(actual title: Moby-Dick, or the Whale) is a novel of epic proportions
with characteristics of Greek and Elizabethan stage tragedies. Melville
completed the book at Arrowhead, Mass., where he lived for a while.
Dick is arguably the greatest sea novel ever written. Some critics
also maintain that is the greatest American novel ever written.
was published in October 1851 in London by Richard Bentley and November
1851 in New York by Harper & Brothers. Melville dedicated the novel
to fellow American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Michael J. Cummings...©
and depressed, a young man in New York City heads north to sign on with
a whaling ship in order to “see the watery part of the world" (Chapter
1). Such a cure for melancholy, he says, substitutes for “pistol and ball"
or the ancient Roman way of ending it all: throwing oneself upon a sword.
His name is Ishmael. His destination is Nantucket, Massachusetts.
a carpet bag of belongings, he stops in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on
a Saturday night in December to lodge at an inn. Passing houses named The
Crossed Harpoons and The Sword-Fish Inn, he chooses to stay at The Spouter-Inn
operated by Peter Coffin. There, he rooms with a tattooed savage named
Queequeg, who sells shrunken heads and
shaves with a harpoon. But the brown-skinned man—a
native of the Pacific island of Rokovoko, near New Zealand—turns
out to be an amiable companion. In fact, this pagan aborigine is in many
ways more humane and civilized than the Christians of Europe and America.
The son of a king, he left his home for the adventure of whaling while
living with and learning about Christians.
Sunday Ishmael sees many other whalers from around the world on the streets
of New Bedford and attends a service at a chapel in
which the clergyman, Father Mapple, preaches a sermon on Jonah and the
whale and exhorts his listeners to obey the will of God, not the will of
wayward man. Jonah, an Old Testament prophet, abandoned his mission—
preaching against wickedness at Nineveh—to
go to sea. When a powerful storm threatened his ship, he admitted to the
crew members that he was the cause of it, for God was angry with him, and
they cast him overboard. A whale swallowed him, holding him inside for
three days, then vomited him out after Jonah prayed for deliverance and
agreed to do God’s bidding in Nineveh.
Ishmael returns to the Spouter-Inn, he and Queequeg become partners and
embark for Nantucket together on a packet schooner to seek work on a whaler.
During the trip, a man referred to as "the greenhorn" (Chapter 13) ridicules
the strange-looking Queequeg. In retaliation, the latter throws the man
high in the air, frightening him. The man who complains to the captain,
who in turn complains to Queequeg. But a moment later, as the wind whips,
the man falls overboard. Queequeg saves him and wins the admiration of
the captain and the greenhorn.
Nantucket—an island about fifteen miles long
and three to six miles wide—they put up at
an inn called the Try Pots and satisfy their hunger eating delicious cod
and clam chowder. Ishmael goes off alone and applies for work on the
a ship named for an American Indian people. After an interview with two
of its principal owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad, Ishmael gets a job
and then recommends Queequeg, an experienced harpooner, for work. Peleg
and Bildad tell him Queequeg must appear in person for an interview. When
Ishmael asks about the captain of the Pequod, they tell him his
name is Ahab. Although Ahab is the name of an evil king in the Bible, Peleg
says, Captain Ahab is a good man with a wife.
Queequeg arrives, Peleg and Bildad refuse to hire him because he is a heathen.
But when Ishmael argues for religious tolerance and Queequeg demonstrates
his extraordinary ability with a harpoon, Queequeg, too, gets a job. Shortly
thereafter, Ishmael and Queequeg encounter a crazed man named Elijah, who
asks them about their standing with the Almighty and speaks unsettling
words about Ahab, whom he calls “Old Thunder" (Chapter 19). Ahab lost a
leg to a great whale and now walks on a prosthesis made of the bone of
a whale’s jaw. Elijah says Ahab suffers from some malady, and he asks Ishmael
whether he has bartered his soul to the devil to become part of the Pequod’s
the ship takes on food and other supplies, it sets sail on Christmas Day
for a three-year voyage. Ishmael is proud to be a whaler, for whaling is
one of the noblest and most important industries, a bulwark of the world
economy and a pathfinder for passenger and merchant ships.
first mate is an upright Nantucket Quaker named Starbuck, whose father
and brother died at sea. Queequeg is to serve as his harpooner. The second
mate is a carefree Cape Cod sailor named Stubb, backed up by an American
Indian harpooner, Tashtego. The third mate, a resident of Martha’s Vineyard,
Massachusetts, is feisty Flask, supported by a black African harpooner
spends his first days of the voyage ruminating about Elijah’s ominous words
and wondering about Ahab. When the captain finally appears on the quarterdeck—standing
tall and fast and full of resolve, the tip of his ivory leg resting in
a hole bored into the deck—he exhibits no
sign of illness, as suggested by Elijah. Ishmael writes:
His whole high,
broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould,
like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey
hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and
neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark,
lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in
the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree [by lightning]. (Chapter 28).........Ordinarily,
Ahab avoided walking the deck when his men were sleeping lest the “reverberating
crack and din of that bony step" (Chapter 29) disturb them. Once, however,
when the men were resting below, he set to pacing from taffrail to mainmast.
Stubb complained, suggesting that the captain muffle the sound of bone
against wood with a wad of hemp or flax fibers. Ahab told Stubb to return
“to thy nightly grave, where such as ye sleep between shrouds." He added,
“Down, dog, and kennel!" Stubb replied, “I will not tamely be called a
dog, sir." Ahab then unleashed the full fury of his tongue: "Then be called
ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I'll clear the
world of thee!" (Chapter 29). When he advanced toward Stubb with menace
in his eyes, Stubb retreated
other crew members, Ishmael must take his turn keeping watch high on the
mast-head, which is manned at all times—from
the beginning of the voyage to the end—even
when the ship is outside whale waters. During his first watch on the mast-head,
he is easily distracted, tending to daydream as he comes under the spell
of the sprawling ocean before him. He acknowledges that he is not the best
day, while Ahab paces the quarterdeck, he assembles the crew and reveals
his plan for the voyage: to run down and kill Moby Dick, the great white
whale that tore off his leg. With a rousing speech, he wins over the crew
and makes them swear death to Moby Dick. He nails a Spanish gold ounce
to the main-mast and says, “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale
with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw . . . shall have this gold ounce,
my boys!" (Chapter 36). Only god-fearing Starbuck objects, saying it is
wrong to take vengeance against a dumb sea creature. Ahab retorts that
the whale is no dumb creature but a repository of the evil forces in the
world—forces that weigh man down. He predicts
that he will “dismember my dismemberer" (Chapter 37), conferring on himself
the roles of both prophet and fulfiller of the prophecy.
is excited by the prospect of chasing the whale. But he is also frightened.
It is, after all, a hellish monster that has, according to sailors’ tales,
sent men and ships to the deep while receiving harpoons into its flanks
and the lobes of its tail. According to the stories, it is immortal, invulnerable,
supernatural. Sightings of it have occurred in two parts of the world at
the same time. Its whiteness is a sign of death, like the pallor of a dying
Ahab tracks the whale, using his memory and his navigating instruments,
Ishmael busies himself weaving mats and daydreaming about the fates that
are woven for men—and whether their free will
has the power to overcome fate. Suddenly whales are sighted, boats are
lowered, and the chase is on. Ahab rides in a boat with five men who include
an Asian named Fedallah (also called the Parsee). Ahab had arranged for
Fedallah and four of his Parsee friends to serve as his rowers but concealed
them on the ship until they were needed. (A Parsee is a native of
India who subscribes to Zoroastrianism, a religion that originated in Persia.)
eventful happens during the outing, but crew members become suspicious
of Fedallah. Stubb imagines that he is the devil in disguise, come to help
Ahab kill the whale in return for Ahab’s soul. Later, Fedallah tells Ahab,
“Ere thou couldst die on this voyage, two hearses must verily be seen by
thee on the sea; the first not made by mortal hands; and the visible wood
of the last one must be grown in America" (Chapter 117). Ahab takes this
as a good omen, meaning Moby Dick will die. (It is actually a prophecy
that comes true before the whale kills Ahab.) Of Fedallah, the narrator
a muffled mystery to the last. Whence he came in a mannerly world like
this, by what sort of unaccountable tie he soon evinced himself to be linked
with Ahab's peculiar fortunes; nay, so far as to have some sort of a half-hinted
influence; Heaven knows, but it might have been even authority over him;
all this none knew. But one cannot sustain an indifferent air concerning
Fedallah. He was such a creature as civilized, domestic people in the temperate
zone only see in their dreams, and that but dimly; but the like of whom
now and then glide among the unchanging Asiatic communities, especially
the Oriental isles to the east of the continent—those
insulated, immemorial, unalterable countries, which even in these modern
days still preserve much of the ghostly aboriginalness of earth's primal
generations, when the memory of the first man was a distinct recollection,
and all men his descendants, unknowing whence he came, eyed each other
as real phantoms, and asked of the sun and the moon why they were created
and to what end; when though, according to Genesis, the angels indeed consorted
with the daughters of men, the devils also, add the uncanonical Rabbins,
indulged in mundane amours. (Chapter 50).........Meanwhile,
Ishmael writes his will and makes Queequeg his executor.
ship named Albatross approaches, but the Pequod passes by
without slowing to exchange information. (In sea lore, an albatross—a
large gliding bird of the South Pacific—brings
bad luck, as noted in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s long poem The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner.) The narration then reviews how the world
has depicted whales in words and pictures, discusses the allure and mystique
of the sea, and reports on the sighting of a sea creature—thought
to be Moby Dick—that turns out to be a squid.
the Indian Ocean, Stubb’s men kill a sperm whale, and the narration then
describes the skills and derring-do required of the typical harpooner.
As Stubb and other crew members dine on whale meat after returning aboard,
the narration reviews the history of the whale as a food. Ahab, meanwhile,
thinks only of Moby Dick—and revenge.
ship, the Jeroboam, approaches. The Pequod pulls alongside
for a a gam (a conversation between ships) and learns that a Jeroboam
crew member, Macey, was killed by Moby Dick. Stubb and Flask kill another
whale, Queequeg rescues Tashtego after he falls overboard, Ishmael tells
the reader more about whales, and the Pequod meets another ship,
the Jungfrau. Its captain, Derick de Deer, borrows some lamp
oil from the Pequod. Whales appear at this time, and de Deer and
his men try to be beat Stubb and a boat full of Pequod men to the
prize. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo all harpoon the whale, throwing their
harpoons over the German boat. Alas, the whale begins sinking, and the
cuts it loose. Meanwhile, the Jungfrau sails off in quest of another
then presents more information about whales, and the Pequod enters
the Java Sea, where it outruns Malay pirates, takes another whale, and
encounters a French ship, the Bouton de Rose (Rose-button
or Rose-bud), which has two foul-smelling whale carcasses lashed to
its sides. When the Pequod comes alongside, Stubb persuades the
French captain of the ship—through translations by an Englishman called
the Guernsey Man, who detests the captain as a "conceited ignoramus" (Chapter
91)—that the dead whales carry a fever that could infect the crew of the
de Rose. The captain orders the whales to be cut loose. Stubb, well
knowing that even these stinking carcasses contain a precious commodity,
then has his men take control of a whale. While the French ship sales away,
he cuts open the whale and finds ambergris, worth a gold guinea for every
ounce. This waxy substance, found in the intestines
of whales, brings a handsome price for its value as an ingredient in perfumes
and cosmetics. Turks use it in cooking; wine makers use it to enhance the
flavor of claret. Stubb takes six handfuls in all.
the next whale chase, one of the shipkeepers—crew
members who man the ship while other crewmen row the lowered boats and
wield harpoons—is pressed into service on
one of the boats. He is a small man, a Negro named Pippin (called Pip for
short), who is terrified by the churning sea and frantic battle for a whale.
He jumps out, and a whale is lost when his mates rescue him. Warned never
to repeat his cowardly behavior, he jumps out again when a second whale
is chased—and this time, taken—and
goes insane after he is rescued.
meets another ship, the Samuel Enderby, an English vessel under
a Captain Boomer. When Ahab inquires about Moby Dick, Boomer shows him
an arm prosthesis made of whale bone. Boomer lost his arm during a vain
struggle against the great white whale, and he has no further desire to
pursue the whale. Ahab, on the other hand, becomes all the more determined
to track and kill the whale. He refuses to call off the relentless pursuit
when sperm oil begins leaking from casks below. Meanwhile, Queequeg comes
down with a fever and, believing he will die, has the ship’s carpenter
build him a coffin in which he plans to float off. However, he suddenly
recovers, saying he has decided not to die.
the Pequod enters the Pacific, Ahab orders the ship's blacksmith,
Perth, to forge a special harpoon for Moby Dick, "one that a thousand
yoke of fiends could not part, Perth; something that will stick in a whale
like his own fin-bone" (Chapter 113). It is to be fashioned from the nail
stubs of the shoes of racing horses. "These stubbs will weld together like
glue from the melted bones of murderers" (Chapter 113), Ahab says. When
the harpoon nears completion, Ahab gets the three non-Christian harpooners—Queequeg,
Tashtego, and Daggoo—to donate heathen blood
with which to temper it. Then he baptizes the harpoon in the name of the
devil, using Latin words: "Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris,
sed in nomine diaboli!" (Chapter 113), which mean I do not baptize thee
in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil!)
the Pequod comes abreast of another ship, the Bachelor, in
the Pacific Ocean, its captain can provide no information about the whereabouts
of Moby Dick. He says he does not believe the whale even exists. When
Ahab asks its captain whether he has seen Moby Dick, the captain replies,
"No; only heard of him; but don't believe in him at all." The captain invites
Ahab aboard, but Ahab sails on, harvesting more whales
and then encountering a typhoon. The ship fights for its life and survives
the storm. Starbuck—fearing that Ahab’s mad
quest will end in disaster—considers killing
Ahab, but relents.
a moment of excessive pride, Ahab deliberately breaks his quadrant, a navigational
instrument, declaring that he will rely on the compass and his own skills
to guide the ship henceforth.
toy! babies' plaything of haughty Admirals, and Commodores, and Captains;
the world brags of thee, of thy cunning and might; but what after all canst
thou do, but tell the poor, pitiful point, where thou thyself happenest
to be on this wide planet, and the hand that holds thee: no! not one jot
more! . . . Curse thee, thou quadrant!" dashing it to the deck, "no longer
will I guide my earthly way by thee; the level ship's compass, and the
level deadreckoning, by log and by line; THESE shall conduct me, and show
me my place on the sea. Aye," lighting from the boat to the deck, "thus
I trample on thee, thou paltry thing that feebly pointest on high; thus
I split and destroy thee!" (Chapter 118).........After
the Pequod rides tradewinds into equatorial waters, it meets the
Its captain says he lost several whalers, including his son, while out
in boats chasing Moby Dick, and importunes Ahab to join the search for
the lost men.
God's sake—I beg, I conjure"—here
exclaimed the . . . Captain to Ahab, who thus far had but icily received
his petition. "For eight-and-forty hours let me charter your ship—I
will gladly pay for it, and roundly pay for it—if
there be no other way—for eight-and-forty
hours only—only that—you
must, oh, you must, and you SHALL do this thing . . . I will not go," said
the stranger, "till you say aye to me. Do to me as you would have me do
to you in the like case. For YOU too have a boy, Captain Ahab—though
but a child, and nestling safely at home now—a
child of your old age too—Yes, yes, you relent;
I see it—run, run, men, now, and stand by
to square in the yards." (Chapter 128).........But
Ahab tells him, "Captain Gardiner, I will not do it. Even now I lose time.
Good-bye, good-bye. God bless ye, man, and may I forgive myself, but I
later meets another ship, the
Delight, which has lost five men to
Moby Dick. Ahab is undaunted.
the Pequod sights the whale, and a fight to the death begins. On the third
day of the battle, Starbuck pleads in vain with the captain to call off
the chase. Ahab is adamant; the chase must go on. When the great whale
begins wreaking destruction, Ahab speaks his final words, echoing the prophecy
spoken earlier by Fedallah:
thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I
grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I
spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common
pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still
chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! THUS, I give up the
spear!" (Chapter 135)In the
end, the charging whale destroys the boats and the Pequod itself.
Everyone except Ishmael dies. He survives by clinging to the coffin built
for Queequeg, and the Rachel rescues him.
Antagonist: The Whale,
Symbolizing the Forces Working Against Ahab
seaman and narrator of most of the action. The first two sentences of his
narration in Chapter 1 make up one of the most famous passages in American
literature: "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having
little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on
shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of
Ahab: Captain of
the Pequod. He lost a leg to Moby Dick and replaced it with a prosthesis
made of whale bone. Ruled by vengeance, his main goal in life is to track
and kill the great whale. The narrator says of him, "There was an infinity
of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the
fixed and fearless, forward dedication of [his] glance. . . [M]oody stricken
Ahab stood before [the crew] with a crucifixion in his face; in all the
nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe" (Chapter 28). Ahab
commands the respect of his men—indeed, they fear him—and he easily manipulates
them into becoming enthusiastic pursuers of Moby Dick, telling them, "Whosoever
of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked
jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that hite-headed whale, with three holes
punctured in his starboard fluke—look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that
same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!" (Chapter 36).
Starbuck: First mate
of the Pequod. He is a Quaker and a native of Nantucket. The narrator
describes him as "a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast,
seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked
biscuit" (Chapter 26). Starbuck, a morally upright man, opposes Ahab's
monomaniacal search for the white whale. Ahab's diabolical quest is a form
of blasphemy, he tells the captain.
Stubb: Second mate
of the Pequod and a native of Cape Cod, Mass. The narrator says
he was "happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they
came with an
indifferent air; and while
engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and
collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy,
and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter
were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests" (Chapter 27).
Flask: Third mate
of the Pequod and a native of Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
The narrator says that he was a "short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very
pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great
leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore
it was a sort of point of honour with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.
So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of
their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension
any possible danger from
encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but
a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little
circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to
kill and boil."
Peleg: Quaker who
was chief mate of the Pequod for many years before he captained
his own ship. After retiring he became one of the principals owner of the
Bildad: Quaker who
is a retired whaleman and one of the principal owners of the Pequod.
Father Mapple: New
Bedford clergyman who preaches a sermon about Jonah and the whale.
from a remote island called Rokovoko, where his father is a king. Wishing
to travel to Christian lands, he takes to the sea on a passing ship and
becomes a whaleman, learning the ways of Christians, wearing their clothes,
and attempting to speak their tongue. After he meets Ishmael in New Bedford,
they become good friends. In Nantucket, they both sign on with Peleg and
Bildad to serve aboard the Pequod.
aboard the Pequod. He is a Indian from Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard,
aboard the Pequod. He is a gigantic Negro who has served many years
Peter Coffin: Proprietor
of the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Mass.
Elijah: Crazed stranger
with ominous words for Ishmael.
Fedallah (the Parsee):
Sinister crewman whom the Pequod hands think has diabolical connections.
Ahab had hired him and four other Parsees as rowers of his boat but concealed
them on the Pequod from the other crew members until their services
were needed. A Parsee is a native of India who subscribes to Zoroastrianism,
a religion that originated in Persia. Besides serving as a rower, Fedallah
is a kind of advisor to Ahab in mystical and mysterious matters.
Other Parsees: Rowers
of Ahab's boat under their leader, Fedallah.
Hosea Hussey: Proprietor
of the Try Pots Inn in Nantucket.
Mrs. Hussey: Wife
of Hosea. She runs the inn for her husband. Ishmael and Queequeg eat and
sleep there while in Nantucket.
Betty: Girl who works
for Mrs. Hussey.
Aunt Charity: Sister
of Bildad. She is a kind woman who helps her brother and the crew load
supplies on the Pequod. Aunt Charity, along with other townspeople, owns
shares in the Pequod.
on the packet schooner that takes Ishmael and Queequeg to Nantucket. When
he ridicules Queequeg, the latter throws him high in the air, frightening
the man, who complains to the captain. Moments later, as the wind whips,
the man falls overboard. Queequeg saves him and wins the admiration of
the captain and the greenhorn.
who sets sail on the Pequod just after completing a four-year voyage
on another ship.
Perth: The Pequod's
Fleece: The Pequod's
Dough-Boy: The Pequod's
Pip (Pippin): Black
youth from Alabama who serves as shipkeeper. He goes insane during a whale
Mayhew: Captain of
Macey: Chief mate
of the Jeroboam. When he took a boat crew out in pursuit of Moby
Dick, the whale killed with a sweep of tail.
of the Jeroboam who had prophesied doom for Macey. He also prophesies
doom for Ahab when the Jeroboam and the Pequod cross paths.
Derick de Deer: Captain
of the Jungfrau, a ship that pulls alongside the Pequod. Captain
de Deer borrows some lamp oil from the Pequod. Whales appear at
this time, and de Deer and his men try to be beat Stubb and a boat full
Pequod men to the prize. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo all harpoon
the whale, throwing their harpoons over the German boat. Alas, the whale
begins sinking, and the Pequod cuts it loose. Meanwhile, the Jungfrau
sails off in quest of another whale.
Guernsey Man: Chief
mate of the Bouton de Rose (Rose-button, Rose-bud), a French
ship with two foul-smelling whale carcasses lashed to its sides. When the
encounters it, Stubb persuades the French captain of the ship—through translations
by the Guernsey Man, who detests the captain as a "conceited ignoramus—that
the dead whales carry a fever that could infect the entire crew. The captain
orders the whales to be cut loose. Stubb, well knowing that even these
stinking carcasses contain a precious commodity, then has his men take
control of the whales. While the French ship sales away, he cuts open a
whale and finds ambergris, worth a gold guinea for every ounce.
of the Rachel. When his ship pulls alongside the Pequod,
he asks Ahab to help him find his son, who set out from the Rachel
in a whaleboat with other men and drifted off.
Boomer: When the
Pequod encounters the Samuel Enderby, Ahab confers with its English
captain, Boomer, who lost an arm after suffering a wound in an encounter
with Moby Dick. He informs Ahab that Moby Dick is heading east.
Dr. Bunger: Ship
surgeon on the Enderby. He amputated captain Boomer's arm.
Carpenter on the Samuel
He fashioned a prosthetic arm for Boomer out of whale bone.
Captain of the Bachelor:
In the Pacific near Japan, the Pequod meets the Bachelor.
When Ahab asks its captain whether he has seen Moby Dick, the captain replies,
"No; only heard of him; but don't believe in him at all." The captain invites
Ahab aboard, but Ahab sails on.
Captain of the Delight:
In the Pacific, the Pequod meets the Delight. The captain
of the Delight tells Ahab he encountered Moby Dick and lost five
men to the whale. He tells Ahab that no harpoon can kill the whale.
seaman on the middle-watch who hears a noise made by the five stowaways
who later emerge and serve as Ahab's rowers. (Chapter 43).
seaman on the middle-watch.
aboard the Town-Ho, a whaling ship that provides Ahab news of Moby
Other Pequod Crewmen
(as Mentioned in Chapter 40)
Second Nantucket Sailor
Third Nantucket Sailor
Fourth Nantucket Sailor
Fifth Nantucket Sailor
Long Island Sailor
Old Manx Sailor
St. Jago's Sailor
1 takes place in New York City, on the island of Manhattan (which Ishmael
calls Manhatto). In Chapter 2 the action shifts to New Bedford, Mass. Ishmael
arrives there on a Saturday in December and remains there until Monday,
when he and his new acquaintance, Queequeg, take a packet schooner to Nantucket,
Mass. IThe schooner arrives in Nantucket on Monday evening (Chapter 14).
Ishmael and Queequeg sign up for service on a ship called the Pequod,
and several days later—on Christmas Day—it sets sail (Chapter 22). The
rest of the action takes place at sea on the Pequod, a weather-beaten
ship, and on whaling boats sent out from the Pequod. The novel ends
when the whale destroys the Pequod. Another ship, the Rachel
picks up Ishmael, who survives by floating on a coffin.
cannot penetrate to the heart of the great power, the primal force, that
controls the world and appears to manipulate the destinies of its inhabitants.
Moby Dick represents this inscrutable, mysterious power—God to some; Satan,
Fate, or another force to others. Ahab and other seamen may harpoon the
whale, but they cannot harvest it. In attempting to kill the great whale,
Ahab is like Adam attempting to harvest
unrevealed knowledge by eating the apple in the Garden of Eden. Ahab has
also been compared to the Greek god Prometheus,
who defied Zeus by stealing fire from heaven and giving it to man.
whiteness of Moby Dick is significant: White produces all the colors
of the spectrum when it passes through a prism, suggesting that Moby Dick
embodies all the subtle hues—in their millions of variations—of knowledge.
How can a man hope to separate and process these hues? Ishmael reflects
this idea in his frequent narrative digressions that define and describe
whales. Though these digressions are long and exhaustive, full of technical
detail, they never completely capture the nature of the whale and its meaning
to, and impact on, human beings. The whiteness also suggests doom, as did
the albatross, a white bird, in "The Rime of the Ancient
Revenge: After Ahab
lost a leg to the whale, he dedicated his life to seeking vengeance against
Monomania: Ahab is
a man obsessed. Nothing can stop him in his quest for Moby Dick. He even
refuses to help the captain of the Rachel search for his son.
Blasphemy: As a mysterious
and inscrutable thing, Moby Dick represents divine power. Starbuck apparently
understands what the whale stands for when he tells Ahab, "Vengeance on
a dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness!
To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous." It is
also worth noting that Ahab invokes the devil when he "baptizes" a harpoon
Man Against Nature:
In Moby Dick, the crew of the Pequod battles the sea and
its largest and most fearsome creature.
is a Christian and Queequeg a pagan. Yet they tolerate each other's beliefs
and become good friends. Other members of the crew also generally accept
one another and tolerate one another's beliefs even though they come from
countries with sharply contrasting cultural and religious backgrounds.
Among these countries are China, Iceland, France, India, Chile, Denmark,
Isolation: Ahab generally
keeps to himself aboard ship, save when he speaks to his crew to rally
them in the quest for Moby Dick. In the pursuit of the whale, he leaves
home and family and even renounces his humanity, in a manner of speaking,
when he refuses to help the captain of the Rachel find his son.
First- and Third-Person Points of View
presents most of the narration in first-person point of view. However,
an omniscient narrator takes over the story in some chapters, telling it
in third-person point of view. For example, an omniscient narrator reports
the first nine paragraphs of Chapter 29. Beginning with the tenth paragraph
of that same chapter, the omniscient narrator presents the thoughts of
Stubb as a quotation in first-person point of view.
chapters are in the form of soliloquies, presenting the thoughts of a single
character as if he were speaking to an audience from a stage. Melville
appears to have borrowed this format from playwrights he read, including
Shakespeare. In fact, there is even a "stage direction" preceding the first
paragraph of Chapter 39: Stubb Solus, and Mending a Brace. Solus
(Latin for alone) was used by Shakespeare and other playwrights
to indicate that a character appears alone on a stage. The previous two
chapters (37 and 38) are also in the form of soliloquies.
Savages: A Major Literary Motif
ancient times, writers have often depicted aboriginal or uncivilized people
as noble—untainted by the corrupt ways of civilization. Greek and Latin
authors, such as Homer and Ovid, were sympathetic to some primitive peoples
in their writings. In 1672, the English poet, critic and dramatist John
Dryden coined the term noble savage in a play called The Conquest
of Granada. Between 1760 and 1780, the French writer and philosopher
Jean-Jacques Rousseau popularized the concept of the noble savage in his
writings. In Moby Dick, Melville developed this motif with three
“noble savages": the harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo. For example,
he depicts Queequeg—a tattooed savage who sells shrunken heads—as being
more tolerant and benevolent than the civilized Christian whalers.
literature a microcosm is a small world—a family, a workplace, a town,
a school—with people of varying personalities and backgrounds, like the
world at large. The Pequod is a microcosm, for its crew is made
up of blacks and whites, heathens and Christians, the weak and the strong,
the humble and the proud, the cowardly and the courageous. The qualities
and characteristics of the crew of this small world—bigotry, piety, greed,
tolerance, and so on—reflect those of the world in general.
Prophecies, and Foreboding Symbols
Dick is full
of auguries, warnings, divinations, and foreboding symbols intended to
suggest the fate of the characters. Here are examples:
first three words of Chapter 1 are Call me Ishmael. In the Book
of Genesis in the Old Testament, Ishmael was the name of the son of the
Hebrew patriarch Abraham and Hagar, a servant of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.
After Sarah—long barren—gave birth to Isaac, she persuaded Abraham to cast
out Ishmael, who became a wanderer. In Moby Dick, the narrator Ishmael
leaves New York City to wander the seas on a whaler.
Elijah and Ahab
Chapter 19, a prophetic figure—a man named Elijah—meets Ishmael and Queequeg
on a Nantucket Street. He is dressed in ragged clothes and speaks in sentences
that only half-reveal their meanings. Ishmael thinks him daft, "broken
loose from somewhere." But before Ishmael and Queequeg can walk away from
him, he says, "Ye've shipped, have ye? Names down on the papers? Well,
well, what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again,
perhaps it won't be, after all. Anyhow, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready;
and some sailors or other must go with him [Captain Ahab], I suppose; as
well these as any other men, God pity 'em!"
the Old Testament (1 Kings 16-22), Elijah predicts calamity for Ahab, king
of Israel, and his wife Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel had aroused the wrath
of God for promoting the worship of the god Baal and for causing the death
of Naboth to gain control of his vineyards. The Lord tells Elijah to tell
Ahab, "In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth, dogs shall lick
your blood, even yours." Elijah carries out the Lord's order. He also tells
Ahab that he will lose his prosperity and that his male heirs will die.
Jezebel, he says, will be eaten by dogs. Eventually, Ahab dies in battle,
and dogs lick his blood from a chariot. Jezebel and the sons of Ahab also
die, as Elijah had predicted.
Dick, the fictional Elijah's appearance and pronouncements foreshadow
doom for Captain Ahab, who—like his biblical counterpart—rejects the Lord.
In speaking of the captain, Elijah calls him “Old Thunder," suggesting
that he is a portent of storms to come. Later, the godly Quaker Starbuck
warns Ahab in plain words to end his diabolical quest, saying, "God, God
is against thee, old man; forbear! 'tis an ill voyage! ill begun, ill continued;
let me square the yards, while we may, old man, and make a fair wind of
it homewards, to go on a better voyage than this."
Coffins and Other Symbols
ominous sign is the repetition of the word coffin throughout the
novel. Ishmael mentions it in the first chapter of the novel—I find
myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses—to call attention
to his gloomy mood. In Chapter 2, when he comes across the Spouter Inn
in New Bedford and discovers that the proprietor's name is Peter Coffin,
he says, "Coffin?—Spouter?—Rather ominous in that particular connexion,
Nantucket, Ishmael has an uneasy feeling when arrives at the entrance of
the Try Pots inn (Chapter 15):
Two enormous wooden
pots painted black, and suspended by asses' ears, swung from the cross-trees
of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the
cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast
looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such
impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with
a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the
two remaining horns; yes, TWO of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me.
It's ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first
whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen's chapel; and here
a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing
out oblique hints touching Tophet?In the Old Testament, Tophet
(or Topheth) is a place outside the walls of Jerusalem where children were
sacrificed to the god Moloch (2 Kings 23:10). Thenceforth, the word became
a synonym for hell.
Chapter 51, Ishmael presents this impression of Ahab walking the deck in
the moonlight: "While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck,
every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death
this old man walked."
Chapter 78, while crewmen are processing a whale, Tashtego falls into its
head and disappears into a waxy substance called spermaceti. After Queequeg
saves him, Ishmael says, "Now, had Tashtego perished in that head, it had
been a very precious perishing; smothered in the very whitest and daintiest
of fragrant spermaceti; coffined, hearsed, and tombed in the secret inner
chamber and sanctum sanctorum of the whale.
are other important references to coffins, including Queequeg's, as well
as one mentioned by Fedallah in a prophecy concerning Ahab.
The Pequod and the Pequots
derives its name from "Pequot," the name of a small band of American Indians
of the Algonquian (or Algonkian) language group. The Pequots lived on the
east coast of the New World in what is now Connecticut. When British expansionism
provoked a war with these Indians, the British killed many of them. Surviving
Pequots were later tracked down and killed, sold into slavery, or absorbed
into other tribes. By Herman Melville’s time, the Pequots had all but disappeared
from America. Thus, the word "Pequot" became associated with eventual death
and destruction. Melville changed the letter “t" to “d" in naming Ahab’s
Resemblance to Plays
read widely and drew upon his literary knowledge when constructing his
novel. In some respects,
Moby Dick resembles the tragedies of the
ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. In Sophocles’ Theban plays, notably
Rex and Antigone,
powerful rulers fall victim to a fatal character flaw, great pride (or
hubris)—Oedipus in Oedipus Rex and Creon in Antigone. In
Dick, Ahab, the ruler of a ship, also falls victim to pride as he blasphemes
God and arrogantly rejects the advice of others, believing to the end that
he can defeat the bane of his existence, the great white whale. Melville’s
novel also resembles Shakespeare’s Macbeth
in that the development of the plot and the suspense that carries it along
both depend on portents and prophecies. In Macbeth, it is the witches
who make ominous pronouncements; in Moby Dick it is Elijah and others.
Dick has also been compared with Shakespeare's King
Dick, Melville uses vivid imagery laden with allusions—some of them
obscure and easily missed by the reader. Following is a passage containing
such an allusion, which helps to reveal Ahab's thoughts. It also contains
several striking figures of speech.
Yonder, by ever-brimming
goblet's rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the
blue. The diver sun—slow dived from noon—goes down; my soul mounts up!
she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I
wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I
the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that,
that dazzlingly confounds. 'Tis iron—that I know—not gold. 'Tis split,
too—that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against
the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet
in the most brain-battering fight! (Chapter 37)Here, the world becomes a goblet
(metaphor). The setting sun makes the goblet's contents, the waves, “blush
like wine" (simile). As the sun goes down, Ahab's soul rises on a journey
up an endless hill (metaphor and personification comparing the soul to
a person climbing a hill). Then comes the obscure allusion, centering on
Ahab's comparison of himself and his suffering to Christ and His crucifixion.
Ahab makes these comparisons through his reference to the Iron Crown of
Lombardy. This crown, preserved in a cathedral in the city of Monza in
northern Italy, is a jewel-studded wonder. Running around it, inside, is
a thin iron band said to have been hammered into its shape from a nail
from the cross on which Christ was crucified. St. Helena (AD 248?-328?),
the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine I, was said to have found the
cross on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When Ahab notes that he figuratively
wears this crown, he is not declaring that he is a holy man. Rather, he
is placing himself on the same level as Christ and, at the same time, proclaiming
that he carries a Christ-like burden. The passage helps to illuminate his
allusions are not so obscure. For example, the one in the following passage
refers to a Bible story with which most Christians are familiar:
It may seem strange
that of all men sailors should be tinkering at their last wills and testaments,
but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This
was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing.
After the ceremony was concluded upon the present occasion, I felt all
the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days
I should now live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after
his resurrection; a supplementary clean gain of so many months or weeks
as the case might be. I survived myself; my death and burial were locked
up in my chest. I looked round me tranquilly and contentedly, like a quiet
ghost with a clean conscience sitting inside the bars of a snug family
here begins with "a stone was rolled away from my heart," then continues
in the next sentence. In the Gospel of St. John (Chapter 11, Verses 1-44),
the sisters of a man named Lazarus asked Jesus to to visit Lazarus, who
was ill. But by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had died and had lain in
a tomb for four days. Jesus then ordered the stone rolled back from the
tomb, a cave, and called to Lazarus to come forth. Lazarus then emerged
from the tomb.
Climax and Denouement
climax of the novel occurs when Ahab spots Moby Dick and begins the fight
it to the death. The denouement occurs when the whale destroys the Pequod
and Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg's coffin.
Descriptions of Whales
on the description and habits of whales—including
the sperm, the hump-backed, the fin-back, and the sulphur bottom—frequently
interrupt the main narrative. These technical expositions help undergird
the novel with an air of authenticity. Ishmael himself points out the importance
these expositions at the beginning of Chapter 51:
far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and, indeed, as indirectly
touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits
of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important
a one as will be found in this volume; but the leading matter of it requires
to be still further and more familiarly enlarged upon, in order to be adequately
understood, and moreover to take away any incredulity which a profound
ignorance of the entire subject may induce in some minds, as to the natural
verity of the main points of this affair.Recurring
The Number 3 appears
to be significant in Moby Dick inasmuch as so many groupings of
three occur in the novel. Consider, for example, the following:
Three words: The first chapter
opens with three words: Call me Ishmael.
Three cities: Early in the
novel, Ishmael goes from New York City to New Bedford and then to Nantucket.
Three inns: Ishmael mentions
three New Bedford inns (The Crossed Harpoons, the Sword-Fish, and the Spouter).
Three memorials: In a chapel
in New Bedford, Ishmael sees marble tablets memorializing sailors lost
at sea. He cites the dedication on three of them.
Three-day ordeal: Ishmael
hears a sermon about Jonah and the three days he spent inside a whale.
Three days of suffering:
In Chapter 19, Elijah speaks to Ishmael and Queequeg of "that thing that
happened to [Captain Ahab] off Cape Horn, long ago, when he lay like dead
for .......three days and nights . . . ."
Three ships: Ishmael selects
the Pequod from among three ships going to sea.
Three captains: Ishmael
meets three captains (Peleg, Bildad, and Ahab).
Three mates: The Pequod
has three mates (Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask).
Three harpooners: The Pequod
has three main harpooners (Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo).
Three-year voyage: The Pequod
is on a scheduled three-year voyage.
Three-person family: Ahab
has a wife and a child.
Three years on land: In
his 40 years as a seaman, Ahab has spent only three years on land.
Three punctures: In describing
Moby Dick, Ahab says the whale has "three holes punctured in his starboard
fluke." Starboard means on the right;
to a lobe on the tail. The puncture holes were caused by harpoons.
Three-day struggle: The
battle with Moby Dick lasts three days.
What these groupings of three
represent is open to interpretation. They could symbolize the war between
the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and Ahab, who blasphemously
regards himself as an opposing diabolical trinity, as indicated in the
following passage from Chapter 99, when Ahab paces the deck of the Pequod
and stops before gold doubloon, nailed to the main mast, to be rewarded
to the man who first sights Moby Dick. In this passage, Ahab interprets
the images on the coin.
ever egotistical in mountain-tops and towers, and all other grand and lofty
things; look here,—three peaks as proud as Lucifer. The firm tower, that
is Ahab; the volcano, that is Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and
victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are Ahab; and this round gold
is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician's glass,
to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.
Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world to solve them; it
cannot solve itself. Methinks now this coined sun wears a ruddy face; but
see! aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six months
before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm!
So be it, then. Born in throes, 't is fit that man should live in pains
and die in pangs! So be it, then! Here's stout stuff for woe to work on.
So be it, then.Nautical Terms
aft: At or near the
rear of a ship.
ambergris: Waxy substance
in the intenstines of whales. It can be used in making perfumes.
avast: Halt, stop,
pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of a ship's deck crew.
bow: Front part of
spar on the the bow to which mast stay are secured.
bulwark: Side of
a ship that is above a deck.
deck: Floor on a
pronounced COX un): Sailor who pilots a ship's oar-powered boat.
fore: At or near
the front of ship.
pronounced FOHK sl): Upper deck in the front of a ship.
hull: Body of a ship.
foremast: Mast near
the front of the ship.
frigate: Fast warship
of medium size of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had square
sails and could carry up to sixty cannons.
halyard: Rope with
which to lower or raise a sail or flag.
harpoon: Spear with
a barbed tip and an attached rope.
helm: Wheel that
steers a ship.
who mans the helm.
hold: Interior part
of a ship where cargo is stored.
lanyards: Short ropes
used on a ship to fasten something; cord pulled to fire a cannon; short
rope that a sailor wears around his neck to attach tools.
larboard: Left side
of a ship as one faces forward.
lee: Side of a ship
that is away from the wind.
linstock: Stick with
a forked end that holds a burning match. It is used to fire a cannon.
mast: Vertical pole
(spar) that supports the sails and ropes on a ship.
masthead: Top of
part of a ship; pat of a ship halfway between the stern and the bow.
having to do with the mizzenmast.
mizzenmast: In ships
with at least three masts, the mast third from the front of a ship
monkey jacket: Tight-fitting
sailor's jacket covering the upper body from shoulders to waist.
port: Left side of
a ship as one faces forward.
of the upper deck, where officers convene or special ceremonies are held.
reef: Part of a sail
that can be rolled up and secured to reduce the effect of high winds on
up part of a sail.
sailing master: Ship's
opening in the hull or deck of a ship.
with seventy-four cannons. Some warships had more than one hundred cannons;
others had as few as twenty.
shrouds: Ropes running
from the side of a ship to the top of a mast to keep the mast steady.
spirit locker: Place
for the storage of liquor.
side of the ship as one faces forward.
stern: Rear part
of a ship.
in charge of food stores and dining arrangements.
taffrail: Rail around
the stern of a ship.
tiller: Handle for
turning the rudder of a boat.
whaler: Ship that
on which a docked ship unloads; structure from which workers load a ship.
windward: In the
direction from which the wind blows; facing the wind.
pole, tapering at the ends, that supports the sails of a ship.
yardarm: Half of
Questions and Essay Topics
Which character in the novel
do you most admire? Which character do you least admire?
Moby Dick is an albino sperm
whale. The typical male sperm whale attains a length of about 60 feet,
can submerge to a depth of more than half a mile, and—after loading up
with oxygen on the surface—can stay under water for up to an hour. Although
most sperm whales travel in groups, a few strike out on their own. Write
an informative essay on this fascinating creature. In your essay, include
a section that discusses whether a sperm whale like Moby Dick could have
existed and whether such a whale possessed the intelligence to do what
Moby Dick did in Melville's novel.
Write an essay comparing and
contrasting the nobility (or lack of it) of the savage harpooners (Queequeg,
Tashtego, and Daggoo) with other crewmen. Before beginning your
research, please read Noble Savages on this
Several characters in the novel
have biblical names. Among them are Ishmael, Ahab, and Elijah. Do these
characters resemble in any way the persons in the Bible?
What do you believe Moby Dick
Melville, was born in New York City on Aug. 1, 1819, and died there on
Sept. 28, 1891. His name was Herman Melvill until 1832, when the family
added the final "e" to the name. He was one of eight children, four boys
and four girls. Melville taught school briefly in Pittsfield, Mass., studied
surveying, served as a cabin boy on a voyage to Liverpool, England, and
in 1841 joined the crew of the whaling ship Acushnet for a voyage
to the South Seas. He jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands and spent time
there with the native people according to unconfirmed accounts. He also
reportedly served on an Australian whaler, the Lucy Ann. Later,
in Nantucket, Mass., he was hired as a harpooner on the Charles &
Henry, then quit the ship in the Hawaiian Islands and signed on as
a seaman with a frigate, the United States, and ended his sea career
in 1844. His sea background, along with his extensive reading of the great
works of literature, provided him the raw material for Moby Dick
and other books, as well as short stories.