Moby-Dick is a novel by Herman Melville. Written in 1851, the story recounts the adventures of its central character, Ishmael and his voyage on the whaling ship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Believing he has signed on to an average ship, Ishmael soon learns that Ahab intends to use the Pequod and her crew, not to hunt whales for market trade but rather to hunt one specific whale; Moby Dick, a great white whale known throughout the maritime world for his legendary size and ferocity. In a previous encounter the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and in the process, caused the captain to lose his leg. Ahab now intends to exact revenge, not in service of his fellow whalers but to settle his own personal vendetta.
In telling an apparently simple story Melville employs stylised language, symbolism and metaphor to explore a number of complex themes which he believes are universal. Through the main character's journey the concepts of class and social status, good and evil and finally, the existence of God are all examined as Ishmael attempts to determine what his personal beliefs are and who he is as an individual. The narrator's reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor's life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides.
Often considered the embodiment of American Romanticism, Moby Dick was first published by Richard Bentley in London on October 18, 1851 in an expurgated three-volume edition entitled The Whale, and later as one massive volume, by New York City publisher Harper and Brothers as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on November 14 1851. The first line of Chapter One—"Call me Ishmael."—is one of the most famous in literature. Although the book initially received negative reviews, Moby-Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and has secured Melville's place among
Moby-Dick appeared in 1851, one year after Melville's good friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne published his bestseller The Scarlet Letter and one year before Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life among the Lowly appeared and caused such a stir that only the Bible would top it as the bestselling American book of the 19th century.
Two actual events inspired Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex, which foundered in 1820 after it was attacked and repeatedly rammed by an 80-ton sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,700 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Already out-of-print, the book was rare even at the time. Knowing that his son-in-law was looking for it, Lemuel Shaw managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.
The other event was the alleged killing in the 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, a name derived from his home in the waters off the Chilean
l [devil]," said I, "this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale."'" However, it has also been suggested that knowledge of Mocha Dick came to Melville in 1846 when he bumped into his old friend and shipmate Richard Tobias "Toby" Green (the model for Toby in Typee). Anyway, despite Reynolds' account, sightings of Mocha Dick continued. It seems Mocha Dick continued wrecking ships until 1859, when it is said he was finally killed without struggle by a Swedish whaler. By that time, the once mighty Mocha Dick was described to be already dying of advanced age, blind in one eye, profusely scarred, and having broken and worn-down teeth.
The most important inspiration for the novel was Melville's experiences as a sailor, in particular those during 1841-1842 on the whaler Acushnet. He had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in previous novels—Mardi the closest to Moby-Dick in its symbolic or allegorical aspirations—but he had never focused specifically on whaling.
The novel contains large chunks—most of them narrated by Ishmael—that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but describe aspects of the whaling business. Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it. Since Romantics such as Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley had greatly influenced him from an early age, he hoped to emulate them with a book that was compelling and vivid both emotionally and poetically. Early Romantics also proposed that fiction was the exemplary way to describe and record history (after all, Walter Scott had invented the historical novel, and almost all of
I am half way in the work ... It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you might get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; — and to cool the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.
Moby-Dick is a highly symbolic work, and is interesting in that it also addresses issues such as natural history. Other themes include obsession, religion, idealism versus pragmatism, revenge, racism, hierarchical relationships, and politics.
All of the members of the Pequod's crew have biblical-sounding, improbable, or descriptive names, and the narrator deliberately avoids specifying the exact time of the events and some other similar details. These together suggest that the narrator—and not just Melville—is deliberately casting his tale in an epic and allegorical mode.
The white whale itself, for example, has been read as symbolically representative of good and evil, as has Ahab. The white whale has also been seen as a metaphor for the elements of life that are out of our control, or God.
The Pequod's quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone's goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man's struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab's vision is seen through the Pequod's occasional encounters with other ships, called gams. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:
... truely to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.
Ahab's pipe is widely looked upon as the riddance of happiness in Ahab's life. By throwing the pipe overboard, Ahab signifies that he no longer can enjoy simple pleasures in life; instead, he dedicates his entire life to the pursuit of his obsession, the killing of the white whale, Moby-Dick.
A number of biblical themes occur. The book contains multiple implicit and explicit allusions to the story of Jonah, in addition to the use of certain biblical names (see below).
Ishmael's musings also allude to themes common among the American Transcendentalists and parallel certain themes in European Romanticism and the philosophy of Hegel. In the poetry of Whitman and the prose writings of Emerson and Thoreau, a ship at sea is sometimes a metaphor for the soul.
Whale biology and ecology
Sections of the novel depart from the progression of the plot entirely and discuss at great length the biology and ecology of whales and related species. Many of the claims are inaccurate —- for example, Ishmael insists that the whale is a fish, although they had been classified as mammals for almost a century (which he acknowledges dismissively).
"" is the first of two prefaces of sorts. "Supplied by a late consumptive usher to a grammar school", the word origins are for whale. Not only are Classical, Romance, and Germanic languages featured but also the usually overlooked "Feegee" (Fijian) and "Erromangoan" (Erromanga). The second preface is "Extracts", excerpts on whales culled from numerous works by "a sub-sub-librarian". Listed mostly chronologically, the quotations come from fiction, poetry, plays, anonymous sea chanties, the Bible and other religious works, legal references, histories, scientific and naturalist treatises, biographies, economic studies, philosophical texts, travelogues, reading primers, etc. The range shows a number of ways of looking at whales and the people who hunt them and use them, from materialist to political to metaphysical. Only one of the extracts is authored by a woman.
Then comes Chapter 1, "Loomings", when Ishmael, with a mixture of chattiness, seriousness, and humor, begins to talk to the reader about his temperament, the call of the sea, and his contention that every man wants at least once in his life to leave the land behind for the ocean.
Aiming to join a whaling crew, Ishmael heads for Nantucket, the older of the two
The two decide to enlist together on the Pequod, a whaler owned by three captains: Peleg, Bildad, and Ahab. Ishmael and Queequeg have yet to meet their captain when they sign ship's articles, Queequeg drawing a peculiar mark identical to one of his tattoos. Soon enough they discover that Ahab is captain for this voyage, which Peleg and Bildad hope will reap a substantial financial windfall.
As the ship sets sail, other main characters are introduced: the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask; and the three remaining harpooners, Daggoo, Tashtego, and Fedallah. For several days, though, an ill Ahab stays below decks, completely out of sight from the common sailors. Ahab finally emerges and plants himself on the quarter-deck, leading Ishmael to ponder his captain's missing leg and the ivory replacing it.
The extremely enigmatic Ahab broods and behaves erratically. He paces the deck, thudding his ivory heel. Stubb suggests that he dampen the sound, but Ahab, furious, calls him a dog. When Stubb objects to the insult, Ahab says, “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”
Ahab's eccentricities multiply and intensify. He throws his pipe off the ship. He asks his crew to yell more loudly if they spot a white whale. Then he tells the crew that a gold doubloon will go to the crewman who first spots a "white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw". He then nails the coin to the ship's mast, saying, "God hath struck a chord on this here coin!"
It turns out Tashtego has heard of this white whale, which he says some call "Moby Dick". Starbuck reveals that Moby Dick took Captain Ahab’s leg. With pressure on him mounting, Ahab admits that for him the voyage of the Pequod has no other purpose than to have his vengeance on Moby Dick.
Over the course of the story, the reader is presented with numerous apparent digressions giving scenes and details of whales, the whaling industry, and everyday whaling life. These digressions—sometimes funny, sometimes eerie, and sometimes a combination—often shed light on the ocean of symbolisms and profundities Melville gathers, delves into, plays with, and sometimes strains to surface from. On the other hand, there is always a forward-driving adventure story highlighting various whale sightings, whale hunts, and encounters (again, sometimes spooky or humorous) with other whalers. The combination of more typical plot elements with many other exploratory and curious styles and registers allows Melville to encapsulate and expand on the localized and cosmic significances of a way of life already in decline.
Toward the end of the novel, the Pequod nears Moby Dick's territory and encounters the Rachel, the master of which quickly rows over to the Pequod. He begs Ahab for help in finding a whaling-crew lost in the previous day's hunt, a crew that includes the son of the Rachel captain. When Ahab hears that the whale involved in the crew's disappearance was Moby Dick, he flatly refuses to help the Rachel so he can take up his own search for the whale.
The journey comes to its dramatic and tragic end when the Pequod, sailing despite dark portents, sights Moby Dick. For three long days the ship battles the white whale. Moby Dick shatters the Pequod’s hunting boats and then charges the ship itself, sinking it. Ahab and all the crew drown except for Ishmael, who uses the coffin built for Queequeg as a buoy. By pure luck, the still-searching Rachel sails by and rescues Ishmael.
Characters in Moby-Dick
The crew-members of the Pequod are carefully drawn stylizations of human types and habits; critics have often described the crew as a "self-enclosed universe".
Main article: Ishmael (Moby-Dick)
In the novel's first sentence, the narrator famously declares, "Call me Ishmael." It is unclear whether this is his actual name or an alias. His role as a narrator varies widely. Initially, his is the only narrative, but after the Pequod leaves port, he repeatedly fades (including the narration of several scenes he could not possibly have witnessed firsthand) and comes back to full prominence.
The name 'Ishmael' also appears in the Bible as that of the first son of Abraham in the Old Testament. The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts – in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan. Ishmael has a rich literary background (he has previously been a schoolteacher), which he brings to bear on his shipmates and events that occur while at sea.
Ishmael resembles Melville in several ways (as well as the narrator of Melville's White-Jacket), being well-educated and reflective. Ishmael sees his shipmates as archetypes of human nature and society, and tells his story couched in a vast array of detail, largely occurring during sections in which Ishmael takes an almost-omniscient viewpoint.
The character Elijah (named for the Biblical prophet, Elijah), on learning that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship, asks, "Anything down there about your souls?" When Ishmael reacts with surprise, Elijah continues:
"Oh, perhaps you hav'n't got any," he said quickly. "No matter though, I know many chaps that hav'n't got any, - good luck to 'em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon."
Later in the conversation, Elijah adds:
"Well, well, what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity 'em! Morning to ye, shipmates, morning; the ineffable heavens bless ye; I'm sorry I stopped ye."
The vague and uncertain prophet of the text, ambivalent about religion, is replaced in both the 1956 and 1998 movie adaptations with a prescient Elijah who foretells the fate of the Pequod with confident precision. The 1956 film has Elijah waving his lame arm in pantomime foretelling Ahab's demise, and Ahab (played by Gregory Peck) moves his own arm in fulfillment of Elijah's prophecy. In the 1998 television adaptation, Elijah warns that captain and crew shall all perish except one, and that by signing on they have effectively signed away their souls; Queequeg asks Ishmael what a soul is, to which Ishmael responds by leading Queequeg to a Christian church where Father Mapple (played by Gregory Peck) preaches the story of Jonah. (In the text, the Jonah sermon occurs before Ishmael meets Elijah, and Queequeg leaves the chapel "before the benediction some time.") These substitutions may reflect the changing role of religion in American culture.
Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the whale that maimed him on his last whaling voyage. A Quaker, he seeks revenge in direct opposition to his religion's well-known pacifism. Ahab's name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 18-22).
In Ishmael's first encounter with Ahab's name, he responds "When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?" (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).
Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (excepting Ishmael) to death due to his obsession with Moby Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:
From hell's heart I stab at thee
The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby Dick's flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon's rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale, but not before the whale destroys the longboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.
Moby Dick is a mottled sperm whale with a white hump, of extraordinary ferocity and size, but is also possessed of ineffable strength, mystery, and power. The color white is explored in the chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale". It calls into question the meaning of the chapters on cetology. The symbolism of the whale is not clear; many things, including nature, providence, fate, and even God have been suggested.
Melville spelled the whale's name without a hyphen, but included one in the book's title, suggesting a split between the two.
In popular culture, Moby Dick is often depicted as being an albino whale. For example, in the huge whale mural at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a white sperm whale with a red eye and several harpoons (detached from their boats) stuck in its back is prominently displayed.
The three mates of the Pequod are all from New England.
Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance... [H]is far-away domestic memories of his young
Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal, which lacks reason. Starbuck advocates continuing the more mundane pursuit of whales for their oil. But he lacks the support of the crew in his opposition to Ahab, and is unable to persuade them to turn back. Despite his misgivings, he feels himself bound by his obligations to obey the captain.
Starbuck was an important Quaker family name on Nantucket Island, and there were several actual whalers of this period named "Starbuck," as evidenced by the name of Starbuck Island in the southern Pacific whaling grounds.
Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, is from Cape Cod, and always seems to have a pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face. "Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whaleboat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests." (
Flask is the third mate of the Pequod. He is from Martha's Vineyard.
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 honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.
The harpooneers of the Pequod are all non-Christians from varying parts of the world. Each serves on a ship officer's boat.
Queequeg hails from a fictional island in the
Queequeg is the harpooneer on Starbuck's boat, where Ishmael is also an oarsman.
Tashtego is described as a Native American harpooner. The personification of the hunter, he turns from hunting land animals to hunting whales. Tashtego is the harpooner on Stubb's boat.
Next was Tashtego, an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring
— Moby-Dick, Ch.27
Daggoo is a gigantic African harpooner with a noble bearing and grace. He is the harpooneer on Flask's boat.
Fedallah is the harpooner on Ahab's boat. He is of Indian Zoroastrian ("Parsi") descent. Due to descriptions of him having lived in China, he might have been among the great wave of Parsi traders that made their way to Hong Kong and the Far East during the mid-19th century. At the time when the Pequod sets sail, Fedallah is hidden on board, and he emerges with Ahab's boat's crew later on, to the surprise of the crew. Fedallah is referred to in the text as Ahab's "Dark Shadow." Ishmael calls him a "fire worshipper" and the crew speculates that he is a devil in man's disguise. He is the source of a variety of prophecies regarding Ahab and his hunt for Moby Dick.
[T]all and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head.
— Moby-Dick, Ch.48
Other notable characters
Pip (nicknamed "Pippin," but "Pip" for short) is an African-American ("negro") boy from Tolland County, Connecticut who is "the most insignificant of the Pequod's crew". Because he is physically slight, he is made a ship-keeper, (a sailor who stays in the Pequod while its hunting boats go out). Ishmael contrasts him with the "dull and torpid in his intellects" — and paler and much older — cook Dough-Boy, describing Pip as "over tender-hearted" but "at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe". Ishmael goes so far as to chastise the reader: "Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets."
The after-oarsman on Stubb's boat is injured, however, so Pip is temporarily reassigned to Stubb's hunting crew. The first time out, Pip jumps from the boat, causing Stubb and Tashtego to lose their already-harpooned whale. Tashtego and the rest of the crew are furious; Stubb chides him "officially" and "unofficially", even raising the specter of slavery: "a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in
The Cook (Dough-Boy), Blacksmith and Carpenter of the ship are each highlighted in at least one chapter near the end of the book. Dough-Boy, a very old African-American with bad knees, is presented in the chapter "Stubb Kills a Whale" at some length in a dialogue where Stubb takes him to task over how to prepare a variety of dishes from the whale's carcass.
The crew as a whole is exceedingly international, having a makeup of both the United States' and the world's population. Chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle," highlights, in its stage-play manner (in Shakespearean style), the striking variety in the sailors' origins. A partial list of the speakers includes sailors from France, Iceland, Holland, the Azores, Sicily and Malta (Italy), China, Denmark, Portugal, India, England, Spain, Chile and Ireland. Considering that this variety is in only one part of the ship (the forecastle) there could be many other nationalities on board. Melville gives an overall impression of the crew as being a melting pot of every conceivable ethnicity.
In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne written within days of Moby-Dick's American publication, Melville made a number of revealing comments:
... for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.
A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your understanding the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable sociabilities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old
You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.
Moby-Dick received decidedly mixed reviews from critics at the time it was published. Since the book first appeared in
"[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed".
The problem was that Peter Bentley botched the English edition, most significantly in leaving out the epilogue. For this reason, many of the critics faulted the book on what little they could grasp of it, namely its purely formal grounds: after all, how could the tale have been told if no one survived to tell it? Thus the generally bad reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish about picking up the tome.
Still, a handful of American critics saw much more in it than most of their
Within a year after Melville's death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only
Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. The stage was set for Melville to find his place.
The Melville Revival
With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Not only did many of Melville's techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends. His new readers also found in him an almost too-profound exploration of violence, hunger for power, quixotic goals, and reckless disregard for the fate of one's fellows. Although many critics of this time still considered Moby-Dick extremely difficult to come to grips with, they largely saw this lack of easy understanding as an asset rather than a liability.
In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville's value.
In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans' attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville's. Perhaps most surprising is that
In his 1921 study, The American Novel, Carl Van Doren returns to Melville with much more depth. Here he calls Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.
The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Published in 1941, the book proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted (and mostly pre-Civil War) literature important for its promulgation of democracy and the exploration of its possibilities, successes, and failures. Since Matthiessen's book came out shortly before the entry of the
… Moby-Dick was now read as a text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world.
Now, Moby Dick is seen as a great American classic (sometimes deemed "