By Herman Melville (1819-1891)
A Study Guide
.........With 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.
.........On 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.
.........After 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.
.........At 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 Pequod, 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.
.........When 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 crew.
.........After 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.
.........The 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 named Daggoo.
.........Ishmael 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
.........Like 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 of lookouts.
.........One 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.
.........Ishmael 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 man.
.........While 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.)
.........Nothing 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 says, he
remained 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.
.........A 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.
.........In 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.
.........Another 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 Pequod cuts it loose. Meanwhile, the Jungfrau sails off in quest of another whale.
.........Ishmael 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 Bouton 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.
.........During 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.
.........The Pequod 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.
.........After 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!)
.........When 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.
.........In 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.
"Foolish 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 Rachel. 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.
"For 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 must go."
.........The Pequod later meets another ship, the Delight, which has lost five men to Moby Dick. Ahab is undaunted.
.........Finally, 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:
Towards 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.
Protagonist: Captain Ahab
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
First Nantucket SailorSettings
.......Chapter 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.
.......Man 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.
.......The 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 Mariner."
Revenge: After Ahab
lost a leg to the whale, he dedicated his life to seeking vengeance against
Narration: 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.
Savages: A Major Literary Motif
.......In 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.
Foreshadowings, Prophecies, and Foreboding Symbols
.......Moby Dick is full of auguries, warnings, divinations, and foreboding symbols intended to suggest the fate of the characters. Here are examples:
.......The 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!"
Coffins and Other Symbols of Death
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,
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.
.......In 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."
.......In 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.
.......There 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
.......Melville 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 Oedipus 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 Moby 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. Moby Dick has also been compared with Shakespeare's King Lear.
.......Throughout Moby 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 fatal hubris.
.......Other 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 vault.The allusion 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
.........The 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.
Technical Descriptions of Whales
.........Chapters 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:
So 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.
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.
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.
There's something 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.
aft: At or near the
rear of a ship.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
.......Herman 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.