There are numerous characters in Moby Dick, but only a few of themhave any impact on the story. A common sailor named Ishmael is thenarrator. The book, however, focuses on Captain Ahab, the one-leggedcommander of the whaling ship Pequod. Ahab has sworn to kill thegigantic whale Moby Dick, who took away his leg. Starbuck is thefirst mate of the Pequod. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are thethree harpooners.
The story begins with Ishmael becoming restless. He decides to goout to sea on a whaling ship. In the port of New Bedford, he meetsand shares a room with a harpooner named Queequeg. The two of thembecome close friends, and agree to ship out together.
The day after they reach Nantucket, Ishmael begins searching for awhaling ship preparing to leave harbor. Out of three ships ready toleave, he chooses the Pequod. The owners of the ship, Captains Pelegand Bildad are excited to hear of Queequeg from Ishmael and gladlylet him join the crew. They are told the captain of the ship isnamed Ahab. Peleg and Bildad say that he is a good man, but becauseof some strange illness, he is confined to his cabin.
On Christmas day, and with Ahab still in his cabin, the Pequod setssail in the Atlantic. As the weather begins to warm up (severalmonths after leaving port), Ahab is finally seen on deck. Thestrangest thing about Ahab is his leg. Instead of flesh and bone, hehas a white ivory peg leg.
As the weeks wear on, Ahab starts to become friendlier. One day, hecalls the crew before him. He tells them that the sole mission ofthe Pequod is to kill Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a gigantic sperm whalewith a crooked jaw and a deformed forehead. He has never beendefeated, and has attacked and sunk entire ships. Ahab admits hehates Moby Dick for taking his leg away, and wants revenge. The crewagree to this challenge, and swear to hunt him down. The only who isnot excited about hunting down Moby Dick is first-mate Starbuck.
For many months, the Pequod sails South, through the Atlantic,around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa), and intothe Indian Ocean. Along the way, they kill and drain the spermacetioil from every sperm whale they encounter. Each time they meetanother ship, Ahab begins the conversation with Hast seen the WhiteWhale?.
Finally, after entering the Japanese sea, the Pequod encounters awhaling ship named the Enderby. The Enderbys captain had justrecently lost his arm to Moby Dick. Ahab becomes so excited at thenews that he breaks his ivory leg. The ships carpenter builds him anew one.
Once reaching the waters around the equator, the Pequod meetsanother whaling ship, the Rachel. They had seen Moby Dick, and hadbecome separated from one of the whaling boats during the battle. Ahab refuses to help them look for the missing men.
At last, Moby Dick is spotted by Ahab. In the first day offighting, the whale is harpooned many times, but escapes aftersmashing Ahabs boat. On the second day, the whale is harpoonedagain, but still escapes. On the third day, Ahabs harpoon piercesthe whale, but the rope catches him by the neck and Moby Dick dragshim to the bottom of the sea. An angry Moby Dick rams and sinks thePequod. Only Ishmael survives, and he is rescued by the Rachel.
My ResponseMoby Dick was not the novel I expected. I was under the impressionthat it would be about seafaring and the whale Moby Dick. Instead,Moby Dick is a story about Captain Ahabs obsession. There is verylittle in the story about the revenge itself, just about Ahabsmonomania. Out of 465 pages, only forty-two of them deal with theactual battle between Ahab and Moby Dick.
The novel places very little emphasis on actual seafaring. Ishmaelnever even steps on a boat until page seventy-four. Even when theship finally leaves port, the mention of anything involving sailingor the life of sailors is kept to an absolute minimum.
There is, however, plenty of emphasis is on whaling, the anatomy ofwhales, and their behavior. The book goes into great detaildescribing the whalers of Nantucket, and gives in-depth explanationsof the different types of whales, quoting several outside sources inthe process. The narrator mentions the awesome size of the spermwhale, and how few books even try to describe it. He also showsgreat respect for people who go whaling, and describes thecamaraderie that forms between them. This is an annoyinginconsistency in the novel, since Ishmael (the narrator) tells thereader that he has never been on a whaling ship before, and has neverseen a live whale.
The first twenty-three chapters focus on Ishmaels thoughts andactions. He introduces the reader to whaling and describes thePequod. After the ship sets sail, he seems to vanish from the story. At certain intervals, however, he plays minor roles, and it isIshmael that survives to tell the story.
From chapter twenty-four onward, the novel is almost completelyabout Ahab hunting for Moby Dick. He has the blacksmith construct aspecial harpoon, made from the finest iron, and soaked in the bloodof the three harpooners. The forging of the harpoon is somewhatironic, since the rope attached to that same harpoon is what dragsAhab to the bottom of the sea.
Despite Ahabs apparent madness, he still seemed able to reasonclearly. He carefully and methodically located the region of the seathat Moby Dick is most likely to be in (an almost impossible task,considering the size of the Earths Oceans). When he first set sail,Ahabs original plan was to hunt only Moby Dick and ignore otherwhales.Once he realizes that his men will abandon him if they donot make some sort of a profit while at sea, he encourages them tohunt other whales and boosts the morale of the crew.
Ahab is definitely the hero of Moby Dick, but he is a tragic hero. Everyone in the novel who knew Ahab prior to losing his legconsidered him to be a great man, and one of the finest captainsever. After the loss of his leg during the first battle with MobyDick, Ahabs tragic flaw appeared. He was obsessed. He wantedrevenge, and nothing else. Ahab considered Moby Dick to be theembodiment of all that is evil. This monomania is what sent thePequod halfway around the world to the Pacific Ocean, where Ahab (andalmost everyone else on the Pequod) died.
Ahab becomes focused on his one view of the whale. Ahabs preceivesthe whale as the embodiment of evil. The whales white color lendsan ambiguity to the image of the whale as evil.
The great White Whale, Moby Dick, symbolizes many different things. The first thing it represents is Ahabs anger. The whales body isdeformed, as is Ahabs. The whale is driven by animalistic rage,mirroring the anger in Ahab. Ahab thinks Moby Dick is a monster, butit is really Ahab who has become the monster. The whale serves as ascapegoat for Ahabs miserable existence.
Another thing Moby Dick can represent an unreachable goal. He is alegendary whale, and the object of a wild and exciting chase throughthree oceans. And, despite the efforts of the Pequod, they neverdefeated him. The whale was a goal that no one could achieve, butpeople still destroyed themselves trying.
One odd thing about the novel is that despite all the pain, deathand destruction Moby Dick has caused, I do not consider the whale tobe evil or monstrous. In fact, I was almost happy to see the whaleturn on his hunters and destroy them. I cannot fully appreciate allthe feeling about whales that the novel attempts to create.
When Moby Dick was written, whales were thought of as dumb brutes. They were found in large enough numbers that people hunted themendlessly, and never worried about killing them all. Whaling was anadmired profession. People needed whale oil for their lamps. Spermaceti oil was used to make perfume and other cosmetics.
In todays society, things are radically different. Whales arethought to be just as intelligent–if not more intelligent–thanhumans. Some scientists believe they have a complex language,something not mentioned in the book at all. Whales are an endangeredspecies, almost hunted to extinction.
In fact, many countries haveoutlawed whaling. Most people consider whaling to be cruel andinhumane. The Japanese are despised worldwide for continuing to huntthem. Television programs portray them in a positive light. Whaleare mammals that nurse their young and breathe air, just like humanbeings. They are not giant fish. Todays children are taught torespect whales, and are taken to aquariums to be educated about them.
After the invention of the electric light bulb, whale oil lamps wereno longer used. Modern cosmetic products contain no spermaceti oil. Their manufacturers proudly make claims that no animals were harmedwhile making the cosmetics.
The real dumb brutes in the novel are not the whales, but thewhalers. They are uneducated about the true nature of their prey. In a sense, Moby Dick was simply exacting revenge for the centuriesof pain and death mankind has inflicted on whales.
In the time of Herman Mellville, mans dominance over nature wasidealized. Today, we are taught to respect and preserve ourenvironment. This different frame of reference makes it verydifficult to appreciate the symbolism in this novel. The main focusof the novel, however, is on obsession and its destructiveness.
One of the most important elements in a great literary work isuniversality. The main idea of the novel (destructive obsession) isuniversal, even though the symbolism is not. Moby Dick was clearly agreat novel, although it was nothing like what I expected.