant to their lives. This sermon is, naturally, about Jonah and the Whale.
Now, Ishmael decides Queequeg is a good soul after all. He sees him as “George Washington cannibalistically developed”. Ishmael makes a few small friendly overtures to Queequeg who decides they are “married”, gives him half his property and continues to share a bed. Ishmael even joins Queequeg in his idol worship rituals. Ishmael justifies it to the reader by saying he hopes Queequeg will join him in his Presbyterian worship.
One night they both wake up in the warm bed on a cold night, and begin to talk. Queequeg tells his life story. Queequeg left his home in Kokovoko, an island far away to the south west. It is not on any map because, “true places never are”. When a whaling ship from Sag Harbor, Long Island, visited his island, Queequeg wanted to go with them. The captain denied him, even with his father, the kings, influence. So Queequeg stowed away, not revealing himself until the ship was at sea. Once Queequeg convinced the captain he wanted to visit the Christian lands, the captain let him stay and train with the whalers. That is how Queequeg began to become a great harpooner. But, even though he knows his father is probably dead and Queequeg would be the ruler of his island, he can never return because he has been sullied by Christianity. So, Queequeg offers to go with Ishmael to Nantucket and get him on a ship. Ishmael is thrilled since even though he has learned a lot about the sea from the stories he has heard from seamen in his home town, he knows nothing about whaling. Queequeg finishes his pipe, gives Ishmael a hug, touches foreheads with him, then they go to sleep.
The next morning Ishmael pays the bill using Queequeg’s money. Everyone laughs at how fast the two of them have become friends since on the first night Ishmael was so terrified. They borrow a wheelbarrow to haul their belongings and set off to find a ride to Nantucket. They get stared at a lot because they are such an unlikely pair. On the ship a ‘bumpkin’ makes fun of Queequeg, so he flips him around in the air to rebuke him. The captain is not pleased. But, when an accident sends the bumpkin into the water, Queequeg saves him and becomes the hero of the hour.
When they arrive in Nantucket, Ishmael marvels at how powerful it is. They find an inn owned by the cousin of Peter Coffin, the innkeeper in New Bedford. Ishmael notices that everything is nautical and fishy. Even the milk tastes like fish. After a meal of chowder, and a good night’s sleep, they follow the advice of Queequeg’s idol, Yojo and leave the selection of a whaling vessel to Ishmael. That might have not been such a great idea.
The next morning, Ishmael leads them to the ‘Pequod’. Its an old whaling vessel with numerous parts of whales adorning it. He thinks it looks like a “cannibal of a craft”. When he goes on board he makes a deal with the owners of the vessel for him and for Queequeg. Even though the owners are Quakers, they are conniving cheapskates. Ishmael also learns the captain of the ship will be Ahab who is recovering after losing his leg to a ‘particular whale” of “peculiar ferocity”. The owners have great faith Captain Ahab, even though he has been a bit odd since the accident. But, they think he will calm down since his young wife just gave him a son. Once again, Ishmael asks questions after he has signed the contract.
Ishmael returns to the inn to find Queequeg observing “Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation”. He becomes concerned when he can’t get Queequeg to leave his deep meditation. Though Ishmael has a great respect for anyone’s obligation to his religion, they have a long conversation on the discomforts of Queequeg’s beliefs. After a hearty breakfast the two head out to sign the remaining papers for their jobs on the “Pequod”. They are stopped by the owners of the ship who are not pleased to have a cannibal aboard. But, they change their minds when they see Queequed throw his harpoon. When they can’t convert him to their religion they decide that the best harpooners should be “sharkish”. After finalizing their voyage, Ishmael and Queequog come across a ‘prophet’ named Elijah who warns them of frightening incidents involving Ahab, but the two disregard him as crazy.
It takes a few days for the ship to be provisioned and for Ahab to heal a bit more, but, one morning at dawn, Ishmael sees men boarding the ship. But, when they get to the ship they only see one old sailor. He says the Captain is already on board. After sunrise the rest of the crew arrive and they set sail. They leave for Nantucket, but Captain Ahab stays below decks for a while yet. Although Ishmael has yet to meet his new captain, he gets to know the rest of the crew. They are a diverse group. A variety of nationalities and temperaments. Ishmael has many discussions with the men about the whale hunting business. They all seem to have different feelings about what Ishmael feels is the nobility of the profession. Ishmael gets to know the mates of the small boats that are released from the ship to actually do battle with the whales. Each boat is equipped with a mate to steer the craft and a harpooner to shoot the whale. Queequeg is the harpooner for Starbuck. Having a great fear of whales, Starbuck is a careful navigator. The only white American born men, besides Ishmael, are the officers of the ship. All the rest are from a variety of countries. This is where Pip is introduced. He is a small African- American boy who beat time on the tambourine. He is the cabin boy, and the reader is set up to believe something terrible will happen to him.
After several days at sea, Captain Ahab shows himself. He is missing his leg and has replaced it with the bone of a whale. He also has a huge scar running down his face. It is obvious from his pacing and erratic behavior, the encounter with the whale that maimed him left a psychological scar, as well has the physical.
In the next few chapters, Ishmael gives an exhaustive lecture on the different varieties of whales and their importance in the world. Then he moves on to discuss the captains table at meal times (reserved, quiet) and the subsequent meals for the harpooners at the same table (boisterous). Finally, Ishmael gets his time up high on the masthead looking for whales. He laments the tediousness of the job, and warns against captains choosing young, easily bored men for the job, as they tend to day dream and might miss a whale.
One day, Ahab steps out to address the crew. He pins a gold doubloon to the masthead, telling the men whoever finds a particular whale will earn the gold piece. When questioned he admits to searching for Moby Dick almost exclusively. Some of the men grumble about wanting to hunt whales not vengeance, but most have captured the captains fever and want to hunt the whale. Ishmael believes the trauma Ahab experience with the whale is why he is so obsessed. He accredits the time spent in a pain- wracked fever as the catalyst of this fixation for vengeance.
While Ahab sees the great white whale as the devil, Ishmael remarks at great length on the angelic like qualities of the whale. He sees the whiteness as a symbol of nobility. At this point in the book some of the crew are noticing sounds coming from below of a mysterious passenger. This is another fact Ahab keeps from his crew as he relentlessly hunts for Moby Dick. He swings between cajoling and encouraging the men, to screaming in bouts of rage.
After days of inactivity a whale is finally sighted and the real work begins. With this sighting the mysterious passenger emerges and is actually five men who appear to be dark and sinister. These men hop onto the captain’s harpoon boat with the captain, and join the other boats in the battle. After a horrifying experience trying without success to bring down on of a pod of whales, Ishmael decides to rewrite his will. He accepts he will not survive such a dangerous career.
As the Pequod travels in it’s hunt, they come across other ships. But, the only ships Ahab wishes to speak with are the ones that have information on Moby Dick. As with other actions of the captain, including participating personally on a harpoon boat, not stopping to speak to other ships is unusual.
Queequeg knows whales like to eat squids, so when a giant squid is spotted he knows a whale is nearby. After a great scene of harpooners attacking the whale, it is taken down. Only one of the crew want to eat the flesh, the rest is left for the sharks to eat. Ishmael spends time in the story recounting the preparation of whale meat. During the night the men keep sharks from eating the entire whale, saving the parts the crew remove the next day to sale. The story goes into great detail on the process of retrieving the blubber and oil. Then the rest of the whale is set adrift to feed the sharks and vultures.
Coming across a ship with information on Moby Dick pleases Captain Ahab. Although, the crew of the new ship, Jeroboam, is carrying a disease and can’t come too close, they tell of their encounter with Moby Dick.
A crewman aboard their ship called, Gabriel, who calls himself a prophet, warns Ahab to cease his hunt for the whale. He tells the story of a crewman who was specifically pulled off the ship by Moby Dick and carried out to sea. Of course, Ahab doesn’t head the man’s warning, continuing his quest. While processing the oil from one of the whales, one of the men almost drowns, but is saved by Queequeg who dives in and pulls him to safety. Once again the narrator shows the heroism of Queequeg.
What follows is chapters relating in minute and poetic detail of the whale. There are also encounters with other ships, but none have news of Moby Dick. Once while trying to take a whale down, little Pip filling in as a replacement oarsman on one of the harpoon boats, lost his nerve and fell in the water. As a lesson, they decided to leave him in the sea for a while and pretend to abandon him. This backfired, though, making Pip mad. From then on the shipmates avoid Pip, Ishmael thinks Pip now has divine wisdom and Ahab treats him gently.
The story goes back to the gold doubloon Capt. Ahab affixed to the mast at the beginning of the voyage. Depending on who is looking at the gold piece the picture on the face of the coin changes. Some see it as a sun, some see other depictions. Queequeg says it matches a part of a tattoo on his leg.
Soon the Pequod meets the Samuel Ederby. The ship is staffed with a jolly crew and captain. When Ahab questions the captain, Boomer, about Moby Dick, he states in the affirmative. The encounter led to him losing his arm. Whenever they met up again, Capt. Boomer knew to avoid the whale. He had learned his lesson and wasn’t bent on revenge like Ahab.
Next the author gets the ship’s carpenter busy. Ahab wants a new leg. The casks of oil below are leaking and must be repaired, and Queequeg wants a casket. Having fallen ill and assuming he will die, he asks the carpenter to build him a casket. He then places his harpoon and his idol inside, lays down,closes the lid and prepares to die. But, his health is restored, so he uses the casket for storage. He carves his tattoos into the lid of the casket.
The blacksmith is next. Ahab gives him metal to fashion a spear of his design to kill Moby Dick. But, when he decides the blacksmith is moving too slow, Ahab finishes the job himself.
A typhoon does some damage to the ship, then afterwards a man drowns after falling from the masthead. They throw the safety buoy in after him, but it fills with water and pulls him under. They decide to use Queequegs casket as a buoy. The Pequod encounters the whaling ship, Rachel. Ahab asks for news of Moby Dick. The captain says they have recently given chase to the whale, and lost sight of his son in the effort. He begs Ahab for help in finding his son, but Ahab refuses. His quest for the whale is all consuming. Ahab becomes even more anxious to battle Moby Dick.when he realizes how close hi is. Especially after his interview with the captain of the next ship he meets, the Delight. Their encounter led to a lost boat and dead crewmen.
As the story progresses on to the fateful meeting between Moby Dick and Captain Ahab, the characters become more morose. They are certain of their deaths when they finally meet up with the great white whale. Finally, Captain Ahab is the first to spot Moby Dick. He therefore, earns the doubloon. All of the boats are launched to kill the whale, but the whale destroys Ahab’s boat then swims away. The first mate, Starbuck, distracts the whale long enough to pull him off the boats.
The next day the battle resumes. This time Ahab almost loses. More of his men are killed, On the third day, Ahab realizes the whale is now chasing him. The boats are lowered again. Moby Dick attacks the other two boats, not Ahab’s. Then the whale turns on the ship and attacks. The Pequod goes down without it’s captain. Ahab then turns all his wrath on the whale. Ahab captures a trailing line around the throat and is pulled out to sea.
The vortex caused by the sinking ship pulls the remaining boats and crew down with it. All are lost at sea, except for Ishmael. He had been thrown clear of the ship whenever the whale attacked the captains boat. Wrapping his arms around the buoy that was Queequeg’s casket, he floats amid the wreckage waiting for rescue. It comes a day later from the Rachel as she continues her search for lost crew.
Moby Dick by Herman Meville is a wonderfully epic adventure. It is a story of revenge and fatalism. The characters live on in the minds of those who have read the story and those who have just heard of it, as all truly powerful tales do.
Ishmael – Melville doesn’t reveal Ishmael’s real name, even though he is the narrator of the book.. He lived with his stepmother and was extremely well educated. He is versed in religion, law, art, geology, and biology. He takes the study of whales very seriously. But, he seems to be on the ship as a form of penance. He doesn’t actually expect to survive the experience, nor does he think any of his shipmates will survive. He is quick to take Queequeg’s help, showing very little independence. Throughout the story he seems to fade into the background from time to time, making him the least important character aboard the Pequod.
Queequeg – Ishmael’s closest friend and shipmate. He is a talented harpooner. Big and strong, he commands awe from most people when he passes. Queequed is used by Melville to question Christianity. A dark man, he is a composit of African, Polynesian, Islamic, and Native American cultures. Since Queequeg is all of these nationalities and also brave and generous, it enables Melville, through Ishmael’s experiences with the man, to show that a person’s character cannot be judged by the color of his skin.
Ahab – the captain of the Pequod, a whaling ship. A character with an alternating personality. Although Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick is obvious, he swing’s of temperament make his character hard to pin down. Sometimes he is gregarious, calling the crew to join him in his quest, putting a gold doubloon on the mast as a prize. Then sometimes he is morose, crying for the family he will probably never see again. He is usually agitated, pacing the deck, and fearless to the point of extreme recklessness. He knows the continued pursuit of the whale who took his leg and left him scarred, is dangerous, but Ahab continues relentlessly. His first mate begs him to stop, captains of other ships warn of the dangers, none of it matters. His whole focused goal is to kill Moby Dick. As a captain Ahab should never personally use the harpoon, but his desire for the death of the whale is so consuming, he wants to feel the blood on his hands. Ahab wants to be the one to end the whale, but, the whale ends him.
Moby Dick – a great white sperm whale. He is the nemesis of Captain Ahab. Being intelligent, resourceful, and without a conscience makes Moby Dick is the perfect villain for a story. Although, Ishmael often likens him to God and all His mysteries, Ahab sees him as the devil. Moby Dick has spread destruction in his wake. Every ship that meets him is left damaged. He kills almost every fisherman who goes against him. Ahab lost his leg while doing battle against the whale, and vows revenge. One of the things that makes Moby Dick such a great antihero, is his total disregard for the heroes. Ahab has devoted his whole soul and body, risking the lives of his entire crew to destroy the whale, and Moby Dick doesn’t give a thought to Ahab.