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Moby Dick
By Herman Melville (1819-1891)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Publication Information
Narration: 1st, 3rd Person
Noble Savages: Major Motif
Pequod as Microcosm
Resemblance to Plays
Allusion-Laden Imagery
Climax, Denouement
Technical Descriptions
Recurring Number Three
Author Information
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Free Text
Another Melville Guide

Type of Work
.......Moby Dick (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. Moby Dick is arguably the greatest sea novel ever written. Some critics also maintain that is the greatest American novel ever written. 

Publication Information
.......Moby Dick 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.

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
Revised in 2009


.........Bored 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. 
.........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 mana native of the Pacific island of Rokovoko, near New Zealandturns 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 Ninevehto 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 Nantucketan island about fifteen miles long and three to six miles widethey 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 quarterdeckstanding tall and fast and full of resolve, the tip of his ivory leg resting in a hole bored into the deckhe 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 timesfrom the beginning of the voyage to the endeven 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 worldforces 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 menand 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 continentthose 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 albatrossa large gliding bird of the South Pacificbrings 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 creaturethought to be Moby Dickthat 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 Dickand 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 shipkeeperscrew members who man the ship while other crewmen row the lowered boats and wield harpoonsis 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 chasedand this time, takenand 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 Daggooto 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. Starbuckfearing that Ahab’s mad quest will end in disasterconsiders 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 sakeI 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 shipI will gladly pay for it, and roundly pay for itif there be no other wayfor eight-and-forty hours onlyonly thatyou 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 Ahabthough but a child, and nestling safely at home nowa child of your old age tooYes, yes, you relent; I see itrun, 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

Ishmael: Pequod 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 the world." 
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 of
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 Pequod.
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.
Queequeg: Harpooner 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.
Tashtego: Harpooner aboard the Pequod. He is a Indian from Gay Head on Martha's Vineyard, Mass. 
Daggoo: Harpooners aboard the Pequod. He is a gigantic Negro who has served many years at sea.
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.
Greenhorn: Passenger 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.
Bulkington: Crewman who sets sail on the Pequod just after completing a four-year voyage on another ship.
Perth: The Pequod's blacksmith.
Fleece: The Pequod's cook.
Dough-Boy: The Pequod's steward. 
Pip (Pippin): Black youth from Alabama who serves as shipkeeper. He goes insane during a whale chase.
Mayhew: Captain of the Jeroboam
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.
Gabriel: Crewman 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 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.
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 Pequod 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. 
Gardiner: Captain 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 Enderby: 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.
Archy: Pequod 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).
Cabaco: Pequod seaman on the middle-watch.
Polynesians: Crewman aboard the Town-Ho, a whaling ship that provides Ahab news of Moby Dick's movements.
Other Pequod Crewmen (as Mentioned in Chapter 40)

First Nantucket Sailor
Second Nantucket Sailor
Third Nantucket Sailor
Fourth Nantucket Sailor
Fifth Nantucket Sailor
Dutch Sailor
French Sailor
Iceland Sailor
Maltese Sailor
Sicilian Sailor
Long Island Sailor
Azores Sailor
China Sailor
Old Manx Sailor
Lascar Sailor
Tahitian Sailor
Portuguese Sailor
Danish Sailor
English Sailor
Spanish Sailor
St. Jago's Sailor
Belfast Sailor
.......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.
Main Theme
.......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."

Other Themes

Revenge: After Ahab lost a leg to the whale, he dedicated his life to seeking vengeance against the creature.
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 in blood.
Man Against Nature: In Moby Dick, the crew of the Pequod battles the sea and its largest and most fearsome creature.
Tolerance: Ishmael 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, and Spain. 
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. 

Narration: First- and Third-Person Points of View

.......Ishmael 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.
.......Several 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.

Noble Savages: A Major Literary Motif
.......Since 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.

Pequod as Microcosm
.......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

.......In 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!"
.......In 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. 
.......In Moby 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 of Death

.......Another 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, thought I."
.......In 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. 
.......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

.......The Pequod 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 ship. 

Novel's Resemblance to Plays
.......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

Allusion-Laden Imagery

.......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 whalesincluding the sperm, the hump-backed, the fin-back, and the sulphur bottomfrequently 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.
Recurring Number Three
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; fluke refers 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.

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.
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, cease.
boatswain (usually pronounced BOH zun): Officer in charge of a ship's deck crew.
bow: Front part of a ship.
bowsprit: Tapered 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 ship.
coxswain (usually pronounced COX un): Sailor who pilots a ship's oar-powered boat.
fore: At or near the front of ship.
forecastle (usually 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.
helmsman: Crewman 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.
mariner: Seaman.
mast: Vertical pole (spar) that supports the sails and ropes on a ship.
masthead: Top of a mast.
midships: Middle part of a ship; pat of a ship halfway between the stern and the bow.
mizzen: Mizzenmast; 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.
quarterdeck: Rear 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 a ship.
reefing: Rolling up part of a sail.
sailing master: Ship's navigator.
scuttle: Covered opening in the hull or deck of a ship.
seventy-four: Warship 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.
starboard: Right side of the ship as one faces forward.
stern: Rear part of a ship.
steward: Officer in charge of food stores and dining arrangements.
taffrail: Rail around the stern of a ship.
tar: Sailor.
tiller: Handle for turning the rudder of a boat.
whaler: Ship that hunts whales.
wharf: Structure 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.
yard: Horizontal pole, tapering at the ends, that supports the sails of a ship.
yardarm: Half of the yard.

Study 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 page.
  • 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 symbolizes?
Author Information .
.......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.