Book Summary: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Book Summary: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Type of work: Allegorical novel

Setting: The high Seas; early 19th century

Principal characters
Ishmael, a teacher-seaman (and narrator)
Queequeg, a hardened and savage harpooner
Ahab, captain of the Pequod
Starbuck and Stubb, Ahab’s first and secondmates
Fedallah, Captain Ahab’s Parsee servant and seer

Moby Dick Book Summary

A Massachusetts schoolmaster, Ishmael chose to give up the comfort and security of his classroom and fulfill his romantic desire to go to sea. Leaving Manhatto, he traveled to the seaport town of New Bedford to seek out work on a whaler. Ishmael’s first night in New Bedford was spent in the crusty Spouter Inn near the waterfront.

There he found the only bed available – which, by necessity, he consented to share with an unknown harpooner. His roommate turned out to be a bizarre fellow indeed, a hardened South-sea islander whose body was covered with tattoos. But after Ishmael’s initial fear had subsided, he found this “strange bedfellow,” Queequeg, to be quite friendly.

The huge man offered to share his small fortune and an embalmed human head with Ishmael. “At first I knew not what to make of this,” Ishmael said, “but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man – a whaleman too – who, falling among cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooner, in course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure.

And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.” The two men became fast friends, both signing on as harpooners aboard the Pequod, a Quaker-owned whaler out of Nantucket. There had been some question around New Bedford as to the future fate of the Pequod because of its eccentric captain, Ahab. But both Ishmael and Queequeg had no intention of changing their plans.

They set sail. For the first few days the curious captain stayed out of sight in his cabin, and the Pequod was under the command of the first and second mates, Mr Starbuck and Mr Stubb. But as the ship continued to sail southward, a stern, relentless man suddenly strode out on deck: Captain Ahab himself. Ishmael was struck by the man’s austere expression, but even more by his spectacular artificial leg; instead of a wooden leg, Ahab wore an attachment carved from the jawbone of a whale.

This was complemented by a gaping scar which ran down the side of his face into his collar, so that he appeared to be scarred from head to foot. For several days the crew sailed on in search of whaling schools. Then one day Ahab appeared on deck and summoned all the men.

He nailed a one-ounce gold piece to the mast and announced that the gold would become the property of the first man to sight the great white whale known as Moby Dick. All the men except Starbuck and Stubb were enthusiastic about the Captain’s challenge. To the two top mates, Ahab’s obsession with the white whale was far beyond reason.

Starbuck contended that the Captain’s madness over Moby Dick was a danger to those in his charge. Ahab had already lost his leg to the whale and his mates were afraid his reckless quest would end in the loss of all their lives at the next encounter. But none of this diminished the enthusiasm of the other crewmen; they drank an oath with Ahab to the destruction of the white whale.

Learning that the last sightings of the whale had been near the Cape of Good Hope, Ahab immediately plotted his course. Upon approaching the Cape, the ship came on a school of sperm whales, and the men busied themselves with harpooning and stripping the huge mammals, then melting down and storing the whale oil. When they happened upon another whaling vessel, Captain Ahab inquired further about the white whale. The captain of the ship warned him not to pursue the whale, but Ahab could not be deterred.

Later, another ship stopped the Pequod, and the captain came aboard to buy some oil. He too was interrogated by Ahab about Moby Dick, but he replied that he had no news concerning the monster. Just after he had departed the Pequod, a school of whales surfaced, and both ships’ crews set out after them.

The rival crew had a commanding lead, but the men of the Pequod, spurred on by Starbuck and Stubb, soon outdistanced them, and Queequeg harpooned the school’s largest whale. Now the work began. The carcass was dragged alongside and lashed to the ship by ropes so the men could begin to work on it. They quickly stripped off the meat and blubber before it was lost to the menacing sharks that inevitably tracked whaling vessels.

The blubber was then melted down in huge try-pots, and stored below deck. As the Pequod continued its voyage toward the Indian Ocean, the crew’s sense of excitement was high. Before long they crossed paths with an English vessel, and Ahab once again demanded news of the white whale. In answer, the English captain held forth his right arm, which consisted of whale bone from the elbow down.

Ahab quickly boarded the vessel to hear its captain’s story. The old sailor gave Ahab still another grim warning that it was foolish to pursue Moby Dick; but, pressed, the Yankee captain finally revealed the coordinates of the whale’s last sighting. Ahab then ordered the Pequod to change course for the latest haunts of Moby Dick.

Queequeg was taken ill, and it seemed sure that he would die. The ship’s carpenter was summoned to fashion a coffin in the shape of a canoe, according to the customs of Queequeg’s people. The coffin was then placed in the sick man’s cabin. When Queequeg miraculously recovered, he carved exotic designs on the sarcophagus and used it as a sea chest.

From the start of the voyage, the crew had been puzzled by the presence of the Persian, Fedallah, Captain Ahab’s highly regarded servant and seer. Now Fedallah prophesied that Ahab would die, but only after he had seen two hearses for carrying the dead upon the sea, one not constructed by human hands and the other built of wood grown in America. Ironically, neither would be for Ahab’s burial; the captain’s death, said Fedallah, would come by hemp. One night a terrible storm arose.

Lightning struck the ship, and all three masts flamed against the black sky. The men took this as an omen – the hand of God was directing them to veer from their destructive course and return home. But still Ahab refused to abandon his quarry. He planted himself at the foot of the main mast and challenged the god of evil which blazed up before him in the fire.

He was determined to find and destroy that evil-incarnate, Moby Dick. Days passed as Ahab stalked the “odour” of the white whale. Then sounded “a gull-like cry in the air, ‘there she blows! – there she blows! A hump like a snowhill! It is Moby Dick!’” The voice was that of Ahab himself, whose eyes were dim but whose passion was aflame. The boats were lowered – with Ahab, harpoon in hand, in the lead.

Then, just as the captain was about to sink his harpoon into the majestic body of the whale, it dived under the boat, splitting it to pieces. Ahab and his men were rescued; only Fedallah had disappeared beneath the waves. The hunt continued. Harpoons were lost and boats were destroyed, all for the annihilation of a beast by a madman. On the third day, the wounded Moby Dick became listless, and the boats of the Pequod quickly overtook him.

As the great whale surfaced for air, there, bound to its back by ropes from harpoons, was the body of Fedallah. The first part of the Persian’s prophecy – a hearse not humanly constructed – had come to pass. Wild with pain, Moby Dick abruptly turned on the boats, splintering them into pieces. From the deck of the Pequod, Starbuck watched the rage of the enormous beast and turned the ship towards it in hopes of saving the crew; but the infuriated animal lurched directly into the Pequod, crushing the vessel’s timbers.

Ahab, seeing his ship founder, cried out that the second part of Fedallah’s prophecy was fulfilled – the ship was constructed of American timber. The final prophecy – that Ahab’s death would come by hemp – was also shortly fulfilled. The rope from Ahab’s flung harpoon coiled about his neck and wrenched him from his boat. All the crew was lost with the ship, except for Ishmael, who found safety by grasping onto Queequeg’s floating coffin. He alone was rescued to tell the tale of Moby Dick, Ahab, and the Pequod, which, “like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her. …”

Moby Dick Book Review

Moby Dick, or The White Whale is a book of amazing depth. It can be read on several levels: for over a century it has captivated young readers, naturalists, historians and literary scholars alike. On the surface, it is both an adventure story set upon the high seas and a compendium of information about whales and the whaling industry.

But the reader who searches more deeply discovers both a complex psychological study and a powerful allegory dealing with the archetypes of good and evil struggling together within the tenets of 18th-century Calvinism. Melville wrestles in all his works with man’s place in the cosmos, endeavoring to expose the unseen forces of the universe and the effects of these forces on man.

In Moby Dick, he recognizes the power of both God and the Devil, and strains to comprehend their invisible source. The great white whale symbolizes evil; however, Ahab’s obsession to destroy the whale becomes an even darker manifestation of evil. Thus, Melville reveals, with unerring skill and passion, a dilemma that has plagued men and women since the Garden of Eden.

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