Moby Dick


Herman Melville (1819-1891) was a popular writer of sea narratives before he wrote Moby-Dick (1851). What was to become his best known novel The Whale; or Moby-Dick received good reviews when it appeared in England but the first American edition coming out a month later in New York received mixed reviews. It was not a financial success and bafied American critics until the 20th century when it began to be considered a classic.

Melville was not recognized as a genius in his time; his most famous works today{Moby-Dick short stories like "Benito Cereno " and Billy Budd{were not widely read or heralded in the 19th century.

Melville's America was a tumultuous place. In the North rapid industrialization was changing social patterns and giving rise to new wealth. In the South the cotton interest was trying to hold onto the system of black slavery.

America was stretching westward and encountering Native American tribes as travel by train road sea and canal become easier than before. Politicians appealed to the masses as the idea of "democracy" (versus republicanism) took hold. Nationalism was high in the early nineteenth century but as national interconnectedness became more feasible the deep divisions in society began to grow. Soon sectionalism racism economic self-interest and bitter political struggle would culminate in the Civil War.

Against this backdrop Melville sailed off on his first whaling voyage in 1841. This experience became the material for his first book Typee (1846) a narrative that capitalized on exotic titillation about natives in the Marquesas Islands. Becoming well known for his earthy rowdy stories of faraway places he quickly followed his initial success with Omoo (1847) and Mardi (1849).

But after Mardi Melville's writing career started to level off. Though Melville had once thought he could be a professional writer Moby-Dicks poor reviews meant that Melville would never be able to support himself by writing alone. Melville was always firmly middle-class though his personas in books always seemed working-class. He had a distinguished pedigree: some of his ancestors were Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York who played leading roles in the American Revolution and commercial development. But Melville often felt like the "savage" in the family which may have explained why he was not afraid to tackle such risky topics as slave revolt (in "Benito Cereno") or the life-sucking potential of offce jobs ("Bartleby the Scrivener").

Throughout his life Melville was an avid reader. Much of his information for Moby-Dick comes from printed sources. The number of refer

ences to difierent texts (intertextuality) in Moby-Dick testifies to the importance of books in Melville's life. In particular he admired Nathaniel Hawthorne whom he befriended in 1850 and to whom Melville dedicated the novel. Melville admired Hawthorne's willingness to dive to deep psychological depths and gothic grimness traits for which he would also be praised.

The works of Shakespeare and stories in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) also in uenced Moby-Dick. Moreover Melville's novel was certainly not the first book on whaling. Whaling narratives were extremely popular in the 19th century. In particular Melville relied on the encyclopedic Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale and the narrative Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne. He also used information from a volume by William Scoresby but mostly to ridicule Scoresby's pompous inaccuracy. One final note: many editions of Moby-Dick have been printed. Check your edition before using this guide because "abridged" or "edited" versions may be difierent.


Ishmael { Ishmael is the narrator of the story but not really the center of it. He has no experience with whaling when he signs on and he is often comically extravagant in his storytelling. Ishmael bears the same name as a famous castaway in the Bible.

Ahab { The egomaniacal captain of the whalingship Pequod; his leg was taken off by Moby Dick the white whale. He searches frantically for the whale seeking revenge and forces his crew to join him in the pursuit.

Starbuck { This native of Nantucket is the first mate of the Pequod. Starbuck questions his commander's judgment first in private and later in public.

Queequeg { Starbuck's stellar harpooner and Ishmael's best friend Queequeg was once a prince from a South Sea island who wanted to have a worldly adventure. Queequeg is a composite character with an identity that is part African Polynesian Islamic Christian and Native American.

Stubb { This native of Cape Cod is the second mate of the Pequod and always has a bit of mischievous good humor.

Moby Dick { The great white sperm whale; an infamous and dangerous threat to seamen like Ahab and his crew.

Tashtego { Stubb's harpooneer Tashtego is a Gay Head Indian from Martha's Vineyard.

Flask { This native of Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard is the third mate of the Pequod. Short and stocky he has a confrontational attitude and no reverence for anything.

Daggoo { Flask's harpooneer Daggoo is a very big dark-skinned imperial-looking man from Africa.

Pip { Either from Connecticut or Alabama (there is a discrepancy) Pip used to play the tambourine and take care of the ship. After being left to oat on the sea alone for a short period of time he becomes mystically wise{or possibly loses his mind.

Fedallah { Most of the crew doesn't know until the first whale chase that Ahab has brought on board this strange "oriental" old man who is a Parsee (Persian fire-worshipper). Fedallah has a very striking appearance: around his head is a turban made from his own hair and he wears a black Chinese jacket and pants. Like Queequeg Fedallah's character is also a composite of Middle Eastern and East Asian traits.

Peleg { This well-to-do retired whaleman of Nantucket is one of the largest owners of the Pequod who with Captain Bildad takes care of hiring the crew. When the two are negotiating wages for Ishmael and Queequeg Peleg plays the generous one. He is a Quaker.

Bildad { Also a well-to-do Quaker ex-whaleman from Nantucket who owns a large share of the Pequod Bildad is (or pretends to be) crustier than Peleg in negotiations over wages.

Father Mapple { The preacher in the New Bedford Whaleman's Chapel. He delivers a sermon on Jonah and the whale.

Captain Boomer { Boomer is the jovial captain of the English whalingship Samuel Enderby; his arm was taken off by Moby Dick



These prefatory sections establish the groundwork for a new book about whaling. Melville quotes from a variety of sources revered famous and obscure that may directly address whaling or only mention a whale in passing. The quotations include short passages from the Bible Shakespeare John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667) other well-known poems dictionaries whaling and travel narratives histories and songs. The Etymology section looking at the derivations of "whale " is compiled by a "late consumptive usher to a grammar school " and the Extracts section a selection of short quotations describing whales or whaling by a "sub-sub-librarian."

Melville's humor comes through in these sections both in the way he pokes fun at the "poor devil of a Sub-Sub" and mentions even the tiniest reference to a whale in these literary works.

Chapters 1-9


The story begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literary history: "Call me Ishmael." Whatever Ishmael's "real" name his adopted name signals his identification with the Biblical outcast from the Book of Genesis.

He explains that he went to sea because he was feeling a "damp drizzly November in [his] soul" and wanted some worldly adventure. In the mood for old-fashioned whaling Ishmael heads to New Bedford the current center of whaling to catch a ferry to Nantucket the previous center of whaling.

After wandering through the black streets of New Bedford he finally stumbles upon The Spouter-Inn owned by Peter Coffn. First passing by a large somewhat inscrutable oil painting and a collection of "monstrous clubs and spears " Ishmael walks into a room filled with "a wild set of mariners." Because the inn is nearly full Ishmael learns that he will have to share a room with "a dark complexioned" harpooner named Queequeg. At first Ishmael decides that he would rather sleep on a bench than share a bed with some strange possibly dangerous man. But discovering the bench to be too uncomfortable he decides to put up with the unknown harpooner who Coffn assures him is perfectly fine because "he pays reg'lar." Still Ishmael is worried since Coffn tells him that the harpooner has recently arrived from the South Sea and peddles shrunken heads. When the Queequeg finally returns the frightened Ishmael watches Queequeg from the bed noting with a little horror the harpooner's tattoos tomahawk/pipe and dark-colored idol.

When Queequeg finally discovers Ishmael in his bed he ourishes the tomahawk as Ishmael shouts for the owner. After Coffn explains the situation they settle in for the night and when they wake up Queequeg's arm is affectionately thrown over Ishmael. Ishmael is sorry for his prejudices against the "cannibal " finding Queequeg quite civilized and they become fast close friends.

The chapters called The Street The Chapel The Pulpit and The Sermon establish the atmosphere in which Ishmael sets out on his whaling mission.

Because of its maritime industry New Bedford is a cosmopolitan town full of difierent sorts of people (Lascars Malays Feegeeans Tongatabooans Yankees and green Vermonters). In this town is the Whaleman's Chapel where the walls are inscribed with memorials to sailors lost at sea and the pulpit is like a ship's bow. The preacher in this chapel Father Mapple is a favorite among whalemen because of his sincerity and sanctity. Once a sailor and harpooner Mapple now delivers sermons. His theme for this Sunday: Jonah the story of the prophet swallowed by "a great fish." (Today we talk about "Jonah and the Whale.") Mapple preaches a story about man's sin willful disobedience of the command of God and ight from Him. But says Mapple the story also speaks to him personally as a command "To preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood!" with a confidence born from knowing God's will.

Chapters 10-21


In these chapters we learn more about the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Upon third consideration Ishmael develops a great respect for his new friend. Although still a "savage " Queequeg becomes in Ishmael's mind "George Washington cannibalistically developed." Furthermore after having intimate chats with him in bed Ishmael admires Queequeg's sincerity and lack of Christian "hollow courtesies." Quick friends they are "married" after a social smoke. The chapter called Biographical gives more information on Queequeg's past detailing the harpooner's life as a son of a High Chief or King of Kokovoko. Intent on seeing the world he paddled his way to a departing ship and persisted so stubbornly that they finally allowed him to stow away as a whaleman. Queequeg can never go back because his interaction with Christianity has made him unfit to ascend his homeland's "pure and undefiled throne" and so says Ishmael "that barbed iron [a harpoon] was in lieu of a sceptre now."

Together they set off with a wheelbarrow full of their things for Nantucket. On the packet over to Nantucket a bumpkin mimics Queequeg.Queequeg ips him around to punish him and is subsequently scolded by the captain. But when the bumpkin is swept overboard as the ship has technical dificulties Queequeg takes charge of the ropes to secure the boat and then dives into the water to save the man overboard. This action wins everyone's respect.

Melville then writes a bit about Nantucket's history about the "red-men"who first settled there its ecology its dependence on the sea for livelihood.

When the two companions arrive they have a pot of the best chowder at the Try Pots. Charged by Yojo (Queequeg's wooden idol) to seek a ship for the two of them Ishmael comes upon the Pequod a ship "with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her" and "apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory." But the Pequod is not just exotic to Ishmael; he also calls it a "cannibal of a craft" because it is bejeweled with whale parts. On board he makes a deal with Peleg and Bildad the Quaker owners of the ship characterized as conniving cheapskates and bitter taskmasters. Evaluating Ishmael for his lay (portion of the ship's proffts a whaleman's wage) Peleg finally gives him the 300th lay. (This Bildad says is "generous.") At this time Ishmael also learns that the ship's captain is Ahab named after a wicked and punished Biblical king. Although Ahab has seemed a little moody since he lost his leg to the white whale Moby Dick Bildad and Peleg believe in his competence. Ishmael does not meet the captain in person until much later.

Returning to the inn Ishmael allows Queequeg a day for his "Ramadan" ceremonies and then becomes worried when his friend does not answer the door in the evening. When the panicking Ishmael finally gets the door open he finds Queequeg deep in meditation. The next day they return to the Pequod to sign Queequeg up. Though the owners object at first to Queequeg's paganism the Kokovokan impresses them with his skill by hitting a spot of tar on a mast with a harpoon. They give him the 90th lay "more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket." Although Bildad still tries to convert Queequeg Peleg tells him to give up. "Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers { it takes the shark out of 'em; no harpooneer is worth a straw who aint pretty sharkish."

Just after signing the papers the two run into a man named Elijah (a prophet or just some frightening stranger) who hints to them about the peril of signing aboard Ahab's ship. They disregard him. For several days there is preparation for the dangerous voyage. When they are near the ship Ishmael thinks that he sees some "shadows" boarding the ship but then dismisses the idea. Elijah warns them again just before they board.

Chapters 22-31


At Christmas the ship finally heaves off from the port and Ishmael gets his first taste of the rigors of whaling life. As the boat sails away from civilization Bulkington a noble sailor that Ishmael saw at the Coffn inn appears on the Pequod's decks and makes Ishmael wax sentimental about the heroism in sailing into the deeps.

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