Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Table of Contents
1. Moby Dick: Introduction
2. Moby Dick: Overview
3. Moby Dick: Herman Melville Biography
4. Moby Dick: Summary
1. Moby Dick: Introduction
2. Moby Dick: Overview
3. Moby Dick: Herman Melville Biography
4. Moby Dick: Summary
Moby Dick: Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 2-4 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 5-9 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 10-15 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 16-18 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 19-25 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 26-31 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 32-35 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 36-40 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 41-42 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 43-47 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 48-51 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 52-54 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 55-60 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 61-66 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 67-71 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 72-78 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 79-81 Summary and Analysis
Moby Dick 1
¨ Chapters 82-86 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 87-92 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 93-99 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 100-105 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 106-109 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 110-114 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 115-121 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 122-127 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 128-132 Summary and Analysis
¨ Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Summary and Analysis
Moby Dick: Quizzes
¨ Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 2-4 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 5-9 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 10-15 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 16-18 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 19-25 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 26-31 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 32-35 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 36-40 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 41-42 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 43-47 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 48-51 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 52-54 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 55-60 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 61-66 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 67-71 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 72-78 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 79-81 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 82-86 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 87-92 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 93-99 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 100-105 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 106-109 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 110-114 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 115-121 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 122-127 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 128-132 Questions and Answers
¨ Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Questions and Answers
7. Moby Dick: Characters
8. Moby Dick: Themes
9. Moby Dick: Style
10. Moby Dick: Historical Context
11. Moby Dick: Critical Overview
Moby Dick: Essays and Criticism
¨ The Symbol of the Whale
¨ Moby-Dick: An Overview
¨ The Narrator of Moby-Dick
¨ Seven Moby-Dicks
13. Moby Dick: Suggested Essay Topics
14. Moby Dick: Sample Essay Outlines
eNotes: Table of Contents 2
15. Moby Dick: Compare and Contrast
16. Moby Dick: Topics for Further Study
17. Moby Dick: Media Adaptations
18. Moby Dick: What Do I Read Next?
19. Moby Dick: Bibliography and Further Reading
20. Moby Dick: Pictures
Moby Dick: Introduction
Now admired as a masterpiece of American literature and considered one of the greatest novels of all time,
Moby-Dick was published to unfavorable reviews, and its author, Herman Melville, was subsequently unable
to make a living as a writer. He wrote just three more novels after Moby-Dick and then retired from literary
life, working as a customs officer, writing poems, a novella, and a few short stories. Not until the 1920s were
the multi-layered qualities of his epic novel fully appreciated.
Ostensibly the story of a whaling voyage as seen through the eyes of Ishmael, the book’s narrator, and the
account of the pursuit of a white whale, the novel is concerned with many of the issues which dominated
nineteenth-century thought in America. The relationship between the land and the sea echoes the conflict
between adventure and domesticity, between frontiersman and city-dweller. Captain Ahab’s tragic
monomania, as expressed in his obsessive pursuit of the whale, is an indirect commentary on the feelings of
disillusionment in mid-nineteenth-century America and on the idea that the single-minded pursuit of an ideal
is both vain and self-destructive.
Highly symbolic, tightly packed with philosophical musings, and interspersed with goading questions, the
novel put off many of its early readers with what was seen as a rejection of basic storytelling principles. Each
time some form of narrative tension is established, the author appears to launch off into obscure ramblings.
They are only arcane, of course, when the reader does not perceive the hidden meanings within these
passages; modern audiences have the advantage of being more receptive to disjointed narrative techniques. As
for the novel’s subtexts, only a few of these require sophisticated knowledge of nineteenth-century thought;
the majority concern the big and immutable questions of life.
Moby Dick: Overview
The spirit of adventure and rugged individualism evident in Melville’s work was the spirit of the age in which
he lived. The Manifest Destiny doctrine defined the country’s will to grow and spread its democracy
throughout the hemisphere. Westward expansion accelerated after the economic depression of 1837, and
American pioneers conquered the frontier.
At the same time, New England whaling captains and their crews were conquering the great fishing grounds
throughout the world. New Bedford, Massachusetts, the setting of the opening scene in Moby-Dick, had a fleet
of over 300 whaling ships. Melville himself sailed from this port on the Acushnet in 1841.
The mid-nineteenth century was not only a period of geographic growth, but also a time of ideological
growth. The innate worth of all humanity, an idea developed in Moby-Dick was the concept at the heart of the
slavery debate. As new territories were admitted to the union, the question of slavery became a national
concern. In the 1850s, the activities of the abolitionists, the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the
Fugitive Slave Law fomented heated debate and controversy.
Moby Dick: Introduction 3
Ralph Waldo Emerson and transcendentalism dominated the intellectual scene mid-century. In Moby-Dick,
the theme of the interconnectedness of all things in the universe reflects transcendental thought. Hawthorne, to
whom Moby-Dick was dedicated, Thoreau, Poe, and Walt Whitman dominated the literary scene of that time.
These writers, along with Melville, produced a body of work distinctly American.
Ironically, Moby-Dick, one of the greatest works of American literature, was not recognized as such at the
time of its publication. Reviews ranged from ardent praise to hostile attack; from “surpasses any of the former
productions of this highly successful author” to “trash belonging to the worst of the Bedlam school of
literature” (Criticism and Context, 544, 546). One critic commented that the book would be “flung aside” by
the common reader (Criticism and Context, 546). His prediction was accurate, for Moby-Dick sold fewer than
3,000 copies (McSweeney, 18). It was not until the late 1930s that Moby-Dick became part of the American
List of Characters
Ahab—the monomaniacal, peg-legged captain of the Pequod. Old Thunder is determined to destroy Moby
Dick at any cost.
Archy—a sailor aboard the Pequod; he hears noises from afterhold and suspects someone is being kept down
Aunt Charity—Captain Bildad’s sister; she is a kind old lady who substituted ginger water for grog aboard the
Bildad—a Nantucketer, Quaker, and part owner of the Pequod; he signs on Ishmael and Queequeg.
Bulkington—the helmsman; having just returned from one voyage, he sails again on Pequod and dies at sea.
Bumpkin—young rascal who makes fun of Queequeg on schooner from New Bedford to Nantucket; he is later
rescued by Queequeg.
Cabaco—a Pequod sailor who scoffs at Archy’s suspicions that someone is hidden below deck.
Captain Boomer—the good-natured captain of the Samuel Enderby; he lost arm to Moby Dick, and warns
Ahab to give up his hunt.
Captain Gardiner—the captain of the Rachel; he is a Nantucketer known to Ahab, and begs Ahab’s help in
finding his lost son.
Captain Mayhew—the captain of the Jeroboam of Nantucket; his ship has an epidemic aboard.
Captain of the Albatross—asked if he has seen Moby Dick; his answer is lost when he drops his megaphone
into the sea.
Captain of the Bachelor—he invites Ahab to join him and his crew in celebrating their journey home.
Captain of the Delight—he lost five men to Moby Dick and tells Ahab no harpoon can kill the White Whale.
Carpenter—he makes Queequeg’s coffin and then caulks it to make it a life buoy; he makes a new leg for
Daggoo—an “imperial, coal-black Negro”; he is a harpooner for Flask.
Moby Dick: Overview 4
Derrick De Deer—captain of the Jungfrau whose ship is out of oil; he loses a contest with the Pequod to catch
Dr. Bunger—gives Ahab details of Captain Boomer’s wound.
Dons Pedro and Sebastian—Spanish friends of Ishmael to whom he told the story of the Town-Ho.
Dough-Boy—Pequod’s steward; he is nervous, “bread-faced.”
Elijah—a ragged “prophet” who stops Ishmael and Queequeg; he dismays Ishmael with his vague warnings
Father Mapple—a former harpooner who is the minister of the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford; he gives
a sermon about Jonah.
Fedallah—the Parsee, a mysterious harpooner for Ahab’s boat; he interprets Ahab’s dream and dies lashed to
Flask—the third mate; called King-Post for his stout figure and stalwartness, he has little fear of or respect for
Fleece—an old, arch-backed Negro cook; he cooks Stubb’s whale steak and delivers a sermon to the sharks.
Gabriel—the crazed “prophet” of the Jeroboam; he calls Moby Dick a Shaker god and warns against attacking
Guernsey-man—chief mate of the Rose-Bud; with Stubb’s help he gets his captain to cut rotting whale
Hosea and Mrs. Hussey—owners of the Try Pots Inn of Nantucket where Ishmael and Queequeg stay and eat
Ishmael—narrator of the story; he survives by clinging to Queequeg’s floating coffin.
Macey—the former chief mate of the Jeroboam who was killed by Moby Dick; the Pequod tries to deliver a
letter to him.
Manxman—an old Pequod sailor from the Isle of Man; he warns Ahab that the line holding the log will not
Moby Dick—a sperm whale, “white-headed with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw”; god, devil, or dumb
brute; he destroys Ahab.
Peleg—a Nantucketer, Quaker, and part owner of the Pequod; he is impressed by Queequeg’s skill as a
Perth—a “begrimed, blistered old blacksmith”; he forges Ahab’s harpoon which is tempered in blood.
Peter Coffin—landlord of the Spouter Inn in New Bedford; he gives Ishmael a bed to share with Queequeg.
Pip—a little black “ship-keeper” who goes mad after being left in the water; Ahab becomes attached to him.
Moby Dick: Overview 5
Queequeg—a harpooner who is a devoted friend of Ishmael. He is a tattooed savage of noble birth; saves
Radney—the former mate of the Town-Ho; he is an enemy of Steelkilt, and is devoured by Moby Dick.
Starbuck—the chief mate of the Pequod; he opposes Ahab and tries to convince him to give up his quest.
Steelkilt—a mutineer on the Town-Ho; he is about to murder Radney when Moby Dick interrupts the plan.
Stubb—Pequod’s “good humored” second mate.; he kills the first whale and leaves Pip in the water expecting
him to be picked up.
Tashtego—an American Indian, harpooner for Stubb; he falls into the tun of a whale but is saved.
Yojo—Queequeg’s “black little god” to whom he prays and from whom he obtains guidance.
Master List of Ships
The Albatross—her captain drops his megaphone; so the Pequod is unable to communicate with her.
The Bachelor—a homeward bound ship celebrating a very profitable voyage.
The Delight—a whaler that lost five men to Moby Dick; she is in the process of burying one at sea when the
The Jeroboam—a whaler that has an epidemic on board; the crazed Gabriel is one of her crew.
The Jungfrau—called Virgin in German, her captain asked the Pequod for oil; she competed with the Pequod
for a whale and lost.
The Rachel—a Nantucket whaler whose captain was searching for his son lost in a chase for Moby Dick; she
picks up Ishmael after the Pequod sinks.
The Rose-Bud—an odoriferous ship with two rotting whales lashed along her side, tricked by Stubb.
The Samuel Enderby—an English ship whose captain had lost an arm to Moby Dick.
The Town-Ho—manned by Polynesians; the first mate, Radney, is killed by Moby Dick; the ship is deserted by
Steelkilt and the crew.
Summary of the Novel
Ishmael, the narrator of the story, explains that he goes to sea whenever he is depressed. In the port of New
Bedford, he stays at the Spouter Inn. He is at first frightened by Queequeg, his tattooed, tomahawk-toting
bedmate, who has been out selling shrunken heads. Queequeg soon becomes Ishmael’s bosom friend.
Ishmael attends a service at the Whaleman’s Chapel where Father Mapple gives a sermon about Jonah and
the whale. The next day, Queequeg and Ishmael set out for Nantucket where they sign onto a whaler. On the
ferry ride to the island, a young man mocks Queequeg. Later, this same young man falls overboard and is
saved by Queequeg.
While Queequeg performs his rites of Ramadan in the room at the Try Pots, Ishmael signs onto the whaler
Pequod owned by the Quaker captains, Bildad and Peleg. The heathen Queequeg must prove his skill as a
Moby Dick: Overview 6
harpooner before he is accepted.
As the two friends are about to board the Pequod, they are accosted by the crazed Elijah, who utters vague
warnings about Ahab and the voyage. In the mist, they see four or five shadowy figures go aboard. The ship
sets sail on Christmas day. The chief mate, Starbuck, chooses Queequeg for his harpooneer; the second mate,
Stubb, chooses the Indian, Tashtego; and the third mate, Flask, chooses the African, Daggoo.
Several days after the ship sets sail, Ahab finally appears on deck. His appearance sends shivers through
Ishmael. A white scar runs from his hairline, over his face, and down his neck beneath his clothing. He stands
upon an artificial leg made of whale bone.
Ahab calls all men on deck. He hammers a gold doubloon to the mast and tells the men that the first to spot
Moby Dick, the white whale, will win the coin. Ahab admits that it was Moby Dick that took off his leg.
When the first whale is sighted and the boats are lowered, the sailors are surprised to see Ahab in his own boat
with a mysterious crew who had been hidden below deck. The exotic Fedallah is his harpooner. A squall
comes up during the chase. Ishmael's boat capsizes and is later nearly rammed by the Pequod.
After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship has its first of many gams, or meetings with other ships.
Ahab’s sole purpose in communicating with these ships is to get news of Moby Dick. Several of the ships
have lost men to the whale. The Rachel has recently chased Moby Dick and is now searching for a lost boat.
The young son of the captain is in that boat, but Ahab refuses to join the search. Starbuck confronts Ahab and
tries to convince him to abandon his mission to get his revenge on Moby Dick.
Stubb’s boat is the first to kill a whale. While Stubb eats his whale steak, Fleece, the cook, delivers a sermon
to the sharks. During the cleaning of another whale, Tashtego falls into the tun, the forehead of the whale
containing the spermaceti. When the head breaks loose from the ship and falls into the water, Tashtego is
rescued by Queegueg. Pip, the timid black boy, is temporarily abandoned in the sea during another whale
chase which drives him to madness. Queequeg, stricken with fever and believing death is near, has the ship’s
carpenter build him a coffin.
Ahab has the blacksmith fashion a special harpoon, tempered in the blood of the heathen harpooners. During a
storm, Ahab holds the harpoon above his head and it is struck by lightning. Later, Ahab has a dream, which is
interpreted by Fedallah. The Parsee predicts that he will die before Ahab, that only hemp can kill Ahab, and
that before he dies, Ahab will see two hearses upon the sea.
At last, Moby Dick is sighted by Ahab. The chase lasts three days. Fedallah dies, lashed by tangled lines to
the body of the great beast. Ahab thrusts his harpoon into Moby Dick, but his line runs afoul and catches him
around the neck; he is pulled down to the depths. Moby Dick smashes into the bow of the Pequod, and
Queequeg’s coffin shoots out of the whirlpool created by the sinking ship. The only survivor, Ishmael, clings
to this strange life buoy and is later rescued.
Estimated Reading Time
Reading time will improve as the reader becomes accustomed to Melville’s style. In an hour’s sitting, 30 to
35 pages could be covered. The book could be completed in 20 to 25 hours.
Moby Dick: Herman Melville Biography
Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne “in admiration for his genius.” The two met in 1850
when Melville moved from New York to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. For a time, Melville and his family lived
Moby Dick: Herman Melville Biography 7
on a 160-acre farm called Arrowhead, where he finished the writing of Moby-Dick in 1851.
Moby-Dick, like many of Melville’s other sea stories, is based on life experience. In 1819, Melville was born
in New York City to Allan Melvill (the final “e” was added to the name later) and Maria Gansevoort. When
the family business failed and Allan Melvill died in 1832, Herman left the Albany Academy and joined his
older brother in a futile attempt to restore the family fortune. In 1839, Melville signed onto a British ship, the
St. Lawrence, which was sailing to Liverpool.
Two years later he signed aboard the Achushnet, a whaler bound for the South Seas. Misery and brutality
drove Melville and a companion to desert the ship in the Marquesas Islands. In June of 1842, the two sailors
lived with the Typees for a short time. Fearing that the Typees were cannibals, Melville escaped to the Lucy
Ann, another whaler, but it proved even worse than the Acushnet. He abandoned this ship in Tahiti. His one
successful whaling voyage was aboard the Charles and Henry. In 1844, Melville left the sea after a year’s
service aboard the naval vessel United States.
All of these sea adventures provided material for Melville’s writing. Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Redburn
(1848), and White-Jacket (1850) chronicle his experiences among the natives and aboard ships. These works
also expose the ill treatment of sailors and natives.
Three years after Melville gave up the life of a sailor, he married Elizabeth Shaw, daughter of Judge Lemuel
Shaw, chief justice of Massachusetts. In 1849, their first son, Malcolm, was born. To restore the family’s
finances, Melville hurriedly wrote Redburn and White-Jacket. He traveled to Europe shortly after and returned
to join the family in their New York City home in 1850.
It was at this time that Melville began writing Moby-Dick, “a romance of adventure, founded upon certain
wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author’s own personal
Moby Dick: Herman Melville Biography 8
experiences.” After the publication of Moby-Dick, the author produced Pierre (1852) and several shorter
works including “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1852) and “Benito Cereno” (1855). Melville published his Civil
War poems in 1866 and was appointed customs inspector for the port of New York.
Melville’s later years were marked by illness and depression. During this period, Melville wrote Billy Budd,
Sailor, which was published posthumously. Melville died on September 28, 1891. He is buried in New
York’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Moby Dick: Summary
Call Me Ishmael
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale chronicles the strange journey of an ordinary seaman named Ishmael who signs on
for a whaling voyage in 1840s Massachusetts. A thoughtful but gloomy young man, Ishmael begins his
odyssey in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a prosperous whaling town and crossing point to the island of
Nantucket. Arriving on a dark Saturday night in December, he finds cheap lodging in a waterfront dive called
The Spouter Inn. There he is forced to share a bed with a South Sea islander and “cannibal” named
Queequeg, a fierce-looking harpooner covered with tattoos and carrying a tomahawk and a shrunken head.
After some initial uncertainty, the two become close friends and decide to seek a berth together on a whaling
ship. Before leaving for Nantucket, however, Ishmael decides to visit the local whaleman’s chapel, where he
sees memorial plaques to lost sailors and hears a disturbing sermon about the prophet Jonah and the terrors of
On Nantucket, the two sailors set out to find the best ship for their voyage. After consulting Queequeg’s
“black little god,” a tiny totem named Yojo, they settle on the Pequod, a whaling vessel run by the notorious
Captain Ahab. They sign the ship’s papers, but on their way back to the inn to get their belongings, they meet
Elijah, a shabbily dressed old man who haunts the docks. Elijah hints at the dangers to come and warns the
two not to get involved with the vengeful captain.
The Pequod leaves Nantucket on Christmas day headed for the whaling grounds in the Pacific. Captain Ahab
remains in his cabin for several days, while the crew accustoms itself to life at sea. When Ahab does emerge,
his appearance startles Ishmael. A long, white scar runs down Ahab’s face, and he walks on an artificial leg
made of whale bone. Soon he calls the entire crew together and informs them that their voyage will be no
ordinary whaling cruise. Ahab has returned to sea with the sole purpose of finding and killing the whale that
took his leg on the previous voyage. He offers a sixteen-dollar gold piece to the first man who spots the white
whale, Moby-Dick, and then conducts a demonic ceremony in which the three “pagan” harpooners cross their
lances and drink to the death of the whale.
When not under the influence of Ahab’s obsessive search, Ishmael gathers information and meditates upon
the business of whaling and the strange attractive power of the white whale. Among other possible
explanations, he suggests that Ahab both fears and hates the whiteness of Moby-Dick because this blankness
recalls the “colorless, all-color of atheism,” a nothingness that lies behind all nature. He also describes the
ship’s first whale hunt and the subsequent butchering of the sperm whale. He discusses the whale as it is
depicted in paintings and compares the images to his own experiences; and he observes the whale itself,
pondering the meaning of its huge and mysterious body, its equally peaceful and violent behavior, and its
often contradictory significance to the men who hunt it.
Despite several successful hunts, including one encounter with a herd of sperm whales near the coast of Java,
they continue to search for Moby- Dick. Having revealed the presence of his “infidel” boat crew led by
Fedallah, the Parsee (a member of the Zoroastrian religious sect from India), Ahab can no longer hide the true
Moby Dick: Summary 9
extent of his obsession. He orders the blacksmith to forge a special harpoon from the nail stubs of racing
horses. He then tempers the barb in the blood of the three harpooners, baptizing the weapon “in nomine
diaboli!” (in the name of the devil). Soon after, he throws his navigational quadrant overboard and, in a
moment of defiance of nature and God, cries out at the corposants, a strange blue fire of static electricity
(sometimes called “Saint Elmo’s Fire”) that covers the ship’s masts. Not even Starbuck, the respected first
mate, can convince the captain of his madness.
At this stage in the story, Ishmael becomes less prominent as a character. He reappears occasionally to offer
his thoughts on the mythological history of whaling and the symbolic meanings of the story of Jonah from the
Bible. While Ahab rages at the world, Ishmael describes the sensual pleasures of squeezing lumps of whale oil
or spermaceti. He tells how he once measured a whale’s skeleton on the (fictional) island of Tranque in the
Arsacides and describes the illness of Queequeg, who is so near death at one point that he orders a coffin from
the carpenter. Queequeg survives, however, and turns the coffin into a bed, carving its exterior with the same
“hieroglyphic marks” that are tattooed on his body. When the ship later loses its standard life-buoy, the
carpenter nails the lid on the coffin, caulks it, and hangs it from the back of the ship as a replacement.
Torn between the good and evil influences of Starbuck and Fedallah, Ahab instinctively guides the ship back
to the “very latitude and longitude” of his first encounter with Moby-Dick. Starbuck makes a final appeal to
his captain to “fly these deadly waters!” and return to his wife and child, but Ahab rejects his pleas and turns
to Fedallah. In his role as demonic advisor, Fedallah has prophesied that Ahab will know “neither hearse nor
coffin” and that before he can die on this voyage he must first see two hearses on the sea, one “not made by
mortal hands” and the other made of American wood. He also declares that only hemp or rope can kill the
captain, which Ahab understands as a reference to hanging. Since he is unlikely to be hung on his own ship
and even less likely to see two hearses in the middle of the Pacific, Ahab declares himself “immortal on land
With any chance of relinquishing his obsession now lost, Ahab finally spots the white whale and the chase
begins. For three days the crew of the Pequod fights Moby-Dick but fails to kill him. On the third day, with
Ahab’s harpoon in his hump, the white whale turns toward the ship itself and, with a powerful blow of his
forehead, sinks the Pequod with all the crew still on board. Combined with the death of Fedallah, seen
wrapped in the ropes that now encircle Moby-Dick, the ship’s sinking fulfills the first prophecy. Soon after,
the third prediction also comes true when Ahab, trying to clear a kink in the rope attached to Moby-Dick, gets
caught in a loop and disappears, dragged under by the whale. Caught in the whirlpool created by the sinking
ship, all remaining members of the crew except Ishmael go down with the ship.
Pitched overboard by the violent struggles of Moby-Dick, Ishmael floats on the edge of the action, witnessing
the final moments of Ahab and his crew. As the ship sinks, the whirlpool draws him closer to the site of the
wreck, but because of his distance from the ship, he is not pulled under. Instead, out of the center of the
whirlpool, Queequeg’s coffin rises to save him. Aided by the strange “life preserver,” Ishmael floats for
“almost one whole day and night” before the Rachel, a whaling ship searching for part of its crew, picks him
Moby Dick: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis
Ishmael: the narrator of the story; a seaman
Moby Dick: Summary and Analysis 10
Ishmael explains he has chosen to go to sea to cure his depression as an alternative to suicide. There is
“magic” in bodies of water, he says. “Crowds of water-gazers” flock to the wharfs of Manhattan, a
temporary escape from the occupations in which they are “pent up.” Wanderers in the woods find their way
Ishmael never goes to sea as a passenger; he doesn’t have the money to pay. He never goes as an officer; he
has all he can do to take care of himself. He never goes as a cook. Rather, he goes to sea as a “simple sailor”
to get paid, to get exercise, and to breathe the pure air. He overcomes the indignity of being ordered around
since he believes that everyone else is a slave in one way or another.
Although he may delude himself into believing his choice is his own, it is fate that sends Ishmael on a whaling
voyage. His chief motives are the mystery of the whale itself and the marvels of the seas he will sail.
Discussion and Analysis
“Call me Ishmael” is undoubtedly one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. The name is an
allusion to the biblical character who was cast out of Abraham’s household, set adrift as it were. The title of
the chapter, “Loomings,” meaning an ominous event about to occur, establishes a sense of foreboding.
At the outset, in analyzing his own motives, the narrator shows himself to be open-minded, philosophical, and
observant. His journey is nothing less than a quest for knowledge and understanding: the sea, or perhaps
Ishmael’s own reflection in it, is “the ungraspable phantom of life; … the key to it all.” The ocean as a central
symbol is introduced in this chapter. The water offers not only freedom from a mundane existence, but also
freedom of thought.
The first chapter is written in an ironic, humorous tone. Ishmael’s depression is serious and borders on
self-destruction, but it is described in such understated terms as “pausing before coffin warehouses” and
“bringing up the rear of every funeral.” Ishmael humorously describes God’s plan for him as a warm-up act
sandwiched between “more extensive performances.” There is a good deal of irony and humor in Moby-Dick
that must not be overlooked.
Chapters 2-4 Summary and Analysis
Peter Coffin: the owner of the Spouter Inn
Bulkington: a whaler in the Spouter Inn just returned from a
Queequeg: a pagan harpooner with whom Ishmael must share a bed
Ishmael stays over in New Bedford, waiting for a packet to take him to Nantucket. He searches the cold, dark
streets for a place to stay. After accidentally going into a “Negro church,” he comes upon a sign, “The
Spouter Inn:—Peter Coffin.”
The entryway of the inn reminds Ishmael of a “condemned old craft.” Dominating the scene is a large,
enigmatic oil painting, which Ishmael interprets as a “half-foundered” ship in a hurricane with a whale
leaping up as if to impale himself on the masts. Peter Coffin tells Ishmael that he must share a bed with a
harpooner. Ishmael observes the activities of the inn, taking special interest in a tall, silent man named
Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis 11
Bulkington. He will soon be Ishmael’s shipmate in spite of the fact that he has just returned from a voyage.
Ishmael grows fearful of sharing a bed with a stranger and tries unsuccessfully to sleep on a bench. He opts
for the bed even after Peter Coffin tells him that this harpooner is off peddling a shrunken head. Ishmael is in
bed when the dark stranger enters. His head is bald except for a small scalp-knot, and he is tattooed all over.
He removes an ebony idol from his bag, performs a sort of prayer, and smokes his tomahawk pipe, which he
brings to bed with him. Ishmael screams for the landlord who assures him that Queequeg will do him no
harm. Ishmael sleeps soundly.
He wakes with Queequeg’s arm thrown over him. With some difficulty, Ishmael awakens his bedfellow.
Queequeg dresses in his tall beaver hat and crawls under the bed to put on his boots. He shaves with his
Discussion and Analysis
Melville uses the doubling technique, bringing opposites together to create contrasts. For example, although
the tone of this section is light, much of the imagery is dark and foreboding. The tone is amusing as Ishmael
walks along talking to himself, telling himself that the Sword-Fish Inn is much too jolly and expensive. His
misunderstanding of Peter Coffin’s meaning when he tells Ishmael that Queequeg is out selling his head is
verbal comedy of the “who’s on first” variety. And the bedroom scene provides terrific physical comedy.
On the other hand, the atmosphere is dismal. The New Bedford streets are icy and dark. The light in a house
looks like a candle in a tomb. A box of ashes reminds Ishmael of the biblical city of Gomorrah destroyed by
God for its evil. The Spouter Inn is owned by a man named Coffin; its entryway is described in terms of the
direful painting and the instruments of death hanging on its walls. Ishmael contemplates his own vulnerability
in a hostile universe when he compares himself to a house whose chinks and crannies have not been stopped
up. The cold wind blows through, and “Death is the only glazier.”
Likewise, the budding friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg is the bringing together of opposites. Ishmael, the
civilized Christian, learns tolerance from his pagan friend. Early in the bedroom scene, Ishmael reminds
himself that “ignorance is the parent of fear.” In fact, Ishmael admits, “(Queequeg) treated me with so much
civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness.” Ishmael’s comment that “naught but death”
would part him and Queequeg foreshadows events to follow.
Chapters 5-9 Summary and Analysis
Father Mapple: pastor of the seamen’s chapel
Ishmael greets his landlord and bears no hard feelings for the joke Peter Coffin played in the matter of his
bedfellow. All the boarders, mostly whalemen, gather at the table for breakfast. Although they are all
adventurers, paradoxically, they are timid in the social setting. Queequeg sits at the head of the table, using his
harpoon to “grapple” the steak.
After breakfast, Ishmael ventures into the streets of New Bedford where he sees all manner of people
including “cannibals chatting at street corners” and hayseeds from Vermont “athirst for the glory” of
whaling. Nonetheless, New Bedford is “the dearest place to live” with its lovely parks, gardens, and patrician
houses all gotten from the bounty of the sea.
Chapters 2-4 Summary and Analysis 12
He stops into the Whaleman’s Chapel. The walls are lined with marble tablets put up in memory of those who
have lost their lives to whaling. Queequeg is there. Father Mapple mounts the pulpit by way of a ship’s ladder
which he draws up after him. The pulpit itself is a ship’s prow.
The sermon is based on the story of Jonah, who had been commanded by God to go to a foreign land to
preach. He disobeyed God and was punished by being swallowed by a whale. He repented and was saved.
Discussion and Analysis
Ishmael bears no grudge against Peter Coffin for he values good humor. “A good laugh is a mighty good
thing.… And the man that has anything bountifully laughable about him, be sure there is more in that man than
you perhaps think.” This principle might be applied not only to Ishmael but also to the author, who chooses to
The theme of death begins to be developed more significantly in this section. In the chapel, the marble tablets
lead Ishmael to consider the resurrection of those without graves. He wonders why people mourn for dead
ones who in the afterlife supposedly dwell in bliss. In a striking simile, faith is compared to a jackal that
“feeds among the tombs…and even from these dead doubts” gathers “her most vital hope.”
Ishmael grows “merry” as he thinks of death as a sort of promotion that his whaling voyage might offer him.
He describes death as “a speechlessly quick bundling of a man into eternity.” After all, his soul, not his body,
is his true substance. The bringing together of opposites in previous chapters continues here as Melville
focuses on the dual nature of man, the spiritual and the physical.
The theme of isolation is introduced in this section. The pulpit isolates Father Mapple and “signifies his
spiritual withdrawal … from the outward worldly ties.” Similarly, Ishmael’s metaphoric journey for
understanding must bring him into the realm of the spiritual, away from worldly ties. Frequently in literature,
a water voyage is a symbolic separation from previously unquestioned beliefs. It is a venture into a fluid realm
where there are no absolutes; yet many find enlightenment there.
Father Mapple’s sermon is about not only sin and redemption, but also “Gospel duty … to preach the truth to
the face of falsehood.” In a metaphor, Ishmael compares the world to a ship and the pulpit to its prow.
Ishmael is fulfilling his Gospel through the telling of this story.
Chapters 10-15 Summary and Analysis
Bumpkin: mocks Queequeg on packet to Nantucket
Mr. and Mrs. Hosea Hussey: owners of the Try Pots Inn
Ishmael returns to the Spouter Inn, where he finds Queequeg turning through the pages of a book. They share
a smoke from the tomahawk pipe, and Queequeg declares Ishmael a bosom friend for whom he would die.
Ishmael joins Queequeg in his rites of praising the ebony idol.
Queequeg tells Ishmael of his past. The son of a high chief from Kokovoko, Queequeg was determined to
learn more about Christians and to bring his knowledge back to his people to make them happier. After being
picked up by a ship, he discovered that Christians have little to offer his people.
Chapters 5-9 Summary and Analysis 13
The two friends use a wheelbarrow to bring their belongings aboard The Moss, the Nantucket packet. A
“bumpkin” makes fun of Queequeg, who deftly tosses him into the air. While the captain berates Queequeg,
the boom flies loose and knocks the bumpkin overboard. Queequeg dives in and saves him. Arriving at the
Try Pots Inn, the two sailors are served clam and fish chowders by Mrs. Hussey.
Discussion and Analysis
Ishmael’s first major step in both his literal and symbolic journey begins with his acceptance of Queequeg as
his bosom friend. “You cannot hide the soul,” he says as he penetrates Queequeg’s outlandish exterior to
recognize the noble being within. Ishmael feels a “melting” away of false beliefs. “How elastic our stiff
prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them.” His participating in Queequeg’s ritual worship of the
idol suggests an essential unity in the spirituality of human beings. The “magnanimous God of heaven and
earth” is the God of “pagans and all.”
The significance of the bringing together of opposites becomes clear in this section. From what appears to be
an insignificant observation about feeling cozy and warm, Ishmael draws an important truth. “Truly 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.” Duality, then, the tension of contrasts, is the very nature of
Queequeg proves Ishmael’s assessment of him to be true. His biography shows his fearless and benevolent
nature. His saving of the bumpkin shows his bravery, selflessness, and willingness to forgive. It is no wonder
that Ishmael decides to cleave to Queequeg “like a barnacle.”
Ishmael has learned, “It’s a mutual, joint-stock world”, where cannibals may help Christians. He has learned
that cultural differences are insignificant. The wheelbarrow analogy illustrates the point. People laughed at
Queequeg when he filled a wheelbarrow and then carried the whole lot on his shoulder. People of
Queequeg’s land laughed at the captain who washed his hands in what was really a punch bowl.
The section contains a good deal of foreshadowing. Ishmael refers to Queequeg’s “last long dive.” The old
top mast from which the Try Pots’ sign is suspended reminds him of a two-sided gallows. Ishmael feels a
sense of foreboding.
The ominous mood once again is relieved by humor. When Mrs. Hussey poses the question, “Clam or cod?”
Ishmael believes he will be served a single clam for supper. He also wonders if eating chowder will make him
a “chowder head.”
Chapters 16-18 Summary and Analysis
Yojo: Queequeg’s little god, the black idol
Captains Peleg and Bildad: Quaker Nantucketers, owners of the Pequod
Captain Ahab: captain of the Pequod
The Pequod: ship onto which Ishmael signs
Queequeg believes that Yojo has told him to have Ishmael pick out a whaling ship. While Queequeg begins
his day of fasting, Ishmael chooses the Pequod. He signs on with the owners, Bildad and Peleg, who after
Chapters 10-15 Summary and Analysis 14
some bickering, give Ishmael the 300th lay, his share of the profit from the whaling voyage.
When Ishmael asks to see his captain, Peleg tells him Ahab is at home, neither sick nor well. Ishmael learns
that Ahab lost his leg to a whale and that he has a wife and child. Peleg alludes to a typhoon during which he
and Ahab saved the Pequod and her men.
When Ishmael returns to his room, he finds it locked. Concerned for Queequeg, he breaks down the door to
find his friend squatting silently in the middle of the room, Yojo on his head. At sunup, Queequeg’s ritual
Bildad and Peleg are reluctant to sign a heathen onto the Pequod. Queequeg proves his skill as a harpooner by
hitting a small spot of tar on the water. Peleg signs him on under the name of Quohog, beneath which
Queequeg makes his mark, the symbol tattooed on his arm.
Discussion and Analysis
The question of the role of fate is raised once again in this section. Queequeg believes Yojo has chosen the
vessel for him and his friend and that Ishmael is fated to choose that particular vessel.
Ishmael’s ambiguous feelings about religion become more apparent. His tolerance of Queequeg’s worship
weakens as he tries to dissuade him from fasting. “ All these Lents, Ramadans were stark nonsense; bad for
the health; useless for the soul.” Ishmael’s remark that he has “the greatest respect for everybody’s religious
obligations, never mind how comical,” proves that in fact he has yet to feel the respect he professes.
Nonetheless, he convinces the two Quakers that Queequeg, like everyone, belongs to “the great and
everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world.”
The beliefs and practices of the Quaker Bildad raise more questions about religion. Bildad “had the reputation
of being an incorrigible old hunk, and in his sea-going days, a bitter, hard taskmaster.” In all appearances the
most pious of men, Bildad is in reality “hardhearted.”
Images associated with the Pequod foreshadow death. The vessel is named after an extinct Indian tribe. Her
decks are compared to the flagstones of Canterbury Cathedral where “Becket bled,” a reference to the
assassination of the archbishop by the men of Henry II. Her winches are made from whales’ teeth; her tiller
from the jaw. “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”
Peleg’s description of Ahab is similarly paradoxical. We see at once his dualistic nature, a man of
contradictions. “He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Although his biblical namesake was a crowned king,
he was a “very vile one.” He’s like any average man, but “there’s a good deal more to him.” He’s
“moody” and “savage,” but “Ahab has his humanities.” Ishmael feels both pity and awe for Ahab. This
introduction suggests that Ahab is a likely tragic hero.
Chapters 19-25 Summary and Analysis
Elijah: a strange, ragged old man; a prophet of doom
Aunt Charity: Bildad’s sister
As Queequeg and Ishmael approach the Pequod, which is being made ready for its long voyage, they are
accosted by Elijah, who makes many vague and unsettling innuendos about the ship and its captain, whom he
Chapters 16-18 Summary and Analysis 15
calls Old Thunder.
The morning the ship is to set sail, Ishmael sees some “shadows,” which he takes to be men, boarding the
boat. Elijah approaches him once again and tells him to see if he can find those sailors when he goes aboard.
Although Ahab had come on the ship the night before sailing, he has remained in his cabin.
The ship sets sail on Christmas morning, piloted out of port by Bildad and Peleg. When it is time for them to
leave the ship, they are reluctant to go. That night, Ishmael is surprised to see Bulkington at the helm.
Ishmael defends whaling as a noble occupation. Whalers are no more butchers than are soldiers who earn
praise for their slaughtering. Whale oil lights the lamps of the world and is used to anoint the heads of kings
and queens at their coronations. For Ishmael, whaling was his Harvard and Yale.
Discussion and Analysis
In the Bible, the first book of Kings, the prophet Elijah is an enemy of the wicked King Ahab. The Elijah who
stops Ishmael is also a prophet. He suggests that Queequeg and Ishmael may have signed over their souls
when they signed onto the Pequod. He intimates that Ahab lost his leg “according to the prophecy.” He also
raises the issue of fate when he says, “What’s to be, will be … it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready.”
Ishmael remarks that he suspects something is amiss, but suppresses his suspicions. “I said nothing, and tried
to think nothing.” His dismay increases when he sees shadows going onto the boat. These “shadows” will
remain a mystery until later in the book.
The Pequod sails on Christmas day, and Bildad is singing a hymn “full of hope and fruition” as the boat pulls
out of port. Regardless, because of the earlier foreshadowing and the words of Elijah, the reader has a sense of
Bulkington, although we see him only briefly, is a significant character. “Land seemed scorching to his feet.”
In the land/sea duality, the land represents safe, traditional knowledge and belief. On a thematic level,
Bulkington is the “deep earnest thinker”; “in landlessness alone resides the truth, shoreless, indefinite as
Chapters 26-31 Summary and Analysis
Starbuck: chief mate
Stubb: second mate
Flask: third mate, called King-Post
Tashtego: Stubb’s Indian harpooner
Daggoo: Flask’s African harpooner
The first two chapters of this section, both entitled “Knights and Squires,” describe the officers of the
Pequod. “Three better, more likely sea-officers and men, each in his own different way, could not readily be
found, and they were every one of them Americans.”
Chapters 19-25 Summary and Analysis 16
Starbuck, a Quaker, is a lean, “steadfast man.” He had lost both a father and a brother to whaling and has a
family at home. Consequently, he is a cautious whaleman who “will have no man in (his) boat who is not
afraid of a whale.”
“Happy-go-lucky” Stubb, on the other hand, is “easy and careless” about whaling. His pipe is a permanent
feature of his face. It is Stubb who confronts Ahab about his pacing the deck, keeping the crew awake at night
with the thumping of his ivory leg. Ahab gets angry and calls him a dog. Stubb at first takes offense, but later,
after a dream about Ahab kicking him, decides that an insult from a man like Ahab is, in fact, an honor.
Flask, the third mate, is a “stout, ruddy” fellow called King-Post. Bent on destroying whales, he is fearless as
he feels that he has been personally affronted by the creatures.
Ahab at last appears on deck where, eventually, he will stay most of the time. Ishmael is filled with
apprehension at his first sight of him. Ahab is branded with a scar that runs down his face into his shirt. He
puts the tip of his ivory leg into auger holes, which have been drilled into the deck. Sometimes he sits upon an
ivory stool to smoke, but when smoking “no longer soothes,” he throws his pipe into the sea.
Discussion and Analysis
That Moby-Dick is a tragedy of epic proportions is made clear to us in this section. Melville uses the classic
device of apostrophe to address absent beings or abstract concepts. In an elevated style, he speaks to the “just
Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all.” This apostrophe is not unlike
Homer’s or Milton’s asking the Muses for divine inspiration. Melville explains that he will imbue common
men with heroic, “high qualities” and “tragic graces.” He asks the Spirit of Equality to intercede for him
against critics who object.
The Pequod is a microcosm manned by sailors of all races. Melville remarks that most of them are islanders,
“isolatoes,” living on their own separate continents, but united on this ship—symbolically, the world.
Each mate represents a different approach to whaling and, on a thematic level, to nature and life itself.
Starbuck respects the whale as strong and dangerous. He also values life and means to preserve his own. For
him, whaling is a way to make a living. Stubb seems to have accepted things as they are and goes about his
business cheerfully. Flask sees whales as enemies. He has no reverence for “the many marvels of their
majestic bulk and mystic ways.”
Chapters 32-35 Summary and Analysis
Dough-Boy: the cabin steward
Ishmael believes that to understand the references to whales that will follow in his narrative, it is first
necessary to have some knowledge of the general classifications of whales. He defines the whale as “a
spouting fish with a horizontal tail.” He then classifies whales according to size into three “books,” each with
its “chapters.” The first book is made of the largest whales, such as the sperm and right whales. The second
consists of middle-sized whales, such as the narwhale and killer whale. The last contains porpoises.
Ishmael then explains the hierarchy of the whale ship. The chief harpooner is known as the specksynder.
Because ultimately the success of a voyage depends on the harpooners, they are given quarters aft with the
captain and mates. General seamen live forward of the mast.
Chapters 26-31 Summary and Analysis 17
The mates take their meals with the captain in his cabin. With Ahab, this is a silent, solemn affair. After they
have left, the harpooners have their dinners. They are so boisterous and lively that they frighten the steward.
Of all the ship’s duties, standing the masthead can be most pleasant. On balmy days, Ishmael, standing watch
high up on the mast, performs his duty poorly, for he gets lost in the reverie of his thoughts. Unfortunately,
whalers that fish in the South Seas are not equipped with crow’s nests, and on cold, stormy days, masthead
watch is most unpleasant.
Discussion and Analysis
Like the “Etymology and Extracts” sections that precede the first chapter, the cetology chapter suggests that
what we know is open to interpretation, that meaning can be, and often is, ambiguous. Knowledge is also
incomplete, as is rightly so according to Ishmael, for the greatest works are those that are left to posterity to
finish. Ishmael calls his own work, “but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.” The cetology chapter
demonstrates Ishmael’s passion to understand.
The classification of whales and of those who hunt them presents an interesting comparison. Unlike whales,
humans depend upon social form, such as who eats in the cabin, to make distinctions among themselves. “For
be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume … supremacy over other men, without the
aid of some sort of external arts.…”
Ahab is characterized as alienated. “Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still
alien to it.” Like a hibernating bear, “Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the
sullen paws of its gloom.”
The theme of the spiritual unity of living things is reiterated when Ishmael describes standing duty on the
masthead. Young men like Ishmael gaze down at the ocean below and see their identities in the “mystic
ocean, the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.”
Chapters 36-40 Summary and Analysis
Pip: the cabin boy
Ahab summons all hands to the quarter-deck. He hammers a gold coin to the mast and promises it to the first
man who sees the white whale “with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw.” Ahab admits that it is Moby Dick,
the whale that “dismasted” him. He also admits that killing Moby Dick is the purpose of the voyage. He
rallies all the men behind him; only Starbuck dissents.
Ahab gathers the crew around him, his hand upon the crossed lances of his mates. They all drink from a
pewter goblet. The harpooners drink from the detached iron spears of their harpoons.
Ahab, alone in his cabin, cannot enjoy the beauty of the sunset. He is “damned in the midst of paradise.” He
defies the gods that have “knocked (him) down.” Starbuck thinks about the power Ahab has over him. He is
tied to him and, though rebelling, must obey. Stubb tells himself that all is predestined and the only thing to
do is laugh about it.
The sailors drink, dance, sing, and fight until a squall comes up and they must reef the masts. Pip, the
frightened cabin boy, prays to the “big white God” to have mercy on a little black boy.
Chapters 32-35 Summary and Analysis 18
Discussion and Analysis
Stubb, observing Ahab, tells Flask, “the chick that’s in him pecks the shell. `Twill soon be out.” That
“chick” is Ahab’s monomaniacal desire for revenge on Moby Dick.
When Starbuck tells Ahab it is blasphemous to exact vengeance from a dumb brute that “simply smote thee
from blindest instinct,” Ahab replies that to him the whale represents evil. The whale is a mask, a wall,
behind which is the reality: “inscrutable malice.” Ahab believes his “high perception” has damned him and
driven him to madness. “What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do. They think me mad …
but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened.”
Melville takes great liberties with the narrative form in this section. In “Sunset,” the point of view changes
from Ishmael’s first person point of view to Ahab’s internal monologue. Similarly, internal monologues are
used for Starbuck and Stubb. “Midnight, Forecastle” is a play, stage directions and all.
Color imagery develops importance in this section. The white whale represents evil to Ahab. The white God is
salvation to Pip. Daggoo says he is “quarried” out of blackness and fights with a white Spaniard over the
color issue. Ahab’s white scar is compared to the lightning bolt in the sky.
Chapters 41-42 Summary and Analysis
As encounters with Moby Dick become more frequent among whalers, rumors about him grow more fantastic.
Some say he is ubiquitous, that he could be in two places at once. Others say that he is immortal. Many
ascribe to the creature a kind of malignant intelligence.
Ishmael learns more about Ahab’s encounter with Moby Dick. His three boats stove in and his crew swirling
in the eddies, Ahab futilely plunged a six-inch blade into the whales’s flank. It was then that Moby Dick took
his leg in his great, crooked jaw.
Ahab’s madness came upon him during the homeward voyage. For months, he lay in his hammock, “his torn
body and gashed soul bled into one another” and so made him mad. Later he was able to hide this madness.
The Nantucketers believed that his going back out to sea was the best thing for him.
Ishmael speculates on Ahab's and his own feelings for Moby Dick. Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white
hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, Moby
Dick embodies the very essence of evil. Ishmael’s feelings for the whale have more to do with its color.
Although whiteness may signify beauty and innocence, it is also the color of the horse upon which Death rides
and the color of a corpse’s skin. More frightening to Ishmael is that whiteness is an absence. It is blankness.
Discussion and Analysis
“Moby Dick” and “The Whiteness of the Whale” are more attempts by Ishmael to comprehend. In these
chapters, he analyzes and reasons, but admits that “to explain, would be to dive deeper than Ishmael can go.”
Furthermore, he hints at an ambiguity of feeling for Moby Dick; for at the beginning of his chapter on
whiteness, he uses the qualifying phrase, “what at times he was to me.”
Regardless, Ishmael is bound to Ahab and seems fated to help him in his revenge. “Here, then, was this
grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing a whale round the world, at the head of a crew made up of mongrel
renegades, and castaways, and cannibals … specially picked by some infernal fatality.…” This description
emphasizes the contrast between the majestic whale and the rag-tag band hunting him. It also suggests the
futility of striking out against Moby Dick and what he symbolizes.
Chapters 36-40 Summary and Analysis 19
Ishmael’s voyage, figuratively, is a quest to know, to understand. The “nameless horror” embodied in the
whale’s whiteness is, at best, that there is no absolute meaning. Ishmael explains how whiteness can be
interpreted as both good and evil. “whiteness is … the visible absence of color, and at the same time the
concrete of all colors.” At worst, the “nameless horror” is that the universe has no meaning at all.
“Nature…paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel house within.…”
Chapters 43-47 Summary and Analysis
Archy and Cabaco: sailors aboard the Pequod
Archy hears coughs from under the hatches where no one should be. Cabaco tells him it must be something he
ate. Every night in his cabin, Ahab studies nautical charts trying to map out the most likely path to bring him
to Moby Dick. For several years the whale has been sighted at the time and place known as
Season-on-the-Line. The Season will not occur for another year, but in the meantime, Ahab plots the
migratory patterns of sperm whales.
Ishmael offers proof for all he has said about whales. Whales do have recognizable traits and are given names
such as Rinaldo Rinaldini, Timor Tom, Don Miguel, and others. Sperm whales have destroyed entire ships
such as the Essex out of Nantucket.
By using the Pequod for his own purposes, Ahab has left himself open to the charge of usurpation. The crew
would be legally justified in a mutiny. He must hunt for other whales in order to appease the crew, particularly
As Queequeg and Ishmael are working together weaving a mat, Tashtego cries out, “There she blows!” The
men, lowering their boats, see “five dusky phantoms” preparing to join Ahab in the hunt.
Discussion and Analysis
Archy’s suspicions are proven sound when the five phantoms are seen with Ahab. These are the shadows
Ishmael saw boarding the ship in Nantucket.
Melville further explores the theme of vengeance. “What trances of torments does that man endure who is
consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own
bloody nails in his palms.” Ahab wakens from his dreams with wild cries and runs from his stateroom. It is
his soul that cries out and runs in terror of the crazy Ahab. The concept of dualistic man is here emphasized.
In a classical allusion, Ahab is compared to Prometheus, the Greek god who gave fire to man. He is punished
by being bound on a mountain where an eagle eats out his liver. In Ahab’s case, a “vulture,” his vengeance,
eats out his heart.
Ishmael believes the mat that he and Queequeg weave is symbolic of necessity, free will, and chance. He calls
their weaving “the Loom of Time.” Weaving and knitting are frequently symbols of fate.
Chapters 48-51 Summary and Analysis
Fedallah: Ahab’s mysterious harpooner
Chapters 41-42 Summary and Analysis 20
Ahab’s boat is lowered by Fedallah and his crew. Fedallah is tall and dark and has one tooth protruding from
his lips. His braided white hair is wrapped around his head like a turban. Ahab takes his place at the helm of
his whale boat. All the other boats are lowered as well.
Just as Queequeg throws his harpoon at a whale, the boat is swamped. Ishmael, Starbuck, and the others are
thrown from the boat, but manage to pull themselves back in. They are separated from the others and lost all
night in the storm and fog. At dawn, the Pequod finds them. After this incident, Ishmael makes out a will.
Fedallah spots a silvery spout. The Pequod is never able to catch up with it although it appears every night at
midnight. As the ship nears the Cape of Good Hope, the weather becomes cold; the ocean, treacherous.
Discussion and Analysis
Fedallah is associated with evil. When Ahab questions him, Fedallah “hisses” a reply. He is dark and dressed
in “funereal” black. Ishmael imagines him the offspring of the devil who “consorted with the daughters of
men.” Fedallah’s crew are yellow-complexioned Manillans, believed to be agents of the devil by some
Fedallah and his crew are described as “dusky phantoms fresh formed out of air.” On a symbolic level, they
are spiritual for they represent Ahab’s dark alter ego emerging as he comes closer to the object of his
vengeance. Similarly, the spirit-spout, believed to be that of Moby Dick, represents the vengeance luring
Ahab to destruction.
At the same time, the spirit-spout is spotted, flocks of sea-ravens perch upon the stays as if the Pequod is
uninhabited, “a thing appointed to desolation.” The heaving black sea is metaphorically compared to a
conscience “in anguish” for the “suffering it had bred.” The atmosphere of “The Spirit-Spout” chapter is
grim and foreboding.
Ishmael’s writing his will seems an acquiescence to his fate. His acceptance of his mortality takes a weight
from his heart. “Here goes for a cool, collected dive at death and destruction,” he tells himself jokingly,
expressing his new “desperado philosophy.”
Chapters 52-54 Summary and Analysis
Radney: mate on the Town-Ho
Steelkilt: sailor on the Town-Ho
Dons Pedro and Sebastian: young men to whom Ishmael told the Town-Ho’s story
The Albatross: ship with which the Pequod has an unsuccessful gam
The Town-Ho: ship manned by Polynesians
Southwest of the Cape of Good Hope, the Pequod meets the Albatross, a ship heading home after a four-year
voyage. Ahab hails the ship asking if they have seen the White Whale. As the other captain is about to reply,
he drops the horn through which he was about to speak into the water. His reply is lost in the wind.
Chapters 48-51 Summary and Analysis 21
This meeting, peculiar to whaleships, is known as a gam. Frequently, the boats’ crews exchange visits, mail,
papers, and whaling news.
The Pequod then has a short gam with the Town-Ho from which much is learned about the White Whale.
Ishmael hears a secret part of the story, from Tashtego.
Two years earlier, the Town-Ho was sailing the Pacific when the ship sprang a leak. Among the sailors
laboring at the pumps was a “tall, noble animal” named Steelkilt. Just as Steelkilt sat down to rest, the ugly
first mate, Radney, ordered him to shovel up some pig droppings from the deck. Steelkilt refused. Radney
came at Steelkilt with a hammer, and Steelkilt punched him in the mouth.
Steelkilt and some of his allies chose to be locked in the hold, rather than lashed. When they finally came out,
the captain lashed the two allies, but didn’t dare touch Steelkilt who had whispered some threat. Radney,
however, grabbed the rope and lashed Steelkilt himself.
Steelkilt planned Radney’s murder, but was saved the effort when the Town-Ho came upon Moby Dick.
Radney, tossed from his whaleboat, was seized in the jaws of the great whale.
Discussion and Analysis
The meeting with the Albatross reinforces a theme articulated earlier in the book: alienation. Communication
between the two ships is thwarted just as it is among the “isolatoes” of the world.
The seamen of the Pequod are dismayed by the “ominous incident” at the first mention of Moby Dick. Ahab
himself seems saddened when he sees the schools of little fish that had been swimming alongside the Pequod
for days dart away toward the Albatross. Ahab becomes a pariah to nature as he seeks his vengeance on the
Although part of the story as a whole, the Town-Ho narrative, is somewhat removed from it by a double
framing device. Ishmael relates the story as he told it to Dons Pedro and Sebastian at an inn in Lima. The
dialogue of these characters is interjected throughout the story and at the end, Ishmael swears on a Bible that
what he has told them is the truth.
To Ishmael, the Town-Ho’s encounter with Moby Dick seemed predestined. “A strange fatality pervades the
whole career of these events, as if verily mapped out before the world itself was charted.” In this story, Moby
Dick saves Steelkilt from the “damning thing he would have done.” That Moby Dick can be heaven’s
minion to Steelkilt and the essence of evil to Ahab is another demonstration of the ambiguity in human
Chapters 55-60 Summary and Analysis
Few pictures of whales are accurate because the true majesty of the whale can be seen only in unfathomable
waters. However, there are many pictures of whales. A crippled beggar in London holds a painted board
depicting the scene in which he lost his leg. Sailors carve and etch whale bone and whale teeth, a craft called
scrimshanding or scrimshaw. With imagination, whales can be seen in the stars and in undulating mountain
The Pequod cruises through a meadow of brit, the yellow substance eaten by right whales. Daggoo raises the
cry for the White Whale, but what he has sighted is really a huge, white squid. Starbuck considers it a bad
Chapters 52-54 Summary and Analysis 22
Typically, the whaling line, the line attached to the harpoon, is run through a series of complicated turns from
bow to stern, enclosing the six-man crew in its coils.
Discussion and Analysis
In this section, the reportorial style of the material devoted to the pictures of whales contrasts with the more
poetic style of descriptive passages such as this:
“But one transparent blue morning, … when the long burnished sun-glade on the waters
seemed a golden finger laid across them …, when the slippered waves whispered together …;
in this profound hush … a strange spectre was seen.”
The “spectre” is the squid. The diction used to describe its appearance creates a mystical atmosphere, as does
the use of the biblical word in the line: “Lo! in the same spot where it sank, once more it slowly rose.”
The theme of the duality of man is repeated when Ishmael compares the land and sea. “do you not find a
strange analogy to something in yourself?” he asks his readers. The analogy refers to man’s savage, untamed
nature represented by the sea and to his gentle, peaceful nature represented by an island in that sea. Never
venture from that metaphorical island, he says, for there is no return. Ahab is one who has done that, both
literally and figuratively.
The unity of man is suggested in the image of the whale line, but the image is not positive. All humans are
connected by virtue of the fact that they are all in the same mess, so to speak. “All men live enveloped in
whale-lines … but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent,
subtle, ever-present perils of life.”
Chapters 61-66 Summary and Analysis
Fleece: a 90-year-old, black cook
Drowsing during his watch at the foremast-head, Ishmael, spots a gigantic sperm whale lolling in the tranquil
waters of the Indian Ocean. The boats are lowered; Tashtego harpoons the whale; and Stubb kills it with his
“It is the harpooneer that makes the voyage.” He must cast his harpoon 20 or 30 feet after rowing with all his
strength and shouting loudly at the same time. Two harpoons are set in the crotch, but the second is usually
thrown overboard where it dangles dangerously from the main harpoon line.
The whale is secured next to the Pequod. Stubb tries to enjoy his whale steak dinner, but is disturbed by the
noise of the sharks. He tells Fleece to speak to the sharks and quiet them. Futilely, Fleece delivers a sermon
During the night, Queequeg and another seaman try to protect the whale carcass by killing sharks with their
Discussion and Analysis
A drowsy, tranquil scene opens chapter LXI. Ishmael, on masthead watch, idly sways in the “enchanted air.”
In his dreamy mood, his soul goes out of his body. He and the other two masthead watches “lifelessly swung
from the spars.” The imagery creates a sleepy, sultry atmosphere, but, at the same time, suggests the
Chapters 55-60 Summary and Analysis 23
The atmosphere and imagery in the first part of chapter LXI contrast with that of the last part. The tranquil
atmosphere becomes a wild chase. Dreamy images become realistic images of the kill as “gush after gush of
clotted red gore … shot into the afrighted air.”
Several parallels are drawn between the whale and its hunters. The whale is lolling about like the men on the
ship; a “jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale” as puff after puff of smoke
came from the mouth of the excited Stubb. When the whale dies, Stubb’s pipe goes out.
Man and shark are not so unlike either. During sea battles, the sharks in the water fight over the bodies fallen
overboard as the men on deck fight with each other. “ … turn the whole affair upside down, it would still be
pretty much the same thing.”
Fleece’s sermon to the sharks, delivered in the old black man’s dialect, is wryly humorous. Fleece addresses
the sharks as “Belubed fellow critters” and comes to the conclusion that Stubb is more of a shark than a
shark. The chapter reiterates the theme of the dual nature of man and the necessity to control the dark side.
Chapters 67-71 Summary and Analysis
Captain Mayhew: captain of the Jeroboam
Gabriel: crazed prophet and crewman on the Jeroboam
Macey: Jeroboam’s chief mate killed by Moby Dick
The Jeroboam: ship plagued by an epidemic
On Sunday, a pulley system is rigged to the mast and a hook is attached to a huge strip of blubber. The strip of
blubber is peeled from the whale like a peel from an orange. Starbuck and Stubb stand on staging just above
the whale and simultaneously cut a scarf line with their sharp shovels. The whale spins like a log in the water
as the spiraled blubber, called the blanket, is hoisted up.
The headless carcass of the whale is set adrift. The head has been hoisted about halfway out of the water
against the side of the ship. Ahab speaks to the head telling it to reveal all the secrets it knows.
The Jeroboam approaches, but because of an epidemic on his ship, Captain Mayhew speaks to Ahab from his
whaleboat. One of his oarsmen is the crazed Gabriel, who tells Ahab to “beware of the blasphemer’s end.”
As Gabriel had predicted, the chief mate of the Jeroboam was killed by Moby Dick, whom Gabriel believes to
be his Shaker god. Ironically, the Pequod is carrying a letter for the deceased Macey. When Ahab tries to hand
it over, Gabriel grabs it, pierces it with a knife, and throws the knife at Ahab’s feet.
Discussion and Analysis
Once again, the inscrutability of nature is suggested. The whale’s skin is crisscrossed with “hieroglyphical”
lines, but “the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable.” This passage suggests that Moby Dick will
remain undecipherable as well.
Chapters 61-66 Summary and Analysis 24
That Moby Dick is an ambiguous symbol is further illustrated by Gabriel’s belief in him as the Shaker god.
The Shakers, a celibate religious sect, maintain that God is a duality, both male and female, the parents of
mankind. The two madmen, Ahab and Gabriel, constitute another duality: to one, Moby Dick is the
incarnation of God; to the other, the incarnation of evil.
Ahab’s speech to the whale’s head is also about the inscrutability of nature—in this case represented by the
sea. To Ahab, the sea is that “awful water-land” in which the whale has seen all manner of death. The sea is
the “murderous hold of this frigate earth ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned.…” Ahab asks the
head to share the secrets of the sea deaths it has witnessed. “O head!” Ahab apostrophizes, “Thou hast seen
enough to split the planets and make an infidel of Abraham.”
Chapters 72-78 Summary and Analysis
During the process of stripping the blubber from the whale, Queequeg must mount the carcass to secure the
hook. For safety, he is attached to a monkey rope, a line which runs up the side of the ship and is attached to
Ahab orders the killing of a right whale because Fedallah has told him that a boat with a sperm whale head on
one side and a right whale head on the other cannot sink.
Stubb and Flask kill a right whale. While they are towing it back to the boat, they discuss Fedallah. Stubb
believes him to be the devil and suggests that Ahab has made a pact with him.
Ishmael contrasts the two whale heads now hoisted on either side of the ship. The sperm whale’s head is
symmetrical, but the right whale’s is “inelegant.” Ishmael sees the mouth as “really beautiful and
Within the sperm whale’s head is a well of precious spermaceti. Tashtego mounts the main yardarm to lower
a bucket into the tun and begin the process of bailing out its 500 gallons of spermaceti. When Tashtego slips
and falls into the head, the whole thing falls from the side of the ship. Queequeg jumps into the water, swims
to the sinking head, cuts a hole in it, reaches in, and pulls out Tashtego.
Discussion and Analysis
The theme of the unity of man is symbolized by the line that connects Queequeg and Ishmael. Furthermore,
the line symbolizes the interrelatedness of all human actions. What one man does affects another, and as in the
case of Ishmael and Queequeg, it could be a matter of life and death.
Although there is some humor in Stubb’s speculation about Fedallah being the devil, it is clearly established
that he is an evil presence. Stubb jokes about how Fedallah hides his devil’s tail and how his one tooth is
shaped like the head of a snake, but when Ahab steps on deck to view the whale head, Fedallah literally stands
in Ahab’s shadow. Figuratively, Fedallah is Ahab’s shadow self.
Part of Ishmael’s metaphoric journey toward understanding involves the resolution of dichotomous ideas.
With an eye on either side of his head, the whale, can perceive two images at the same time. For man it is not
so easy. Like Ahab, man tends to see things as all evil or all good. The two whale heads symbolize the true
dualistic nature of the universe.
Chapters 67-71 Summary and Analysis 25
Chapters 79-81 Summary and Analysis
Derrick De Deer: captain of the Jungfrau
Jungfrau (Virgin): German ship empty of whale oil
Ishmael describes the physiognomy of the whale. The sperm whale has no nose, which gives the creature an
added grandeur. Its brow gives it a “high and mighty God-like dignity.” The sperm whale is a fit object for
The brain is encased in a skull, which when scaled down, is not unlike man’s. The whale’s hump rises over
one of its largest vertebrae. This hump indicates the “indomitableness” of the sperm whale.
The next whale hunt, involving both the Jungfrau and the Pequod, illustrates such indomitableness. The
Jungfrau has no oil, and Captain Derrick De Deer approaches the Pequod with the idea of getting some lamp
oil from her. However, just as his boat comes near, a pod of whales is spotted.
One blind, crippled old bull struggles along at the rear of the pod. Derrick’s four boats and the Pequod’s
three compete to capture this large whale. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo harpoon the whale first. The
whale is killed and secured to the Pequod, but the whale begins to sink, pulling the Pequod over sideways.
Queequeg manages to cut through the fluke chains, and the whale sinks.
Derrick and his men chase after a finback, mistaking it for a sperm whale. The finback is an uncapturable
species because of his speed and agility.
Discussion and Analysis
Once again, Ishmael expresses his appreciation of the great beauty of the whale. He sees similarities between
this creature and man, suggesting the unity of man and nature.
Remarking on the inscrutability of the whale’s brow, Ishmael tells us, “I but put that brow before you. Read
it if you can.” Here, it seems Melville tells his readers that it is up to them to find their own meaning in Moby
Ishmael’s diction in recounting the killing of the old whale arouses sympathy. The whale’s “tormented” jet,
his “agony of fright,” his “cruel wound” and “more than sufferable anguish” are “most pitiable.” The brute
is compared to a bird with a clipped wing, but the bird can express its fear; the whale has no voice. Even
Starbuck tries to stop Flask from causing the creature further pain.
The Jungfrau is no match for the experienced crew of the Pequod. Jungfrau means virgin, and so it is
appropriate that she is a “clean” ship, “that is, an empty one.” Her name also suggests the inexperience of
her crew, who go chasing after the uncapturable finback. “Many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the
Derricks, my friend,” says Ishmael.
Chapters 82-86 Summary and Analysis
Ishmael names “demi-gods, heroes, and prophets” who have been whalers: among them, Perseus, St. George,
Hercules, Vishnu, and Jonah.
Chapters 79-81 Summary and Analysis 26
Not long after the Jungfrau episode, whales are spotted. The chase requires the use of the pitchpole, a 10- to
12-foot lance much lighter than a harpoon. The pitchpole can be thrown some distance to pierce the whale and
then pulled back by a line and thrown again and again. Tashtego plants his iron in a whale, but the whale
continues its fleet flight. The pitchpole is used to slow it down, and then it is caught.
Ishmael continues his speculations about the whale’s physiology. He tells us he is writing this particular
passage on December 16, 1851. The topic is the whale’s spout through which it breathes. When the whale
surfaces, he “breathes,” filling vessels on either side of his spine and along his ribs with oxygenated blood.
He draws upon this supply when he swims underwater. Although there is no definite answer to the question of
whether the spout is vapor or vapor mixed with water, Ishmael maintains it is a kind of mist. Whalemen
believe the jet to be poisonous, harmful to the skin, and blinding.
The sperm whale’s tail is 20 feet across and its upper surface is at least 50 square feet. Although the tail is
incredibly powerful, it is nonetheless very graceful. The whale uses it for progression, hitting, sweeping,
lobtailing, and peaking.
Discussion and Analysis
Whalemen constitute a brotherhood not only of common whalers, but also of the high and the mighty. The
whalers Ishmael mentions represent a cross section of cultures. Perseus is a Greek hero and Hercules, a Greek
god. St. George is somewhat facetiously included among the whalers and is the patron saint of England. Jonah
The “grand master” of the fraternity is Vishnu, a Hindu god who in his first incarnation was a whale that
rescued the Vedas from the bottom of the sea. Ishmael says, “Give us the divine Vishnoo himself for our
Lord.” This chapter reinforces the idea that all mankind is represented by the whalers. It also supports the
theme of the unity of man.
Ishmael continues to see great beauty and majesty in the whale. The peaking of the whale’s flukes is “the
grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities, the gigantic tail seems
spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven.” Ishmael also reiterates the inscrutability of the creature.
“Dissect him how I may, … I know him not, and never will.” The whale represents the forces of nature, which
are destructive, beautiful, and unfathomable.
Chapters 87-92 Summary and Analysis
Guernseyman: first mate of the Rose-Bud
Rose-Bud: French ship with two rotting whales secured to her
Near the straits of Sunda, the Pequod is chased by Malaysian pirates whom the Pequod is able to outrun. The
ship then encounters a huge herd of whales. Mid-chase, the whales become “gallied,” disoriented and
swimming about in all directions. Queequeg harpoons a whale that escapes after towing the boat into a calm
spot occupied by cows and their calves. The oarsmen pet them. Beneath the surface, cows nurse their young.
The whalers use a “drugg” to injure the gallied whales and slow them down so they can be captured later. A
drugged whale, flailing about, invades the calm area and soon the whale boat is pressed on all sides by the
whales. In the melee, Queequeg loses his hat. Only one drugged whale is captured.
Chapters 82-86 Summary and Analysis 27
Enormous herds of whales such as these are sometimes encountered, but schools of whales, consisting of 25
to 50 whales are more frequently seen. These schools usually consist of all males or all females. A female
school is accompanied by a schoolmaster, a full-grown male.
In the previous hunt, waif poles were used to mark ownership of whales which had been “drugged.” By law,
such whales would be considered Fast-Fish. A Fast-Fish is any fish secured to a ship or secured to any
implement of that ship such as a waif pole or harpoon.
A curious English law states that the head of a fish belongs to the King, and the tail to the Queen. Nothing is
left for the whaler. Ishmael cites a case in which this law has recently been applied in England.
A few weeks after the encounter with the huge herd of whales, the Pequod encounters the Rose-Bud. On one
side of her is a blasted whale, one which has died a natural death and is in some stage of decay. On the other
side is a whale which has dried up and died owing to some kind of digestive problem.
Holding his nose all the while, Stubb visits the boat, and discovers they know nothing of Moby Dick. The
chief mate, a Guernsey-man, recruits Stubb’s help in convincing the captain to cut loose the stinking
carcasses. While Stubb insults the captain in English, the chief mate convinces the captain that the rotting
whales will cause death and disease on their ship. The captain orders the whales cut loose.
Stubb knows the dried up whale contains valuable ambergris. Ambergris is a fragrant yellow, waxy substance
used in perfumes. Stubb and his men are able to get several handfuls of the stuff before Ahab calls them
Discussion and Analysis
The irony of the gallied whale scene is that while whalemen slaughter and maim whales, they can at the same
time take pleasure in them. Ishmael calls his moments with the cows and their babies “enchanted” and feels
secrets of the deep have been revealed to him. The scene also brings together birth and death.
The calm in the center of the gallied whales is symbolic of the soul at peace in the midst of external turmoil. “
… while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down … I still bathe me in eternal
mildness of joy.”
The Rose-Bud chapter provides a good deal of humor. The name of the stinking ship is, of course, ironic.
Stubb’s insults of the French and their captain are quick and cutting. Without the captain knowing, Stubb
calls him a baboon to his face. Ironically, the captain is so grateful, he offers Stubb a glass of wine. The final
irony is that Stubb tricks the Guernsey-man, who tricked the captain.
Chapters 93-99 Summary and Analysis
Pip replaces an injured man in Stubb’s boat. Pip is jarred from the boat and caught in the harpoon line.
Tashtego grudgingly cuts the line to save Pip and loses the whale in doing so. On another hunt, Pip is once
again thrown into the sea, but this time Stubb leaves him. Pip is later picked up by the Pequod, but his
experience has left him mad.
Ishmael explains more steps in the processing of the whale. As the sperm cools in the tubs, it hardens. The
sailors dip in their hands and squeeze the lumps back to liquid. Also, the whale’s phallus is skinned, the skin
is dried, arm holes are cut in it, and the mincer slips it on before cutting up pieces of blubber for the melting
Chapters 87-92 Summary and Analysis 28
The blubber is melted down over a kiln in two try-pots. The sailors often help themselves to the cooled oil to
keep their lamps burning even as they sleep. The cooled oil is put in casks and stored below.
Pacing the deck, Ahab, stops to study the doubloon he nailed to the mast. In its symbols, he sees himself.
Starbuck interprets it as a symbol of God. Stubb, Flask, the Manxman, Queequeg, Fedallah, and Pip also study
and interpret the meaning of the doubloon.
Discussion and Analysis
“The Castaway” and “The Squeeze of the Hand” are dualistic chapters. In the first, the tender-hearted, jovial
Pip, left adrift in the “heartless immensity” of the sea, experiences total isolation. The following chapter deals
with the opposite theme, the unity of man. While Ishmael is squeezing the globs of sperm, he also squeezes
other men’s hands and experiences a reverie of affection and love.
The cult of brotherhood is treated somewhat ironically in “The Cassock.” The “apron” worn by the mincer
looks like a priest’s cassock and is made from the male “grandissimus” of the whale. Ishmael notes that
biblical characters have worshipped such idols.
Ishmael is on the helm one night as the fires of the try-works create a hellish scene. At one point, he becomes
totally disoriented and a “bewildered feeling as of death” comes over him. On a thematic level, Ishmael has
been deceived and led to despair by evil on the Pequod, but like a “Catskill eagle,” his soul is able to soar up
out of the depths to the true light.
The interpretations of the doubloon emphasize once again the ambiguity of meaning. Each man sees
something different in the engravings on the coin. Ahab sees himself, the world, and his journey to
destruction. Starbuck sees the trinity of God. Stubb sees the life of man. Flask sees only monetary value.
From the engravings, the Manxman predicts when Moby Dick will be sighted. Queequeg tries to match up the
engravings with his tattoos, but sees nothing in the coin of any value. Fedallah, a fire worshipper, bows down
to the sun engraved on the coin. To Pip it is the navel of the ship; and once it is taken down, at the first
sighting of Moby Dick, the ship and her men will be destroyed.
Chapters 100-105 Summary and Analysis
Captain Boomer: one-armed captain of the Samuel Enderby
Dr. Bunger: ship’s doctor aboard the Samuel Enderby
Samuel Enderby: hospitable English ship
The Pequod has a gam with the Samuel Enderby. The blubber-hook is lowered for Ahab to be hoisted aboard
the English ship. Captain Boomer lost his arm to Moby Dick. His boat was smashed and his arm pierced by a
loose harpoon. Later, his arm had to be amputated. His carpenter made him a whale-bone arm.
Captain Boomer tells Ahab he has seen the White Whale, but advises him to let well enough alone. Ahab
becomes so agitated that Dr. Bunger approaches him to help, but Ahab pushes him against the bulwarks and
Chapters 93-99 Summary and Analysis 29
The Samuel Enderby was named after the man who brought the first whaler into the South Pacific. Ishmael
had the opportunity to board the English ship many years after the Pequod’s voyage. He remarks about her
Ishmael has become somewhat knowledgeable about whale skeletons by dissecting a cub sperm whale and by
inspecting the skeleton of a stranded whale on a Pacific island that he was visiting. The skeleton had been
turned into a shrine. By Ishmael’s calculations, the skeleton of a large sperm whale is between 85 and 90 feet
Fossil whales show that over the centuries whales have grown in size. Ishmael believes that whales will never
Discussion and Analysis
Captain Boomer and Ahab are exact opposites. Boomer sees Moby Dick as “a noble great whale” and wisely
advises Ahab, “He’s best let alone.” To Ahab, the whale is a “magnet.”
When Boomer tells the story of his mishap, Ahab interprets Moby Dick’s actions as a conscious attempt to
free the whale Boomer had harpooned. Boomer replies, “How it was exactly, I do not know.” Dr. Bunger
says that what is taken for malice in Moby Dick is actually awkwardness. Ahab sees Moby Dick as the
incarnation of evil; to Boomer ,the whale is a noble creature, but nothing more than a whale.
The two ships also provide contrast. The Pequod, with her pagan crew and mad captain, is the exact opposite
of the Samuel Enderby whose captain and crew enjoy a camaraderie which they extend to their visitors.
Ishmael himself attests to the spirit of that jolly ship.
In discussing the magnitude of the whale, Ishmael comments on the magnitude of his book. To write it, he
needs a condor’s quill to dip into Vesuvius’ crater. The hyperbole suggests the “out-reaching
comprehensiveness” of his narrative. “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Chapters 106-109 Summary and Analysis
Ahab had left the Samuel Enderby in such haste that he did damage to his ivory leg. Prior to the Pequod’s
voyage, he had had another mishap involving his leg. Ahab had been found unconscious, lying face down, the
leg nearly piercing his groin. The wound had not totally healed when the Pequod sailed, which explains why
Ahab kept to his cabin at the beginning of the voyage. Because Ahab is now wary of any weakness in his leg,
the ship’s carpenter fashions him another.
A leak is suspected in the oil barrels. Starbuck enters Ahab’s cabin to ask permission to “up Burtons”;—that
is, to take the barrels out of the hold and find the leak. Ahab forbids it, for this requires the ship to heave to for
a week or more, something Ahab is loathe to do. The two men argue and Ahab points a loaded musket at
Starbuck. Starbuck does not flinch and says, “Ahab beware of Ahab; beware of thyself, old man.” Later, after
some thought, Ahab reverses his decision and orders the barrels hoisted.
Discussion and Analysis
To Ahab, the mishaps involving his leg make perfect sense, for he believes that misery begets misery. The
gods themselves are not happy and “the sad birthmark in the brow of man is but the stamp of sorrow in the
signer.” Ahab believes the universe to be malevolent, and his ivory leg is a symbol of that sad fact.
Chapters 100-105 Summary and Analysis 30
Ahab’s discussion with the carpenter is of interest for both its structure and its content. Melville again breaks
the narrative prose, this time by inserting a section of interior monologue. In it, the carpenter discusses the
relative merits of an ivory leg. This section is followed by a dialogue between the carpenter and Ahab.
Ahab tells the carpenter that he would like the blacksmith to fashion a man as Prometheus did, but Ahab
would like the man to be 50 feet tall, heartless, and with a brain the size of a quarter acre. This man would
look inward; the top of his head would have a skylight to give him the illumination to do so.
Although Ahab values self-knowledge, he fails to see a connection between self and universe. In fact, as we
have previously seen, he believes self and universe to be at odds. “Cursed be that mortal interindebtedness,”
Ahab says. Furthermore, Ahab appears to value intellect over emotion. It is ironic that he is expressing this to
a man who has been described as very skillful, but remarkably unintellectual.
In the cabin scene, Starbuck dares to stand up to Ahab, but not to defy him. Both agree that what they came
“20,000 miles to get is worth saving”; but Starbuck means the oil, and Ahab means his revenge on Moby
Dick. Cleverly, Ahab decides to give in on the barrels issue because he knows if anyone were to lead a
mutiny, it would be Starbuck. Ahab does not want to cause “disaffection in the important chief officer” at this
Chapters 110-114 Summary and Analysis
Perth: the Pequod’s blacksmith
Working in the dank hold to hoist the barrels, Queequeg becomes sick and nearly dies with fever. He orders
the carpenter to make “a canoe” such as those in which the fallen whalemen of Nantucket are laid to rest. In
the coffin, Queequeg places the iron from his harpoon, biscuits, water, and a bag of earth. He climbs in it,
crosses his arms, and asks to have Yojo placed on his breast.
Pip asks Queequeg when he goes on his journey to seek out one called Pip, who has long been missing, and
give him comfort. Queequeg, however, recovers when he remembers he has some duty to take care of on
shore. He makes a sea chest of his coffin and on its lid, carves patterns corresponding to his tattoos.
As the Pequod sails into the Pacific, Perth, the blacksmith, prepares the tools for the whale hunting that will
ensue. Perth is an unhappy old man who lost his family because of his drinking.
Ahab asks Perth to forge him a special harpoon. The iron of the harpoon is made of the nailstubs from the
shoes of race horses. Ahab himself forges the shank. The barbs, made from razors, are tempered not in water,
but in the blood of Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo.
Discussion and Analysis
The theme of death is explored in this section. Ishmael sees the “immortal health” of the soul in the eyes of
his dying friend. He imagines that a dying man experiences revelations. Queequeg himself envisions death as
a sailing away to the stars, which his people believe to be islands.
Pip feels the shame of his cowardly “death” and compares it to Queequeg’s “game” death. He beats a dirge
for Queequeg on his tambourine. In an apostrophe to death, Ishmael cries, “Oh, Death, why canst thou not be
timely?” If Perth had died a timely death, his family would have been spared. Ahab, who recognizes a kinship
in Perth, asks him how he can endure life and advises him to go mad.
Chapters 106-109 Summary and Analysis 31
That death is a focus of these chapters is appropriate since the Pequod is coming closer to her fateful
encounter with Moby Dick. Ahab prepares for this encounter by tempering his harpoon in pagan blood and
baptizing it not in the name of God, but “in nomine diaboli.”
Chapters 115-121 Summary and Analysis
The Bachelor: homeward bound ship full of whale oil
Full of oil, the Bachelor joyously celebrates the beginning of her homeward journey. The captain tells Ahab
he has heard of the White Whale, but doesn’t believe in him. He invites Ahab aboard, but Ahab tells him to
be on his way.
Soon after, as if the good luck of the Bachelor had rubbed off, the Pequod kills four whales. Ahab watches as
the whale he killed turns its head to the sun, as do all dying sperm whales. Ahab’s boat stays with its whale
during the night since it is too far from the ship to be brought in before nightfall.
During the night’s watch, Fedallah interprets a dream of Ahab’s. He predicts that before Ahab dies, Ahab
must see two hearses on the sea, one made of American wood and one not made by mortal hands. The Parsee
predicts that he will die before Ahab, yet will appear to Ahab after his death. He adds that only hemp can kill
Taking the ship’s bearings with the quadrant, Ahab in frustration, smashes the instrument and throws it into
the sea. He changes course. The Pequod is then hit by a typhoon. Her sails are torn to shreds and her rigging
glows with corposants, St. Elmo’s fire. The three-pronged lightning rods at the top of each of the three masts
are aflame. Ahab grabs the lower chain end of the rod to feel the lightning course through him. Starbuck tells
Ahab to give up his ill-fated voyage and to head home. Ahab grabs his harpoon—its barbs a forked flame—and
drives back his half-mutinous crew.
Ahab orders everything lashed down. The whaleboats are drawn up high on their cranes, but Ahab’s boat is
smashed. Starbuck tells Stubb that the boat is smashed in the stern, exactly where Ahab would stand.
Discussion and Analysis
The Bachelor is the exact opposite of the Pequod. Ahab says, “Thou art a full ship and homeward bound, …
call me an empty ship and outward bound.” The Bachelor is as jolly as the Pequod is grim. Ahab considers
the captain to be a fool, for he has no depth of understanding concerning Moby Dick. Perhaps this captain can
be so happy because he simply chooses not to believe in or even think about Moby Dick and what he may
Ahab claims to have learned a lesson from watching the dying whale turn toward the sun. Though one may try
to turn toward the light, it is all in vain; for after death, all efforts are lost. Ahab chooses despair over faith in
the light of goodness. “The dark Hindoo half of nature” is more real to Ahab.
Ironically, the Parsee’s interpretation of his dream fills Ahab with a sense of immortality, for he believes the
predictions impossible. In the next chapter—he throws away the quadrant—to him a symbol of man’s limited
knowledge, and decides to rely on his own intuition.
His new course brings him into direct conflict with the forces of nature. The ship’s rigging glows with St.
Elmo’s fire and her masts look like candles before an altar. The trinity of flames suggests the Christian
Chapters 110-114 Summary and Analysis 32
trinity, perhaps giving Ahab one last warning. But fire also suggests evil and the forces of destruction, as does
the serpent’s tongue of flame on Ahab’s harpoon. Ahab cries out, “O, thy clear spirit of clear fire, … I now
know that thy right worship is defiance.”
Chapters 122-127 Summary and Analysis
Starbuck goes below to inform Ahab that the wind has changed to a fair wind. Outside Ahab’s cabin,
Starbuck removes a loaded musket from the rack. He thinks perhaps he should kill Ahab or at least overpower
him and take him prisoner. He reasons that Ahab would have killed him with that very same musket, and
Ahab has no compunction about endangering the whole crew. Starbuck turns from the door and sends Stubb
back down to tell Ahab about the change in wind direction.
The next morning on deck, Ahab realizes the ship is sailing west, but the compass reads east. The storm had
affected the compass needles, a most unsettling omen to the superstitious sailors. To allay their fears and show
them his power, Ahab fashions a new compass.
Ahab orders the log and line—another measure of speed and direction—repaired after the line snaps. Pip comes
along during the operation and is handled roughly by one of the sailors. Swearing he and Pip will never part,
Ahab protects Pip and takes him into his own cabin.
As the ship nears the Equatorial fishing grounds, a man falls from the mast and drowns. The life buoy thrown
to him proves to be damaged. The carpenter caulks Queequeg’s coffin to make it into a life buoy. Ahab wants
it out of his sight.
Discussion and Analysis
Even though Starbuck knows that Ahab is mad and feels that he will “drag a whole ship’s company down to
doom,” he still cannot kill him. Not only is Starbuck too moral to commit murder, but Ahab’s power may be
too great for him. Starbuck could not endure the sight of an imprisoned Ahab, who would be “more hideous
than a caged tiger.” Starbuck feels “alone upon an open sea,” a true isolato.
Ahab flaunts his power. Seeing pieces of the smashed quadrant on deck and undaunted by the broken
compasses, Ahab boasts that he is “lord over the level loadstone.” The only direction the Pequod now has is
whatever Ahab gives it. “In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.”
Pride, the classic tragic flaw of hubris, will lead Ahab to his downfall.
The ship sails on heedless of ill omens. Ahab is not daunted by the storm, the loss of the instruments, the
plaintive cries of the seals, or the death of the first man to look for Moby Dick in the whale’s own area.
Ahab does, however, ponder the question of the coffin turning into a life buoy. “What things real are there?”
he questions. The coffin has been a canoe, a coffin, a sea chest, and now a life buoy. It is a symbol of the
multiplicity of meaning in things and events, a unifying theme of this novel.
Chapters 128-132 Summary and Analysis
Captain Gardiner: captain of the Rachel
The Rachel: ship that has lost a whaleboat and its men
Chapters 115-121 Summary and Analysis 33
The Delight: ship that lost five men to Moby Dick
Captain Gardiner of the Rachel begs Ahab’s help in finding a whaleboat which was last seen fastened to
Moby Dick. In that whaleboat is Gardiner’s 12-year-old son. Ahab refuses.
Ahab now spends all his time on deck and refuses to be in Pip’s company. Ahab fears Pip will soften his
heart and divert him from his purpose. His silent companion on deck is Fedallah, who never takes his eyes off
Afraid that his men cannot be trusted to cry out when they see the White Whale, Ahab rigs a basket in which
he is hoisted aloft. He entrusts Starbuck with the responsibility of watching the ropes that hold him high above
the deck. Only minutes after Ahab has been hoisted up, a black, “savage” sea hawk dives at Ahab’s head and
takes his hat.
The Pequod encounters the Delight, which has lost five men to Moby Dick. Her captain is about to bury one
of the dead, and Captain Ahab unsuccessfully tries to get the Pequod away before the corpse is dropped into
The “cantankerous thing” in Ahab’s soul is temporarily dispelled by a lovely, clear day. Leaning over the
side, Ahab drops a tear into the water. He tells Starbuck that he has been at sea for 40 years, leaving behind a
young wife and son. He also tells Starbuck to stay on board and save himself when Ahab lowers for Moby
Dick. Starbuck futilely begs Ahab to alter his course and head back to Nantucket.
Discussion and Analysis
In this section, Ahab suppresses the last vestiges of humanity he has. He heartlessly refuses to help Captain
Gardiner, a fellow Nantucketer, knowing that he may not be able to forgive himself for such behavior. He
refuses to be in Pip’s company, for Pip may cure his “malady” and, paradoxically, Ahab’s malady is his
“most desired health.” Even in his intimate conversation with Starbuck, he hardens his heart against thoughts
of his wife and son, choosing to blame fate for his actions.
The captain of the Delight warns Ahab that “the harpoon is not yet forged” that can kill Moby Dick. Neither
this final warning nor the bad omens of the corpse and the sea hawk can turn Ahab from his revenge. He is
totally aligned with Fedallah, his dark self. Ahab gazes into the ocean and looks into a reflection of
Fedallah’s eyes. “ … in the Parsee Ahab saw his forethrown shadow, in Ahab the Parsee his abandoned
Ahab’s connection to Starbuck with a rope may be compared to Queequeg’s connection to Ishmael with the
monkey rope. There is a bond between the two men. Ahab trusts Starbuck, and Starbuck recognizes the
greatness in his captain. But Ahab is a true isolato who shuns dependency. He speaks to Starbuck of “the
desolation of solitude” and the “walled-town of a captain’s exclusiveness.” His 40 years at sea has isolated
him and is symbolic of his refusal to accept the interrelatedness of mankind.
Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Summary and Analysis
Ahab is the first to spot Moby Dick. All boats, except Starbuck’s, are lowered and give chase. Just when it
seems the whale has sounded, he rises straight up from the deep below Ahab’s boat and bites the boat in two.
Under Starbuck’s command, The Pequod, drives the whale off, and Ahab and his crew are rescued.
Chapters 128-132 Summary and Analysis 34
On the second day, Moby Dick seems intent on destroying all three boats. The harpoon lines, fast to the
whale, become so entangled that Stubb’s and Flask’s boats are drawn into each other and smashed. When
Ahab’s boat comes to their rescue, Moby Dick lifts it right up out of the water and dumps its men into the
sea. Fedallah is drawn under in the tangle of Ahab’s line, and Ahab’s ivory leg is broken off. Once again the
Pequod drives the whale away and rescues the men. Starbuck makes one last plea to Ahab to give up the hunt.
On the third day, Moby Dick smashes in the bows of Stubb’s and Flask’s boats. When the whale turns,
Fedallah is seen lashed by harpoon lines to his flank. The two damaged boats return to the ship to make
repairs. When Ahab harpoons Moby Dick, the whale tips his boat. Ishmael falls out, but manages to swim and
The harpoon line snaps as Moby Dick darts through the water and heads straight for the Pequod. The whale
smashes his forehead into the side of the ship and she sinks. Ahab’s boat is the last one left. He once again
throws his harpoon and makes fast to Moby Dick. The line runs afoul, and as Ahab stoops to clear it, the line
catches him around the neck. He is silently pulled from the boat, down into the depths by Moby Dick.
Ishmael, still swimming, is drawn into the vortex of the sinking Pequod. Up from the center of the whirlpool
shoots the coffin life buoy. Ishmael, the sole survivor, floats upon the coffin for a night and day until the
Rachel, still searching for her lost men, rescues him.
Discussion and Analysis
Once again, Moby Dick is depicted in ambiguous terms. At first sight, the whale is compared to Jove: “not
that great majesty Supreme! did surpass the glorified White Whale as he so divinely swam.” He glides on in
“enticing calm.” Yet it is not long before the whale creates a frenzy of destruction: “Retribution, swift
vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect.…”
To Starbuck, the whale is a dumb brute simply defending himself. Starbuck pleads with Ahab, “Moby Dick
seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him.” It is Ahab that has imbued the creature with evil.
That there is no single meaning that can be ascribed to the whale is central to the understanding of the novel.
What Ishmael has learned from his journey is that nothing is absolute, and in all things are a multiplicity of
Another thing that Ishmael has learned is that, paradoxically, in multiplicity there is unity. That Ishmael
survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin reiterates the theme of the brotherhood and interdependence of
man. The Pequod and her crew symbolize this important concept: “the one ship that held them all; though it
was put together of all contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood” was held together by one long,
central keel. Just so “all the individualities of the crew, … all varieties were welded into oneness.”
“The drama’s done.”
Moby Dick: Quizzes
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers
1. Explain the biblical allusion to Ishmael.
2. What does Ishmael do whenever he finds himself growing “grim about the mouth”?
Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Summary and Analysis 35
3. What does Ishmael mean by a “substitute for pistol and ball”?
4. What proof does Ishmael offer that others feel the same as he does about the sea?
5. What is some of the “magic” which water performs for men?
6. How did the Greeks and the Persians perceive the sea?
7. How did Narcissus die?
8. Other than not having the money, why does Ishmael never go to sea as a passenger?
9. How does Ishmael explain his willingness to be ordered around?
10. What are Ishmael’s chief motives in going whaling?
1. The biblical Ishmael was banished by Abraham. Melville’s Ishmael is also set adrift.
2. Ishmael goes to sea.
3. Going to sea is the substitute for “pistol and ball,” by which he means shooting himself.
4. “Leagues” of people from all over are drawn to the shore and need to get as close to the water as they can.
5. Water puts men into states of reverie and unites them. It draws them into deep thought.
6. The Persians saw the sea as being holy; the Greeks saw it as powerful enough to have its own god.
7. Narcissus drowned when he plunged toward his reflection in the water.
8. They get sick, can’t sleep, and don’t enjoy themselves.
9. Ishmael says that in the grand scheme of things we are all “thumped” around either physically or mentally.
10. The idea of the whale is Ishmael’s chief motive.
Chapters 2-4 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Ishmael not stay at the Sword-Fish Inn?
2. Who owns the Spouter Inn?
3. What is in the painting in the entry of the inn?
4. What is the name of the old man who tends the bar?
5. Where is Ishmael’s bedmate early in the evening?
Chapter 1 Questions and Answers 36
6. Where does Ishmael try to sleep at first?
7. What is odd about Queequeg’s appearance?
8. What did Queequeg do with his ebony idol?
9. What did Queequeg take into bed with him?
10. How did Queequeg shave?
1. The Sword-Fish Inn was too jolly and too expensive.
2. Peter Coffin owns the inn.
3. The painting is of a sinking ship and of a whale leaping over it, impaling itself on the masts.
4. Jonah is the name of the old man who tends the bar.
5. He is out selling a shrunken head.
6. Ishmael tries to sleep on a wooden bench.
7. Queequeg is tattooed all over, and his head is shaved all except for a skull-knot of hair.
8. Queequeg set his idol before the fire and made an offering to it.
9. Queequeg took his tomahawk pipe into the bed.
10. Queequeg shaved with the blade of his harpoon.
Chapters 5-9 Questions and Answers
1. Why does Ishmael not begrudge the joke played on him by Peter Coffin?
2. What is the purpose of the marble tablets in the chapel?
3. Who sat near Ishmael in the chapel?
4. What was Father Mapple’s previous occupation?
5. Describe the pulpit.
6. How did Father Mapple get to it?
7. What biblical character is the subject of the sermon?
8. What was his sin?
Chapters 2-4 Questions and Answers 37
9. What happened to him when he was cast into the sea?
10. In what way does Ishmael fulfill his Gospel duty?
1. Ishmael knows the value of good humor, that beneath it is something deeper.
2. The tablets memorialize those lost at sea.
3. Queequeg sat near Ishmael.
4. Father Mapple had been a harpooner.
5. The pulpit is a ship’s prow raised high above the congregation.
6. Father Mapple climbed a ship’s ladder to get to the pulpit.
7. Jonah is the subject of the sermon.
8. Willful disobedience was his sin.
9. He was swallowed by a whale.
10. Ishmael fulfills his Gospel duty by telling this story.
Chapters 10-15 Questions and Answers
1. What does Queequeg share with Ishmael?
2. What pledge does Queequeg make to Ishmael?
3. What gift does Queequeg give Ishmael?
4. How does Ishmael show his friendship to Queequeg?
5. Where is Queequeg from?
6. For what purpose did Queequeg leave his native land?
7. What had Queequeg mistakenly carried on his shoulders?
8. Where do Queequeg and Ishmael go to sign onto a whaler?
9. Who insults Queequeg on the ferry ride?
10. Whom does Queequeg save from drowning?
1. Queequeg shares his pipe with Ishmael.
Chapters 5-9 Questions and Answers 38
2. Queequeg would sacrifice his own life for Ishmael.
3. Queequeg gives Ishmael a shrunken head.
4. Ishmael joins Queequeg in his worship of the idol.
5. Queequeg is from Kokovoko.
6. Queequeg wanted to make his people happier by bringing Christian ways back to them.
7. Queequeg carried a full wheelbarrow on his shoulders.
8. Queequeg and Ishmael go to Nantucket to sign onto a whaler.
9. A bumpkin mocks Queequeg.
10. Queequeg saves the bumpkin from drowning.
Chapters 16-18 Questions and Answers
1. What is the name of Queequeg’s idol?
2. What had the little god told Queequeg?
3. After what is the Pequod named?
4. What are her winches and tiller made out of?
5. Who are the owners of the Pequod?
6. What had the old squaw Tistig said of Ahab?
7. What does Ishmael find when he smashes in the door?
8. What objection does Ishmael have to Queegueg’s religion?
9. Why do Bildad and Peleg decide to sign on Queequeg?
10. What is a lay?
1. Queequeg’s idol is named Yojo.
2. Yojo told Queequeg to let Ishmael choose the ship.
3. The Pequods are an extinct tribe of Indians.
4. The Pequod’s winches and tiller are made of whale bone.
Chapters 10-15 Questions and Answers 39
5. Two Quakers, Bildad and Peleg, are the owners.
6. Tistig predicted that Ahab would be like the vile biblical King Ahab.
7. Ishmael finds Queequeg squatting in the middle of the floor with Yojo on his head.
8. Ishmael objects to harmful, radical religious practices.
9. Queequeg proves his skill with the harpoon by hitting a small drop of tar on the water.
10. The lay is the share of the profit a seaman earns.
Chapters 19-25 Questions and Answers
1. Describe Elijah and explain the significance of his name.
2. What nickname does he have for Ahab?
3. What vague references does he make to events in Ahab’s past?
4. What effect did Elijah have on Ishmael?
5. Why is Aunt Charity aptly named?
6. Is Ishmael able to find the shadowy figures he saw board the boat?
7. In Queequeg’s land, with what do the wealthier people “furnish” their houses?
8. What is the Pequod’s day of departure?
9. What are the sailors singing about while Bildad sings his “dismal stave of psalmody?”
10. Who piloted the ship out of the harbor?
1. Elijah is a ragged, pockmarked old sailor, named after a biblical prophet and enemy of King Ahab.
2. Old Thunder is his nickname for Ahab.
3. He refers to a three-day period when Ahab “lay like dead” and to a deadly scrimmage with a Spaniard.
4. Ishmael felt apprehensive.
5. She worked tirelessly to provide comfort for those going on the voyage.
6. No, and he tried to keep the thought out of his mind.
7. They furnish their houses with fattened, lower class folk to use as settees.
Chapters 16-18 Questions and Answers 40
8. Christmas is the Pequod’s day of departure.
9. The sailors sing about “the girls in Booble alley.”
10. Peleg and Bildad are the pilots.
Chapters 26-31 Questions and Answers
1. Although Starbuck is as brave as any man, what does he fear?
2. In Melville’s tribute to man at the end of Chapter XXVI, what is the source of the common man’s “august
3. Who are the three mates’ harpooners, respectively?
4. How is Tashtego both like and unlike his ancestors?
5. To what animal is Daggoo compared and why is that simile appropriate?
6. What is an “isolato”?
7. “Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face.” Explain the meaning of this description.
8. In what way is Ahab like a bare, old oak that sends out a few green sprouts?
9. Describe the Merman of Stubb’s dream.
10. In what way is this dream prophetic?
1. Starbuck cannot stand up to “an enraged and mighty man,” a hint that he will not be able to stand up to
2. “Divine equality” that radiates from God is the source of the common man’s dignity.
3. Queequeg is Starbuck’s harponer; Stubb’s is Tashtego; and Flask’s is Daggoo.
4. Tashtego is a “proud warrior hunter,” but he hunts whales not moose.
5. The six foot five Daggoo is appropriately compared to a giraffe, another creature of Africa.
6. An “isolato” is both literally and figuratively an islander, living separate from the mainland.
7. This description emphasizes Ahab’s suffering and misery. It may also foreshadow his doom.
8. As the weather grew nicer, Ahab came close to smiling.
9. The Merman is humpbacked and his rump is stuck full of marlin spikes.
Chapters 19-25 Questions and Answers 41
10. Moby Dick is humpbacked, and stuck with harpoons. Also, the Merman instructs Stubb not to kick back at
Ahab; so Stubb, like Starbuck, will not stand up to him.
Chapters 32-35 Questions and Answers
1. What is cetology?
2. What whales are in the first category of large whales?
3. What did the term “specksynder” mean originally and what has it come to mean?
4. In what ways does Ahab observe the traditions of his rank?
5. What is the atmosphere of the captain and his mates’
6. Why does Flask frequently go hungry?
7. What is the atmosphere of the harpooners’ dinner?
8. How many masts are kept manned?
9. Upon what do the watches on the mastheads stand?
10. Why does Ishmael keep such a “sorry guard” when he stands the masthead watch?
1. Cetology is the study of whales.
2. Sperm whales and right whales are among the largest.
3. The specksynder originally was the “fat cutter,” but has come to mean chief harpooner.
4. Ahab dines with his officers and demands obedience.
5. Their dinner is silent and constrained.
6. Flask is the last called to dinner, and because the others finish before him, etiquette demands that he stop
7. The harpooners fill their bellies, make a lot of commotion, and tease Dough-Boy mercilessly.
8. Three masts are manned.
9. The watches stand on “thin sticks” called gallant cross-trees.
10. Ishmael gets lost in thought and fails to keep a good lookout for whales and squalls.
Chapters 26-31 Questions and Answers 42
Chapters 36-40 Questions and Answers
1. What does Ahab nail to the mast?
2. Who will win the Spanish coin?
3. What distinguishing characteristics does Moby Dick have?
4. Who objects to Ahab’s purpose?
5. What is Ahab’s emotional state as he talks of the whale’s taking off his leg?
6. What sound comes from the hold?
7. On what does Ahab place his hand as the crew swears an oath?
8. What is the oath the crew swears?
9. What is Stubb’s reaction to all that has happened?
10. What are some of the nationalities represented by the
1. Ahab nails a Spanish doubloon to the mast.
2. The man who first sights Moby Dick will win the coin.
3. Moby Dick has a white head, a wrinkled brow, a crooked jaw, and a spout like a shock of wheat.
4. Starbuck objects to Ahab’s purpose.
5. He becomes intensely emotional and angry, making a sound like an animal sob.
6. A low laugh comes from the hold.
7. Ahab places his hand on the three crossed harpoons.
8. The crew’s oath is “Death to Moby Dick!”
9. Stubb chooses to laugh at whatever may come.
10. The nationalities include Chinese, French, Spanish, African, Portuguese, and Danish.
Chapters 41-42 Questions and Answers
1. What were some of the wild rumors about Moby Dick?
Chapters 36-40 Questions and Answers 43
2. Why were Moby Dick’s “retreats” feared more than anything?
3. With what did Ahab attack Moby Dick?
4. How is Moby Dick’s deformed jaw shaped?
5. Figuratively, what did Ahab pile upon the whale’s white hump?
6. When was Ahab seized with his monomania?
7. Where had Ishmael first seen an albatross?
8. What impression did it make on him at the time?
9. What white creature is famous in American western legend?
10. What was it about the whale that instilled horror in Ishmael?
1. Rumors spread that Moby Dick was ubiquitous and immortal.
2. He was known to turn around suddenly and attack.
3. Ahab attacked Moby Dick with only a small knife.
4. Moby Dick’s jaw is sickle-shaped.
5. He piled on the general rage and hate that all men have felt toward intangible evil.
6. Ahab was seized with his monomania as he lay suffering during the long voyage home.
7. Ishmael found an albatross dashed upon the deck when he sailed the Antarctic.
8. Ishmael was struck with wonder and bowed before the albatross. He considered it mystical.
9. The White Steed of the Prairies is famous in American western legend.
10. The whiteness of the whale instilled horror in Ishmael.
Chapters 43-47 Questions and Answers
1. Who, other than Archy, suspects stowaways are on board?
2. What problem has the departure date of the Pequod posed for Ahab?
3. What often forced Ahab from his hammock at night?
4. Who are Don Miguel and New Zealand Jack?
Chapters 41-42 Questions and Answers 44
5. What proof does Ishmael offer that the public is unaware of the dangers of whaling?
6. What happened to the Essex?
7. How does Ishmael know the story of the Essex?
8. Why must Ahab hunt other whales even though killing Moby Dick is his real purpose?
9. Who weaves the mat?
10. Where have the five phantoms been seen before?
1. Archy says he heard Stubb tell Flask something about it.
2. Ahab has to wait another year before it will again be the Season-on-the-Line.
3. Ahab was plagued by horrible dreams.
4. They are two of the many famous whales who have earned names.
5. Not one in fifty of the fatalities is reported because communication is so slow.
6. A big sperm whale rammed the Essex and sank her.
7. Ishmael knew the chief mate and the son of her captain.
8. Ahab could be charged with usurpation of the ship and his crew could legally take away his command.
9. Ishmael and Queequeg weave the mat.
10. Ishmael saw the phantoms board the Pequod in Nantucket.
Chapters 48-51 Questions and Answers
1. Of what is Fedallah’s turban made?
2. Why was Ahab’s boat able to outrun the others?
3. What did Flask do in order to gain a better vantage from which to spot the whales who had sounded below
4. Whose boat was separated from the Pequod for the entire night?
5. Of the mates, which one has the reputation of being most prudent?
6. What does Ishmael do after having his near death experience?
Chapters 43-47 Questions and Answers 45
7. Why would Bildad and Peleg never have granted Ahab a whale boat of his own?
8. Why were Fedallah and his crew able to “find a place among the crew”?
9. What did Fedallah spot on his midnight watch?
10. What did Starbuck see when he looked in on Ahab?
1. Fedallah’s braided white hair coils around his head like a turban.
2. His phantom crew rowed like “five trip-hammers.”
3. Flask stood on Daggoo’s shoulders.
4. Starbuck’s boat was lost in the fog.
5. Starbuck has the reputation of being exceedingly cautious.
6. Ishmael makes out his will.
7. Captains usually didn’t get directly involved in the hunts, and Captain Ahab’s disability could put both
himself and his men in unnecessary danger.
8. Fedallah and his crew had shown themselves to be able crewmen, and whalers are used to seeing all manner
of men from the “nooks and ash-holes of the world.”
9. Fedallah spotted the spirit spout.
10. Starbuck saw Ahab sleeping straight up in his chair, sleet dripping from him.
Chapters 52-54 Questions and Answers
1. Why does the Albatross have a spectral appearance?
2. What was the “ominous incident” that occurred when the Pequod met the Albatross?
3. Why was Ahab bothered by the fish swimming away from his ship to follow the Albatross?
4. What is a gam?
5. When a captain is being rowed to another boat for a gamming, why is his position precarious?
6. What is the frame in which the Town-Ho’s story is told?
7. When did the incident involving Radney and Steelkilt occur?
8. What was the source of Radney’s hatred of Steelkilt?
Chapters 48-51 Questions and Answers 46
9. What role did Moby Dick play in their conflict?
10. Why was the Town-Ho manned by Polynesians when it gammed with the Pequod?
1. The ship has been at sea for four years.
2. The captain of the Albatross dropped his speaking horn into the ocean when Ahab asked about Moby Dick.
3. Ahab felt as if the fish were turning from him personally.
4. A gam is a meeting of two whale ships whose crews visit and exchange letters, papers, and whaling news.
5. The captain must stand and keep his balance while the sea pitches the boat and the oars hit him in the knees
6. Ishmael tells the story in an inn in Lima.
7. The incident took place two years earlier.
8. Although Radney was in command, Steelkilt was the superior man.
9. Moby Dick killed Radney before Steelkilt had a chance.
10. The crew deserted the Town-Ho when it reached an island port, and the captain had to man it with
Chapters 55-60 Questions and Answers
1. From what have most scientific drawings been done?
2. Where can the most ancient portrait of a whale be found?
3. Who have created the best pictures of whales?
4. What scene is depicted on the beggar’s board?
5. What does Ishmael imagine when he gazes at the stars?
6. What is brit?
7. What sound do right whales make when they feed?
8. What is the superstition regarding the white squid?
9. What has caused man to lose his awe of the sea?
10. Why is the whale line a danger to the whalers?
Chapters 52-54 Questions and Answers 47
1. Most have been drawn from dead whales.
2. The oldest portrait is in a cavern-pagoda in India.
3. The French have created the most accurate pictures.
4. The scene in which the beggar lost his leg is depicted.
5. Wearing harpoons for spurs and anchors for bridle-bits, Ishmael imagines that he rides a whale through the
6. Brit is a floating, yellow substance made up of minute marine organisms.
7. They make a sound like the swinging of mower’s scythes.
8. Whalemen believed that few whaleships ever beheld the great squid and returned to their ports to tell of it.
9. Man’s pride in his science has caused him to lose his awe of the oceans.
10. The whale line encompasses all the men in the boat.
Chapters 61-66 Questions and Answers
1. What does Queequeg say the sighting of the squid means?
2. Where is the Pequod?
3. What color is the whale and why is that significant?
4. How far was Stubb’s whaleboat towed by the whale?
5. What is the “gold watch” Stubb seeks?
6. What is the primary cause of unsuccessful whaling voyages?
7. How does Ahab feel about this successful hunt?
8. Who is Fleece and what does Stubb demand of him?
9. What moral advice does Fleece give the sharks?
10. What wish does Fleece express that could be considered foreshadowing?
1. Queequeg says the squid is a sign that a sperm whale will soon be sighted.
2. The Pequod is in the Indian Ocean.
Chapters 55-60 Questions and Answers 48
3. The whale is black, the opposite of the whale Ahab seeks.
4. “Whole Atlantics and Pacifics seemed passed” describes the distance.
5. The watch is a metaphor for the “innermost life” of the whale.
6. Inefficiency regarding the many tasks of the harpooner and his subsequent exhaustion cause unsuccessful
7. Ahab feels impatience and despair since Moby Dick remains to be killed.
8. Fleece is the old black cook who prepares a whale steak for Stubb and then is told to quiet the sharks.
9. He tells them to share, to help the weaker sharks, to be civilized, to control their shark natures.
10. He wishes “whale eat” Stubb.
Chapters 67-71 Questions and Answers
1. How is blubber removed from the whale?
2. Why is the word “blanket” an appropriate term?
3. Who cuts the scarf line into the blubber?
4. Who attends the whale funeral?
5. What fraction of a whale is made up of its head?
6. To what does Ishmael compare the whale head? Why?
7. Why does Captain Mayhew not board the Pequod as is the custom?
8. How do the men aboard the Jeroboam feel about Gabriel?
9. Specifically, how was Macey killed?
10. Why would Gabriel think an attack on Moby Dick was blasphemy?
1. The blubber is peeled off in a spiral. A hook on a pulley draws the huge strip up the mast.
2. The blanket, or blubber, keeps the whale warm in frigid seas.
3. Starbuck and Stubb cut the scarf line into the blubber.
4. The attendees, sharks and sea-vultures, make a funeral banquet of the whale.
5. The head makes up one-third of the whale.
Chapters 61-66 Questions and Answers 49
6. The head is as silent as the ancient Sphinx.
7. Captain Mayhew does not want to spread the epidemic that plagues his ship.
8. The men both fear and revere Gabriel. They told their captain that they would desert the ship if Gabriel
were put off it.
9. Moby Dick’s fluke knocked him out of the boat.
10. Gabriel believed Moby Dick to be his Shaker god.
Chapters 72-78 Questions and Answers
1. What is the function of the monkey rope?
2. To whom is it attached?
3. Why were the men surprised that Ahab wanted them to hunt a right whale?
4. What was his reason?
5. How does Ishmael interpret the expressions on the whales?
6. To what does Ishmael compare the sperm whale’s forehead?
7. What was Tashtego doing when he fell into the head?
8. How was he saved and by whom?
9. To what was his release from the head compared?
10. If Tashtego had died, why would it have been a very “precious perishing”?
1. The rope is a safety line for the man who stands on the carcass to attach the blubber hook.
2. Queequeg is attached to the end on the whale; Ishmael is attached to the end on deck.
3. The right whale is not valuable.
4. Fedallah told him a ship with a right whale head on one side and a sperm whale head on the other will not
5. The sperm whale’s expression shows his indifference to death. The right whale’s shows his “practical
6. The sperm whale’s forehead is like a battering ram.
7. Tashtego was up on a yardarm lowering a bucket down into the part of the head containing the spermaceti.
Chapters 67-71 Questions and Answers 50
8. Queequeg dived in the water, cut a hole in the head, and pulled him out.
9. Queequeg pulled him out as if he were delivering a baby.
10. Tashtego would have drowned in the precious, fragrant spermaceti.
Chapters 79-81 Questions and Answers
1. What gives the whale’s physiognomy added grandeur?
2. What does the whale’s hump cover?
3. What does Derrick want from the Pequod?
4. What does he know about the White Whale?
5. Why does the old whale swim with such difficulty?
6. Who harpooned the whale?
7. What did Starbuck try to stop Flask from doing?
8. What was found embedded in the old whale?
9. What unusual thing happened to the dead whale?
10. Why is the finback an uncapturable whale?
1. The whale has no nose.
2. The hump covers its largest vertebra.
3. Derrick wants lamp oil.
4. He knows nothing about Moby Dick.
5. The whale is missing his right fin.
6. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo all harpooned the whale.
7. Starbuck tried to stop Flask from sticking his lance in an ulcerous mass on the whale and causing it more
8. An entire harpoon and a lance-head made of stone were found embedded in the whale’s flesh.
9. The dead whale sank.
10. The finback’s powerful swimming makes it uncapturable.
Chapters 72-78 Questions and Answers 51
Chapters 82-86 Questions and Answers
1. What lovely maiden did Perseus rescue from Leviathan?
2. How does Ishmael change the story of St. George and the Dragon?
3. What are the Vedas and who retrieved them?
4. What question did the old Sag-Harbor whaleman raise about Jonah’s surviving in the whale’s belly?
5. For what purpose is a pitchpole used?
6. What is the date of the writing of “The Fountain”?
7. How might a whale spout harm a man?
8. What is the length across a whale’s tail?
9. What is meant by “peaking”?
10. What are four other actions of the tail?
1. Perseus rescued Andromeda.
2. Ishmael says the dragon was a whale and St. George’s horse may have been a large seal or sea horse.
3. The sacred Hindu books were retrieved by Vishnu.
4. How could Jonah have survived in the gastric juices?
5. A pitchpole is used to weaken a harpooned whale that continues to swim very fast and may break free.
6. December 16, 1851 is the date of the writing.
7. The spout burns the skin and blinds the eyes.
8. A whale’s tail is 20 feet across.
9. Before a whale dives, he “tosses” his flukes and much of his body up into the air.
10. The tail also is used for propulsion, striking enemies, slapping the water, and gently sweeping from side to
Chapters 87-92 Questions and Answers
1. Where does the Pequod come upon the huge herd?
Chapters 82-86 Questions and Answers 52
2. What is a “drugg”?
3. Where does the harpooned whale tow Ishmael’s boat?
4. What truth is there in “the more whales the less fish”?
5. What becomes of a schoolmaster in old age?
6. What is a Fast-Fish?
7. What happened to the whale captured by the Dover fishermen?
8. What is ironic about the name of the Rose-Bud?
9. How does the Guernsey-man trick his captain?
10. How does Stubb trick the Guernsey-man?
1. The Pequod encounters the herd near the Straits of Sunda.
2. A drugg is a block of wood attached to a harpoon by a long line and used to slow down gallied whales.
3. Ishmael’s boat is towed into a center of calm.
4. Of all the whales, the Pequod captured only one.
5. The schoolmaster, a full-grown male which accompanies a female school, lives in isolation when he grows
6. A Fast-Fish is somehow secured to a boat, either directly or by signs of ownership such as a waif pole.
7. The whale was claimed by the Lord Warden for the Duke.
8. The Rose-Bud is rank.
9. The Guernsey-man, translating for his captain, pretends that Stubb has witnessed death on ships to which
blasted whales are secured.
10. Stubb helps him to convince the captain to cut loose the valuable dried-up whale.
Chapters 93-99 Questions and Answers
1. What is a ship-keeper?
2. Why was Pip put into Stubb’s boat?
3. Why was Tashtego reluctant to cut the line to save Pip?
Chapters 87-92 Questions and Answers 53
4. How was Pip rescued?
5. What was the cause of Ishmael’s disorientation?
6. What are the try-works?
7. How is the oil stored?
8. What was on top of each mountain engraved on the coin?
9. What country had minted the doubloon?
10. What would Flask buy if he won the doubloon?
1. Ship-keepers are the men who handle the ship while the whale boats are out. Pip was usually a ship-keeper.
2. One of Stubb’s oarsmen had been injured.
3. Tashtego would lose the whale he had harpooned.
4. The Pequod picked up Pip.
5. Ishmael, half asleep, had turned around toward the stern.
6. The try-works are brick kilns used to melt down the blubber.
7. The oil is put in casks and stored in the hold.
8. On one mountain was fire; on another, a tower; on the third, a crowing cock.
9. The doubloon was from Ecuador.
10. Flask would buy 1,660 cigars.
Chapters 100-105 Questions and Answers
1. What problem had Ahab not anticipated in the gam with the Samuel Enderby?
2. How is that problem solved?
3. Describe how the two captains greet each other.
4. Describe the relationship between Boomer and Bunger.
5. What does Ahab do to Bunger? Why?
6. What is the Enderby Whaling House famous for?
Chapters 93-99 Questions and Answers 54
7. When did Ishmael go aboard the Enderby?
8. How does Ishmael know about whale skeletons?
9. What had the natives on the Arsacidean island made of the whale skeleton?
10. What does Ishmael think about the extinction of whales?
1. Ahab hadn’t thought about the difficulty he would have boarding the other ship.
2. He was hoisted aboard on a blubber-hook.
3. The captains cross their whale-bone limbs.
4. Boomer and Bunger have a caring relationship.
5. Ahab pushes Bunger when the doctor tries to calm him.
6. The Enderby Whaling House opened up the South Sea and Japanese whaling grounds.
7. Ishmael spent time on the Enderby many years after his voyage on the Pequod.
8. Ishmael had dissected a small whale and measured the skeleton of a beached whale.
9. The skeleton was their temple and god.
10. Whales will survive eternally.
Chapters 106-109 Questions and Answers
1. Why did Ahab need a new leg?
2. Before going on the voyage, how had Ahab been injured?
3. What mystery does this incident solve?
4. What are some of the skills of the ship’s carpenter?
5. What does Ishmael suggest happened to the carpenter’s brains?
6. Why would Ahab want his ideal man to have a skylight?
7. On what matter does Starbuck go to see Ahab in his cabin?
8. What answer does Ahab give Starbuck?
9. How does Ahab threaten Starbuck?
Chapters 100-105 Questions and Answers 55
10. What warning does Starbuck give Ahab?
1. When Ahab hurriedly left the Samuel Enderby, he damaged his leg.
2. Ahab had fallen and the splintered leg had wounded him.
3. Ahab stayed in his cabin at the beginning of the voyage to recover from this wound.
4. The ship’s carpenter pulls teeth, makes soothing ointments, and crafts earrings from shark bone.
5. The carpenter’s brains must have oozed into his fingers.
6. The skylight allows for self-illumination.
7. The barrels are leaking in the hold.
8. Ahab tells Starbuck not to hoist the barrels.
9. Ahab aims his loaded musket at Starbuck.
10. Starbuck tells Ahab that he, Ahab, will cause his own destruction. “Ahab beware of Ahab.”
Chapters 110-114 Questions and Answers
1. What causes Queequeg’s illness?
2. What does he put in his coffin?
3. How does Queequeg explain his recovery?
4. What does he do with his coffin?
5. What caused the deaths of Perth’s wife and children?
6. What does Ahab want Perth to make for him?
7. What are the iron and barbs made of?
8. What seam does Ahab ask Perth to smooth?
9. In what are the barbs of the harpoon tempered?
10. What temporarily soothes even Ahab?
1. Working in the slimy, damp hold causes Queequeg’s illness.
2. Queequeg puts the iron of his harpoon, biscuits, water, dirt, and Yojo in his coffin.
Chapters 106-109 Questions and Answers 56
3. Queequeg recovered to take care of some unfinished business.
4. Queequeg turns the coffin into a sea chest and carves its lid with designs like his tattoos.
5. Because of his alcoholism, Perth could not support his family and they died.
6. Ahab wants Perth to make a harpoon with which he will kill Moby Dick.
7. The iron is made from horseshoe nails and the barbs from razors.
8. Ahab asks Perth if he can smooth the seams of his brow, which are etched to the depth of his skull.
9. The barbs are tempered in blood.
10. The tranquility of the Pacific soothes even Ahab.
Chapters 115-121 Questions and Answers
1. What are the men of the Bachelor celebrating?
2. What does the Bachelor’s captain say about Moby Dick?
3. What is in the vial that Ahab takes from his pocket?
4. What curious thing do dying sperm whales do?
5. What will Ahab see before he dies?
6. What is the only thing that can kill him?
7. Why does Ahab smash his quadrant?
8. Why does Stubb sing during the fury of the storm?
9. What happens to Ahab’s boat?
10. According to Stubb, why did Ahab remain unharmed when he held the chain end of the lightning rod?
1. The Bachelor is full of oil and homeward bound.
2. The captain says he has heard of Moby Dick, but does not believe in him.
3. The vial contains soil from Nantucket.
4. Dying sperm whales turn their heads to the sun.
5. Ahab will see two hearses, one made of American wood and the other, not made by human hands.
Chapters 110-114 Questions and Answers 57
6. Only hemp can kill Ahab.
7. Ahab smashes the quadrant because it tells him only where he is, not where he is going.
8. Stubb sings to bolster his courage.
9. The stern of Ahab’s boat is smashed.
10. Stubb says the mast would have to have been struck by lightning before Ahab could have been harmed.
Chapters 122-127 Questions and Answers
1. What information is Starbuck going to report to Ahab?
2. What caused him to think about killing Ahab?
3. Rather than facing Ahab, what does he do?
4. What has happened to the compass?
5. How does Ahab allay the crew’s superstitions?
6. What do Ahab and Pip have in common?
7. Whom does Ahab call “creative libertines”?
8. What did the Manxman think the crying of the seals was?
9. What was used to replace the life buoy?
10. What did the carpenter attach to it?
1. Starbuck is going to report a change in wind direction.
2. The sight of the muskets made Starbuck think about killing Ahab.
3. Starbuck sends Stubb in to Ahab to give the report.
4. The compass was reversed by the storm.
5. Ahab fashions a new compass.
6. Both are mad.
7. Ahab calls the heavens and gods “creative libertines.”
8. He thought the crying was caused by drowned men.
Chapters 115-121 Questions and Answers 58
9. Queequeg’s coffin was made into a new life buoy.
10. The carpenter attached 30 lines to it, one for each crew member.
Chapters 128-132 Questions and Answers
1. How was the Rachel’s whaleboat lost?
2. With what horrible dilemma was Captain Gardiner faced ?
3. What did Stubb think Ahab should do regarding Gardiner’s request?
4. Why does Ahab not want to be with Pip?
5. What change has come over the Pequod’s crew?
6. Whom does Ahab entrust with the rope attached to the basket in which he is hoisted aloft?
7. What did the bird do to Ahab?
8. What do the sailors of the Delight see as the Pequod sails away?
9. What family does Ahab have back on Nantucket?
10. What promise did Starbuck’s wife make?
1. The whaleboat had harpooned Moby Dick and was towed by the whale away from the Rachel.
2. Gardiner had to decide which son to go in search of.
3. Stubb thought that the Pequod should help Gardiner.
4. Ahab is afraid Pip will soften his heart and weaken his resolve.
5. The Pequod’s men are gloomy and move about like machines.
6. Ahab gives that responsibility to Starbuck.
7. The sea hawk dived at Ahab and took his hat.
8. The sailors see the casket attached to her stern.
9. Ahab has a young wife and son.
10. Starbuck’s wife promised to take their son to a hill to watch for his father’s return every day.
Chapters 122-127 Questions and Answers 59
Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Questions and Answers
1. What happens to Ahab’s boat during the first day?
2. How will the men be rewarded if Ahab sights the whale on the day that the whale is killed?
3. What happens to Ahab on the second day?
4. What happens to Fedallah?
5. When does Ahab see Fedallah again as predicted?
6. What are the two hearses Ahab sees before he dies?
7. How does Ahab die by hemp as predicted?
8. What happens to the Pequod and her crew?
9. What “living part of heaven” went down with the ship?
10. How did Ishmael survive?
1. Moby Dick bites Ahab’s boat in two.
2. Ten times the worth of the gold coin will be divided among the crew.
3. Ahab’s ivory leg is snapped off.
4. Fedallah is tangled in the lines and towed under.
5. Ahab sees Fedallah lashed to the flank of Moby Dick on the third day of the hunt.
6. The two hearses are Moby Dick and the Pequod.
7. A line, made of hemp, catches Ahab around the neck and he is pulled down into the sea by Moby Dick.
8. Moby Dick smashes into the ship and she sinks along with all the crew, except the men in Ahab’s boat.
9. A sea hawk was brought down with the ship.
10. Ishmael stayed afloat on Queequeg’s coffin until the Rachel picked him up.
Moby Dick: Characters
Introduced by Captain Peleg as “a grand, ungodly, godlike man,” the reader learns two things about Ahab,
captain of the Pequod in Moby-Dick: Ahab was orphaned when he was twelve months old, and one of his legs
was lost as a result of his most recent whaling voyage. The wound is so fresh that the stump is still bleeding.
Chapters 133-135 and Epilogue Questions and Answers 60
However, it is some time before Ishmael is able to verify this. Ahab does not make a proper appearance in the
book until Chapter 28. The reader finds him standing upon his quarter-deck, looking “like a man cut away
from the stake,” with his white bone leg (carved from a sperm whale’s jaw) jammed into a specially drilled
hole on deck. The reader is told that Ahab has gray hair and has a white scar or disfigurement down the side
of his face. There are some aboard the ship who suspect the mark travels the entire length of Ahab’s body,
from head to toe. But Melville is more anxious to communicate an atmosphere, in sentences such as, “There
was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless,
forward dedication of that glance.” The long delay in Ahab’s involvement in the action of the novel helps to
build him up as a grand figure, the major tragic character Melville wants his readers to see.
Although Ahab is awe-inspiring, Melville is at pains to establish the captain’s dignity. In Chapter 34, “The
Cabin Table,” he is presented as a sultan dining with his emirs. “Over its ivory-laid table, Ahab presided like
a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his warlike but still deferential cubs.”
Goaded by Starbuck for wanting his revenge upon the dumb beast which struck out at him from “blindest
instinct,” Ahab sets out in Chapter 36 his belief that, on the contrary, the whale acted out of inscrutable
malice and that every action has a motive or reason. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” he states. The
following chapter, a short soliloquy, makes explicit Ahab’s Shakespearian intensity. “I am madness
maddened!” he cries out to himself, alone in his cabin.
Having had the desire for revenge quickened within him, Ahab’s obsession is presented as a ravenous
monster, rapidly assuming an existence independent of the mind on which it feeds. Chapter 44 ends: “God
help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes
him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.”
Ahab’s artificial leg is damaged as the result of an encounter with an English vessel, the Samuel Enderby.
Having pulled alongside and gone aboard to discover that he has something in common with the English
Captain Bloomer—an amputated limb and an ivory substitute—Ahab takes offence at a comment made by the
English ship’s doctor. Jumping down into the Pequod’s landing-boat, his ivory leg receives a fracturing
blow. Although the leg is not completely broken, he orders the ship’s carpenter to make him a new one, a fact
that symbolizes the new light in which the reader has come to view the captain—he is no longer the magisterial
commander of the start of the voyage, but a possessed man at the mercy of his obsession.
In Chapter 119, “The Candles,” Ahab prays aloud and defiantly to the white flame of St. Elmo’s fire. Shortly
before this, he hurled the quadrant to the deck and trampled on it, an act in which he symbolically parts
company with reason. Becoming an isolated madman—and some critics have compared Ahab with
Shakespeare’s King Lear—Ahab battles his evil forces alone and is destroyed as a result.
Captain Bildad is a retired whaling captain, a staunch Quaker, and a hard taskmaster. With Peleg, he is
co-proprietor of the Pequod, and a licensed pilot. Melville, wondering how such a captain squared up his
belief in pacifism with the violence of his lifelong trade, once commented: “Probably he had long since come
to the sage and sensible conclusion that a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another.”
A one-armed English whaling captain, Boomer is master of the Samuel Enderby. He lost his arm in an
encounter with Moby-Dick, and has good reason to hate the whale, but he doesn’t. His character helps
emphasize how extreme Ahab’s behavior is.
A mariner who is made the subject of the short, transitionary Chapter 23, “The Lee Shore,” in Moby-Dick.
Moby Dick: Characters 61
Dr. Bunger is the ship’s doctor aboard the Samuel Enderby. He is responsible for amputating Captain
The third harpooner on the Pequod, Daggoo works from Flask’s boat. He is described as “a gigantic,
Elijah is the name of the self-styled prophet in Moby-Dick who accosts Ishmael and Queequeg on the
quayside before they set sail. He warns them about Ahab.
First seen on deck in Chapter 48, Fedallah dresses all in black; his long hair is braided and wrapped around his
head to form a "white turban." He is a member of the Zoroastrian Parsees, a sect that emphasizes the free
choice of good or evil and the consequences for the afterlife. He is seen by Stubb as the devil incarnate.
Fedallah is present with Ahab at key moments, such as the smashing of the quadrant and the burning of St.
The third mate of the Pequod in Moby-Dick, Flask is a native of Martha’s Vineyard. Pugnacious and fearless
by virtue of a mediocre intellect, he is nicknamed King Post because his short, stocky appearance resembles a
squared-off section of timber called by that name.
The Pequod’s cook, Fleece is an old black man who is often teased by Stubb.
Gabriel is a freckle-faced young man with ginger hair who visits the Pequod after the Jeroboam, a sister vessel
out of Nantucket, draws alongside. A crazed exile from the Neskyeuna Shakers, Gabriel, or the archangel
Gabriel as he chooses to call himself, has turned the majority of Captain Mayhew’s crew into his disciples,
holding a fanatic’s sway over them. Melville is quite clear about his disapproval of this character.
Captain Gardiner is the commander of the Rachel, one of the ships the Pequod meets at sea. Moby-Dick, it
turns out, is responsible for the death of Gardiner’s son. However, Gardiner, unlike Ahab, recognizes that this
loss was the act of a wild animal rather than an evil creature.
Mrs. Hussey is the proprietor of the Try Pots, the hotel and restaurant in which Ishmael and Queequeg stay in
Ishmael is the name assumed by the otherwise anonymous narrator of Melville’s Moby-Dick. A rootless
individual, brought up as a good Christian in “the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” his way of
“driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation” is to periodically sign aboard a sailing vessel. At the
beginning of the book, Ishmael is in Manhattan, packing an old carpetbag and setting off for New Bedford,
Massachusetts, where he arrives on a Saturday night, having just missed the ferry to Nantucket. This
circumstance forces him to spend the weekend at the Spouter Inn, reluctantly sharing a room and a bed with a
freakish-looking, harpoon-carrying savage named Queequeg.
Moby Dick: Characters 62
After visiting the Whaleman’s Chapel and hearing Father Mapple’s sermon, the two sail out to Nantucket
together and, boarding with Mrs. Hussey at the Try Pots, they both sign up to sail aboard the Pequod.
Having set sail, the nature of the narrative shifts and Ishmael’s perspective is lost, not to surface again until
Chapter 41. In this long, crucial chapter, Ishmael, in contrast to Starbuck’s rugged rationality, empathizes
with Ahab and fully understands the development of the Captain’s monomania. In addition to understanding
Ahab, we discover that Ishmael has himself, to some degree, become infected by all the rumors and gossip
surrounding the white whale and, in the subsequent chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” has been willing
to consider the albino whale as a visible symbol for all that remains horribly unseen. “Though in many of its
aspects this visible world seems formed in love,” he says, “the invisible spheres were formed in fright.”
Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg is given a fulsome, erotic gloss that has given some critics grounds for
exploring homoerotic themes in the novel. Certainly the fraternity which Ishmael appears to enjoy with the
rest of the crew is in stark contrast to the lonely isolation of Ahab. It is this contrast—involved camaraderie
against aloof detachment—which is being set up in such scenes as the sperm-squeezing incident in which
Ishmael, grabbing his co-laborers’ hands among the globules of whale sperm, is overcome with “an
abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling.”
At the end of the novel, when Ahab and his crew are all killed by Moby-Dick, Ishmael is the only one to
survive. Finding a coffin that had been built for Queequeg when he had become gravely ill, Ishmael manages
to survive the sea until he is rescued by another ship.
Father Mapple is the preacher at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford. The sermon he delivers in Chapter
9 is a set piece, used by many critics as a gloss on what subsequently befalls the Pequod and its crew.
Certainly the sermon covers important issues, such as the passive submission to the will of God. But this
conventional Christian doctrine is counterpoised by the fierce crescendo of Mapple’s sermon when he defines
the true Christian hero as one who “gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns and destroys all sin though
he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges.” This is the role of a proud Puritan hero.
Peleg is one of the owners of the Pequod, and serves as a device to introduce the reader to Captain Ahab by
describing him to Ishmael.
The Pequod’s blacksmith, Perth is nicknamed Prometheus. In Chapter 113 he forges the harpoon with which
Ahab hopes to triumph over Moby-Dick. When completed the spear is “baptized” with the heathen blood of
Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo.
One of the few named sailors on the Pequod, Pip is just a boy, a bright and cheerful African-American child.
The duties of Pip do not normally require him to go in the boats. In Chapter 93, however, Pip stands in for
Stubb’s after-oarsman, who has sprained his hand. After the whale has been harpooned, Pip panics, jumps
overboard, and becomes tangled in the line. The capture has to be sacrificed to save the young lad’s life.
Tashtego, the harpooner, and other members of the crew are furious. Stubb, perceived as acting fairly, warns
Pip in a businesslike way never to jump overboard again. When this advice is ignored, Stubb’s boat declines
to rescue Pip a second time. The boy is eventually picked up by the Pequod, but he has been in the water so
long that he has lost his mind.
Moby Dick: Characters 63
Queequeg is a highborn native of an uncharted south-seas island. His father was a High Chief, and his uncle a
High Priest. Queequeg is covered in tattoos and worships pagan gods, including a small black idol, Yojo. In
the first hundred pages of the novel, Queequeg is a major character. While he and Ishmael board together at
the Spouter Inn, and then at Mrs. Hussy’s in Nantucket, he is the source of a considerable level of
amusement. But the real point about Queequeg is his friendliness. He and Ishmael strike up an instant
Starbuck is the chief mate of the Pequod and a native of Nantucket. He is a Christian of an earnest Quaker
disposition, a “staid, steadfast man.” Although only about thirty, his appearance is pinched and wizened. He
selects Queequeg as his harpooner. Melville depicts Starbuck as a man who becomes possessed and
demonized by Ahab. In the soliloquy, “Dusk,” Chapter 38, Starbuck explains to himself that Ahab has
“drilled deep down, and blasted all my reason out of me! I think I see his impious end; but feel that I must
help him to it.” Essentially, he trusts to God to put in the “wedge” that will divert Ahab from his objective.
But there are some key moments when he stands up to his captain. Starbuck confronts Ahab in Chapter 109
upon discovering that sperm oil is leaking from the hold. This means, he insists, that they must “up Burtons”
(that is, hoist up the casks and see what barrels need repairing). Ahab furiously refuses, at one point ordering
his first mate at gunpoint to go on deck and proceed as usual. But Starbuck’s calm self-righteousness
impresses the captain. “Thou art but too good a fellow, Starbuck,” says Ahab, as he proceeds to order “up
Burtons.” Later, in Chapter 123, “The Musket,” Starbuck is tempted to murder Ahab in his sleep, using the
very weapon that was used to threaten him in the earlier chapter. He holds the musket and takes aim but, after
wrestling with his angel, turns away and puts the gun back in its rack.
Stubb is the Pequod’s second mate. He is the brother-in-law of Charity and a native of Cape Cod. A jovial,
easygoing, pipe-smoking character, he serves as a contrast to the upright Starbuck. Stubb catches and kills a
whale with cool efficiency in Chapter 61. His colorful exchanges with the ship’s crew provide, in the middle
section of the book, some of the humor and entertainment that Queequeg provides at the start. He is more
sensitive than Flask, but not inclined to speculation. His philosophy, such as it is, is to laugh at life, as he
explains in the brief soliloquy found in Chapter 39, “First Night-Watch.”
Moby Dick: Themes
Individual vs. Nature
The voyage of the Pequod is no straightforward, commercially inspired whaling voyage. The reader knows
this as soon as Ishmael registers as a member of the crew and receives, at secondhand, warnings of the
captain’s state of mind. Ahab, intent on seeking revenge on the whale who has maimed him, is presented as a
daring and creative individual, pitted against the full forces of nature. In developing the theme of the
individual (Ahab) versus Nature (symbolized by Moby-Dick), Melville explores the attributes of natural
forces. Are they ruled by chance, neutral occurrences that affect human characters arbitrarily? Or do they
possess some form of elementary will that makes them capable of using whatever power is at their disposal?
God and Religion
The conflict between the individual and nature brings into play the theme of religion and God’s role in the
natural world. The critic Harold Bloom has named Ahab “one of the fictive founders of what should be called
the American Religion,” and although Melville wrote his novel while living in the civilized Berkshires, near
Moby Dick: Themes 64
the eastern U.S. seaboard, and set it on the open seas, the reader must not forget that America at that time had
moved westward. To Ahab it does not matter if the white whale is “agent” or “principle.” He will fight
against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence. Father Mapple, who gives a sermon near the
beginning of the novel, and, to a lesser extent, Starbuck both symbolize the conventional and contemporary
religious attitudes of nineteenth-century Protestantism. Ahab’s defiance of these is neither romantic nor
atheistic but founded on a tragic sense of heroic and unavoidable duty.
Good and Evil, Female and Masculine
Ahab picks his fight with evil on its own terms, striking back aggressively. The good things in the book—the
loyalty of members of the crew, such as young Pip; Ahab’s domestic memories of his wife and child—remain
peripheral and ineffective, a part of life that is never permitted to take center stage. Other dualities abound.
The sky and air, home for the birds, is described as feminine, while the sea is masculine, a deep dungeon for
murderous brutes. Also contrasted with the sea is the land, seen as green and mild, a tranquil haven. In
Chapter 58 Melville writes: “As the appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there
lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God
keep thee! Push not off from that isle, for thou canst never return!” Although Melville’s exact point of view
is debatable, and the symbolism in the book is too rich to allow for neat comparisons, it can be said that
qualities of goodness tend to be equated with the land, the feminine, and with mildness of temper. Viewing
the Pequod’s voyage as a metaphor for life, the book seems to be saying that in following ambition or any
far-off goal, an individual risks missing out on many of the good things in life, including home and domestic
The fact that there are no female participants in the novel has encouraged some critics to consider that this is a
commentary on the masculine character—thrusting, combative, and vengeful. But it is because the other
characters are all male, and they are not all like Ahab, that interpretations cannot be so straightforward. The
very masculinity of Ahab is complicated somewhat by the possibility that he has been castrated, not by the
initial encounter with the whale, but by the subsequent accidental piercing of his groin by his ivory leg. Critics
as diverse as W. H. Auden and Camille Paglia have written about the sexual symbolism in the novel. It is a
matter which invites debate, although any discussion on the subject needs to take into account that in the
nineteenth century, it was an accepted convention to give certain characteristics a gender bias. Melville, like
his contemporaries, was sophisticated enough to know that men and women could embrace a combination of
traits deemed to be masculine and feminine.
Choices and Consequences
Ahab is both a hero and a villain. In making a choice and sticking by it, he can be seen as valiantly exercising
free will. But the consequences of his decision transform him into a villain, responsible for the death of such
innocents as Pip and good men like Starbuck. His monomania or obsession chains him to a fate worse than
that which might have prevailed had he not so stubbornly pursued his goal. Contrasting readings of the novel
are possible, and most turn upon the interpretation of the character of Ahab and the choices he makes—or,
rather, towards the end of the book, the choices he refuses to make. “Not too late is it, even now,” Starbuck
cries out to him on the third day of the climactic chase. The question is, in depicting a number of situations in
which Ahab is given the possibility of drawing back, is Melville establishing a flaw in the individual
character, or is he emphasizing the predestined and inescapable quality of the novel’s conclusion?
For much of the final encounter, the white whale behaves as any ordinary whale caught up in the chase, but in
its last rush at the boat, “Retribution, swift vengeance, eternal malice were in his whole aspect.…” These are
exactly the qualities which Ahab himself has exhibited during the voyage. Ahab is finally seen as both defined
and consumed by fate. When, at the end of the novel, Ishmael, the lone survivor, is finally picked up and
rescued by the Rachel, we are reminded that he had become a member of the crew as the result of an act of
free will rather than necessity, as a means of escaping thoughts of death.
Moby Dick: Themes 65
Appearance and Reality
Underscoring all of these themes is an ongoing consideration of the meaning of appearances. A key chapter in
this regard is “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a meditation in Ishmael’s voice on the mask-like ambiguities
which affect our interpretation of the visible world. There are ambiguities in the chapter itself, for in one of
two footnotes Melville gives a firsthand account of his first sighting of an albatross. “Through its
inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God.” Is the reader supposed to
think this is Ishmael or Melville speaking? (Ambiguity becomes a major theme in Melville’s next novel,
Pierre.) In this particular chapter, Ishmael meditates on the strange phenomenon of whiteness, which
sometimes speaks of godly purity and at other times repels or terrorizes with its ghostly pallor. The meditation
leaves color references behind to become a general meditation on the nature of fear and the existence of
unseen evil: “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres
were formed in fright.”
Moby Dick: Style
Point of View
Melville’s earlier novels are mainly first-person accounts of romanticized sailing voyages presented as actual
experience. When, after the introductory Etymology and Extracts, he opens Moby-Dick with the words “Call
me Ishmael,” it is as if he is giving notice that the narrative voice in this novel is to be more obviously
fictional. There are periods, particularly in the first quarter of the book, when Ishmael is an active character,
telling the story as an involved first-person narrator. But often during the middle section of the voyage
Ishmael’s voice recedes and the reader is presented with a traditional, omniscient narrator’s view of events,
with the consequence that the author, Melville, and the character Ishmael become identified as one and the
same in many readers’ minds. Shakespearean soliloquies and learned discourses on whaling history and
anatomy are used to break up the narrative thread.
At no point is Ishmael given the perspective of one who is relating the story from a flashback point of view in
which the outcome of the voyage is known, but since he could not be relating the story if he had gone down
with the ship, the reader knows this must be a survivor’s tale. Nevertheless, this does not mean that
Ishmael’s attitudes and beliefs as they are reflected at the novel’s beginning still hold by its conclusion, for
Ishmael’s experiences clearly have an effect on him.
The passages providing reference information on whales and whaling, which sometimes seem clumsily
inserted into the narrative, are a means of making it clear to the reader that the story is about much more than
a simple hunting expedition. It is not always apparent who is supposed to be presenting the
information—Ishmael? Melville?—but it is certainly not Ahab, who has lost whatever interest he had in
whaling as a purely practical and commercial enterprise. Nevertheless, some of the factual, general material
provides relevant commentary on the thematic implications of Ahab’s quest for one individual whale, so that
there is a multi-layered symbolism at work in the book. The crudest and most straightforward symbolism is
that which occurs when clusters of chapters make direct analogies with allegorical qualities.
In Chapter 73, for example, the hoisting of a captured whale’s head to the side of the boat makes it lean until
it is counterbalanced by the head of a second kill. This, the reader is told, is like first being influenced by one
philosopher and then being brought to some degree of even keel by a dose of another. “Throw all these
thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right” is the final exhortation. But a later chapter
takes the analogy into an entirely different realm, one that touches upon the much broader symbolism of the
novel. Chapter 76, “The Battering-Ram,” in which it is explained that the mouth of a sperm whale is
positioned entirely underneath the head, and its eyes and ears are situated on the sides, describes the whale’s
frontal appearance as a “dead, blind wall,” a featureless barrier of flesh and bone against which Ahab has
Moby Dick: Style 66
pitted himself. The whale’s head thus symbolizes the unsympathetic and irresistible forces of nature.
After the initial, episodic beginning to Moby-Dick, Melville takes liberties with the structure of the novel. He
introduces very short chapters, some barely a page in length, and puts words into the mouths of his characters
as if they are performing on the Elizabethan stage, rather than in a nineteenth-century novel. Comparing
Moby-Dick with other stalwart nineteenth-century texts, such as those by Charles Dickens or Anthony
Trollope, it is easy to exaggerate Melville’s eccentricities. In fact, Melville’s contemporaries were perfectly
happy with the traditionally accepted structures of the novel at the time. Reading reviews of Moby-Dick from
both sides of the Atlantic helps one to realize that its critical reception was not at all bad. Discerning reviewers
of the time, especially in the English press, actually did appreciate the novel in relation to Melville’s
preceding works and considered it to be his finest achievement to date.
Unfortunately, the general public was not so appreciative of the novel’s subtleties and innovations. The book
sold fewer than five thousand copies in Melville’s lifetime. Its structure was undoubtedly a factor. For some
readers it remains a difficult book to complete on first encounter. On the other hand, once it has been read
from beginning to end, it is relatively easy to return to its decisive moments and examine afresh their
relationship to the whole. This makes it a very accessible book for study, the brevity of its chapters helping
students to find their way about the text.
Newton Arvin was one of the first critics to identify the characteristics of what he called Melville’s “verbal
palette.” These include his fondness for verbal nouns such as “regardings,” “allurings” and “intercedings,”
which give passages of the novel the magisterial tone of an ancient classic text. One of the source books for
Moby-Dick was Os Lusiados (The Lusiads) by the sixteenth-century Portuguese poet Luis de Camoens. In this
poem, Camoens did for the Portuguese language what Geoffrey Chaucer had done for English and Dante for
Italian. Melville was increasingly conscious that no one had yet achieved this in American literature. He read
and reviewed Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse in the course of working on Moby-Dick. In
his review he commented on the need for heroic national literature of a truly independent kind.
Many of the epic references and posturings in Moby-Dick are humorous (mock-epic). The three-day battle
with the whale at the end of the book is on a grand scale, and the association with Prometheus (the Greek
Titan who gave fire to mankind and was later punished by Zeus for it) is self-consciously “heroic,” but
Melville mixes this with passages of ranting slang. As John McWilliams said in his essay “The Epic in the
Nineteenth Century,” “Moby-Dick represents a moment in literary history when generic terms retain old
meanings that must be wilfully, even gleefully, broken down.”
Moby Dick: Historical Context
America in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
America was in a tumultuous period, establishing its national and international identity at the time Moby-Dick
was being written. It is noteworthy that the classic American novel of the period is not ostensibly about
westward expansion. Instead it is about pursuit and capture, about following a dream. The American Dream,
as it was envisaged by the Founding Fathers, is now considered by some as a dangerous preoccupation, a
consuming national obsession. In a real sense, Melville’s book is not about its time, but about ours. A
possible reading would have the Pequod as modern corporate America, intent on control and subjection, and
Ahab as a power-crazed executive, quick to seek vengeance for any received aggression.
When the novel was being written, Transcendentalism was becoming the predominant philosophical and
Moby Dick: Historical Context 67
religious viewpoint. This view—propounded most cogently by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay
Self-Reliance–held that God was present in the world, as well as in every individual soul. In this way, the
soul’s intuitions were divine and should be followed regardless of authority, tradition, or public opinion.
“Trust thyself,” was the basic tenet, and hence the term “Self-Reliance.” This view (it never developed into a
rigorous system of thought) was essentially a reaction against New England Puritanism. Like English
Romanticism, it was heavily influenced by German philosophers, principally Immanuel Kant. As propounded
by Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Jones Very, George Ripley, and a host
of other New England poets, essayists, divines, and public speakers, Transcendentalism was idealistic, skirting
around such basic religious notions as sin and evil.
Although Melville fits the descriptions of the self-reliant individual in Emerson’s essay—“to be great is to be
misunderstood,” “who so would be a man must be a nonconformist”—he, like Hawthorne, remained acutely
aware that by taking self-reliance to extremes, as in the case of the monomaniacal Ahab, virtue could quickly
turn to vice. The Calvinist heritage could not so easily be shrugged off. (Calvinists followed John Calvin’s
theological system that included the doctrine of predestination and the belief that mankind was depraved by
nature.) And in his essay “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville, approving Hawthorne’s “power of
blackness,” explained that it “derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity
and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and
wholly free.” It is this recognition of and sense of sin which separates Melville from Transcendentalism, the
predominant movement of his period.
The American Whaling Industry
The United States had been a whaling nation since the seventeenth century, when the early colonists launched
expeditions from the island of Nantucket and from ports along the Massachusetts coast. The early whalers
hunted whales in the seas fairly close to shore. In 1712 a chance storm blew a whale ship off course and into
much deeper waters. This resulted in an encounter with a pod of sperm whales, one of which was captured.
The superior quality of sperm oil was thus discovered and from that point on American whalers extended
voyage distances and times in their hunt for the sperm whale. They traveled the whole world, often venturing
into uncharted waters, and their journeys contributed to the development of maritime cartography. Moby-Dick
was written at a time when the American whaling industry, propelled by home demand, was at its peak. The
United States owned three-quarters of the world’s whaling ships.
In the year of Moby-Dick’s publication, a whaler was sunk by a sperm whale in circumstances which
appeared to replicate the climax to Melville’s novel. The Ann Alexander had two of its whaling boats
destroyed by the whale they were pursuing. The whale then deliberately rammed the main ship, causing it to
Moby Dick: Critical Overview
The first edition of Moby-Dick received a mixed reception. It was condemned for its unusual narrative style
and for its irreverent tone. The proportion of positive to negative reviews was highest in England, where the
book had been published in three volumes under the title The Whale. There were other differences between
the American and English editions. The English publisher, Bentley, positioned the Extracts section at the end
of the book and did not include the Epilogue at all. The main body of the text had also been abridged to cut
out much of the overt blasphemy and sexual suggestiveness. One of the earliest and most expansive reviews
appeared in the London Morning Advertiser, on October 24, 1851. In that review the rich, multi-faceted
texture of the book was considered a strength. The novel was praised for its “High philosophy, liberal feeling,
abstruse metaphysics popularly phrased, soaring speculation, a style as many-coloured as the theme.”
Moby Dick: Critical Overview 68
On the other hand, in America the book was enjoyed only in regard to those aspects in which it resembled
Melville’s earlier sailing narrative, Typee. Readers liked its graphic accounts of whaling and ignored its
soaring religious and philosophical ruminations. Where the speculation and abstruse metaphysics were taken
note of, they were roundly deplored, especially in religious journals.
A critic for the Methodist Quarterly Review wrote in January, 1852: “We are bound to say … that the book
contains a number of flings at religion, and even of vulgar immoralities that render it unfit for general
circulation.” The most scathing review appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in
January, 1852. It attacked Melville’s vanity and assumed hunger for fame. “From this morbid self-esteem,
coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety,” commented the reviewer, “spring all Mr. Melville’s
efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his
Harper and Brothers, Melville’s publisher and a Methodist firm, were affected by this response, and when the
critical reception was matched by disappointing sales, they offered Melville unsatisfactory terms in his next
contract. He was never to recover from this setback and although his position as one of the major writers of
his time is now unassailable, it was never so in his lifetime. When Van Wyck Brooks set about a reassessment
of the nineteenth century in his essay “America’s Coming of Age,” published in 1915, Melville’s name was
not considered worthy of mention. In Vernon Parrington’s influential three-volume Main Currents in
American Thought, published in the late 1920s, Melville is portrayed as an irrelevant eccentric. However, this
decade was also the point at which several key voices were heard in support of Melville’s reputation. D. H.
Lawrence wrote an essay in 1923 which praised Melville as a great poet of the sea.
But of more profound critical importance was the publication, two years earlier, of Herman Melville: Mariner
and Mystic by Raymond Weaver, one of the first books to treat seriously the religious and philosophical
themes in Moby-Dick and Melville’s other books. Weaver’s influence on students who later became
academics, particularly while he was at Columbia University in the 1940s, was immense. The 1950s saw an
enormous increase in the volume of critical comment about Moby-Dick, good examples of which include a
long introductory essay to the novel by Alfred Kazin, for whom it “conveys a sense of abundance, of high
creative power, that exhilarates and enlarges the imagination,” and an essay by Richard Chase, “Melville and
Moby-Dick,” which enthused, “The symbols are manifold and suggestive; the epic scope is opulent; the
rhetoric is full and various; the incidental actions and metaphors are richly absorbing.”
However, there was still a reluctance to shower Moby-Dick with the highest accolades. Chase, in his essay,
tempered his praise with a carping reservation about the novel’s narrowness of meaning and simplification of
issues when compared with great works such as Shakespeare’s King Lear or Dante’s The Divine Comedy.
Another critic of the period, R. P. Blackmur, criticized Melville for not making use of the conventional
dramatic strategies of novelistic characterization and for allowing his allegorical agenda to take precedence
over narrative technique.
The criticism of recent decades has been inclined to explore the idiosyncratic structure of Moby-Dick in terms
of potential, rather than weaknesses and deficiencies, and to treat the whale as the novel’s central character.
A. Robert Lee interpreted the book in anatomical terms, searching for layers of meaning under the skin, and
Eric Mottram is one of several critics who have discussed the novel’s erotic and sexual connotations in
Freudian terms. Certainly there now seems to be some agreement that it is no use approaching the book as if it
were written by Henry James.
As John McWilliams put it in his essay “The Epic in the Nineteenth Century,” published in The Columbia
History of American Poetry, “The armada of scholars and critics who have felt compelled to reach a judgment
upon Ahab are by now revealed to have been collectively gazing into Melville’s doubloon.” Inevitably, not
all of the latest criticism is helpful or perceptive, and readers approaching the novel for the first time are
Moby Dick: Critical Overview 69
advised to consider it both as a work that realistically portrays life on a whaling vessel and as a literary
investigation of the conflict between humanity and fate.
Moby Dick: Essays and Criticism
The Symbol of the Whale
As many commentators have pointed out, Moby Dick is first and foremost a naturalistic story of
whale-hunting. There are careful technical descriptions about whaling and precise details are enumerated on
everything from the whales themselves to the men that pursue them. But beyond the surface account, Melville
has created a story with another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that the book should be read as purely
symbolic. As Denham Sutcliffe explains, “It is not that things ‘stand for’ something else; they are inexorably
themselves, but they begin to accrete meanings and associations. We begin to notice recurrent motifs, and an
emphatic insistence upon certain objects and ideas, and suspicion finally becomes certainty that this story of
the pursuit of the whale is a huge metaphor of which one face is to be taken literally and the other
symbolically.” (FN1) This essay will focus on the whale in Moby Dick and the extent to which this creature
encourages other meanings to be associated with it.
The whale is central to the story of Moby Dick. Whenever a whale is encountered in the story, the scene is
usually one of horror. This horror is intensified by Melville’s contrasts between the calm, clarity of the
weather and the seeming fury and irrationality of the whale. In these instances the contrast on a symbolic level
may be seen as one between the power of nature and the smallness of man. The day may be calm and serene,
man may be lulled into a sense of trust and contentment. But what man expects and desires cannot always be
had from nature. Just as Jonah, in the Biblical story “Jonah and the Whale,” experiences the power and wrath
of God via nature, so the sailors in this story experience the power of nature. In this story, however, often the
experience of nature prevails before a sense of spirituality or God is realized (if it is realized at all).
The scholar Howard Vincent sees in Moby Dick the epitome of natural power. In The Trying-Out of Moby
Dick he says that “though Moby Dick is a monument to the greatest whale that ever swam the seven seas, it is
not, however, the biography of that fish, since it reconstructs but one episode from Moby Dick’s career. But
even though the climax of Moby Dick is fiction, it sprang from a vortex of tradition traceable through an odd
assortment of records.” (FN2) Vincent lays great importance on the factual bases of the story. Many others
take care in pointing to this same factual basis about whales and whaling in particular. While the exactness of
Melville’s information is indeed a point of strong interest and says a great deal for his powers of observation
and his skill as a researcher, it is nonetheless more important from a literary point of view to consider the
effect that these details have upon the reader.
Vincent says that “there is almost no expository fact in Moby Dick which does not have some narrative or
themistic function besides.” (FN3) It is this latter function which acts upon the reader in an unconscious way.
Even though one may analyze the work from many points of view, it is important to keep in mind that much
of the effect is on an unconscious level even though analysis, by definition, must occur on a conscious plane.
The whale in this story is seen at different times as symbolic of different things. Sometimes it brings
associations of goodness. Other times it is the antithesis of good and seems to be a completely evil creature.
The whale may also be associated with nature in general and may be used to emphasize the contrast between
the power of nature and the weakness of man. For instance, even with all his cunning, Ahab is unable to
destroy nature in the form of the whale. Ahab finally succumbs to nature at the end of the story. He goes down
with the whale. He is tied to the whale as the whale leaves the surface of the water and goes down to the
depths of the sea.
Moby Dick: Essays and Criticism 70
The sea is the whale’s home. It is here where the whale lives in comfort which contrasts with man’s
discomfort. On the surface of the ocean man cannot see below the water, and he does not know what lies
below. Man may be reminded that there is more to the ocean than what is immediately visible. What is not
visible is in greater proportion to what is. The sea is the home of the whale, and the whale lives in a home
which is largely inaccessible to man. This endows the whale with a quality of mystery. The whales are often
depicted with only their tales on the surface of the water. When they do their destruction, they eventually
leave the surface of the water to go down to their home. Man cannot go there. Man does not have access to
part of the whales’ lives, and it is a source of terror to him.
Part of the terror associated with the whale comes from the actual physical destruction which is caused to the
whaling boats by the whales. Part of the associated terror also emerges from the above-described mystery
about the whale. Part of the terror is tangible; part of the terror is not. Melville acknowledged this directly:
For not only are whalemen as a body unexempt from that ignorance and superstitiousness
heredity to all sailors; but of all sailors, they are by all odds the most directly brought into
contact with whatever is appallingly astonishing in the sea; face to face they not only eye its
greatest marvels, but, hand to jaw, give battle to them. (p. 181)
Moby Dick is especially associated with terror which is heightened by the unknown elements. For a portion of
the story it is not clear whether Moby Dick is real or a figment of Ahab and other sailors’ imaginations. “For
some time past, though at intervals only, the unaccompanied, secluded White Whale had haunted those
uncivilized seas mostly frequented by the Sperm Whale fishermen. But not all of them knew of his
existence.…” (p. 180) Moby Dick is described as “haunting” the sailors. Haunting is something associated
with non-reality. When something is haunting, its presence and memory is as important as its physical reality.
Moby Dick is such a creature. What the whale symbolizes in the sailor’s minds—the terror and potential
power that he is associated with—is as important as the whale’s actual potential for such terror. Moby Dick is
attributed with a capacity for vengeance which is really in the minds of the avengers. But such a
personification of the whale shows even more clearly that in the minds of men such as Ahab, he has been
endowed with supernatural qualities. For Ahab, the reality merges with his conception of it, and after a point it
doesn’t matter what the physical status of the whale is—his symbolism has become all-important.
While Melville makes it impossible to ever forget the physical reality of whales in general and Moby Dick in
particular, the significance of the whale lies in its capacity to generate feelings associated with its power and
link to the sea. Although the whale is capable of destruction, it is man, not the whale, that actively seeks to
destroy. As Denham Sutcliffe says in conclusion, “the whale does not ‘stand for’ the beauty and terror and
mystery of Creation, but he strongly suggests them all, becomes their symbol.” By the end of the book, Moby
Dick has been seen as many things to many men. The strength of the vision ultimately determines the effect.
The whale does not destroy Ahab, for instance, Ahab forces destruction upon himself.
1. Denham Sutcliffe, “Afterward,” in Moby Dick (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 538.
2. Howard Vincent, The Trying-Out of Moby Dick (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), p. 163.
3. Howard Vincent, p. 227.
Baird, James. Ishmael. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Signet, 1961.
The Symbol of the Whale 71
Sedgwick, W. E. Herman Melville: The Tragedy of Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1944.
Vincent, Howard. The Trying Out of Moby Dick. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
Ujhazy, Maria. Herman Melville’s World of Whaling. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1982.
Zoellner, Robert. The Salt-Sea Mastodon. L. A.: University of California Press, 1973.
Moby-Dick: An Overview
Since the revival of interest in Herman Melville in the early 1920s, Moby-Dick, the author’s sixth novel, has
come to be considered his masterpiece. Part romantic sea tale, part philosophical drama, the story of Ishmael,
Ahab, and the white whale combines Melville’s experiences aboard the whaler Acushnet with his later
immersion in such classic authors as William Shakespeare, John Milton, François Rabelais, and Laurence
Sterne. After several years as a sailor, both in the whale fleet and in the United States navy, Melville returned
to his native New York in 1844 and soon began writing about his experiences. His earliest works, such as
Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), were loosely based upon his time in the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti.
Melville’s third novel, Mardi (1849), though a failure, showed evidence of a greater ambition to write
enduring works of literature. Just two years later, that ambition would find its fullest expression in the pages
of Moby-Dick, a symbolic tale that dramatizes the struggle to find meaning in a complex and hostile world.
Moby-Dick is narrated—or, more accurately, “written”—by a sailor who calls himself Ishmael, after the
biblical outcast and son of Abraham. As a young man not fully initiated into the mysteries of life, he
undergoes a type of spiritual and philosophical education during the course of the novel. Initially hostile and
potentially suicidal, he heads for the whaling fleet, hoping to exorcise some of his anger at the world. Before
he can find a ship, however, his poverty forces him to share a bed in a seedy inn with a bizarre and frightening
“cannibal” named Queequeg. Carrying a shrunken head and a tomahawk that doubles as a peace pipe,
Queequeg suggests both death and life. Indeed, after sharing a bed with this harpooner, Ishmael is a changed
man. He has experienced the first of a series of encounters with the mysterious “otherness” or strangeness of
nature. In symbolic terms, he has embraced death in the form of Queequeg, and when he wakes the following
morning he sees the world from a different perspective. Ishmael understands the mixture of life and death that
Queequeg’s tomahawk/pipe suggests and realizes, at least at that moment, that experience can lead to
The other major influence on Ishmael’s growth is certainly the captain of the Pequod, Ahab. Named for an
evil king in the Old Testament, Ahab demonstrates the dangers of an excessive focus on ideas. The object of
his obsession is of course the white whale, nicknamed Moby-Dick by the sailors. On the voyage previous to
the one described in the novel, Ahab lost one of his legs to Moby-Dick, and by the time Ishmael’s story
begins, he has sworn to take his vengeance by hunting down and killing the great whale. It soon becomes
clear, however, that Ahab’s fixation has more to do with what the white whale represents than with
Moby-Dick himself. As Ahab explains in a notable speech to the crew, for him “all visible objects” are like
“pasteboard masks” that hide “some unknown but still reasoning thing.” Ahab hates “that inscrutable thing”
that hides behind the mask of appearance. The only way to fight against it, he explains, is to “strike through
the mask!” Moby-Dick, as a mysterious force of nature, represents the most outrageous, malevolent aspect of
nature’s mask. To kill it, in Ahab’s mind, is to reach for and seize the unknowable truth that is hidden from
Ahab’s attitude toward nature is often referred to as a “monomania,” a tendency to see everything in terms of
himself. This vision of the world contrasts markedly with that of Ishmael after his first encounter with
Queequeg. Under the influence of the more naturalistic “savage,” Ishmael learns to understand what he sees
Moby-Dick: An Overview 72
from more than one perspective. He also begins to realize that objects in the world can have more than one
meaning because meaning originates with the observer rather than the object. In chapter 99, for instance,
Ishmael describes how Ahab and several members of the crew interpret a gold doubloon that Ahab has nailed
to one of the masts as a reward for the first person to spot Moby-Dick. Though the marks on the coin never
change, each man’s description is different, revealing more about his own thoughts and ideas than about the
coin. Ahab, in the grip of his monomania, declares that each symbol on the coin “means Ahab” and that the
whole coin is a reflection of the world as he sees it. Ishmael, by contrast, refuses to insist upon a single
meaning for the objects he encounters. He gathers as much information and as many opinions as he can,
suggesting that all readings are both partially valid and yet always incomplete.
The central dramatic event of the novel, Ahab’s hunt for the whale, thus describes the consequences of
conceiving of the world as a mask that hides unknowable truth. Ahab’s frustration with the limits of human
knowledge leads him to reject both science and logic and embrace instead violence and the dark magic of
Fedallah, his demonic advisor. Like Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, he has made a pact with the
devil, selling his soul for the secrets of the universe, only to find himself caught in the snares of his prophet’s
deception. Thinking himself immortal, Ahab attacks Moby-Dick, striking at the mask of appearance that
supposedly hides ultimate truth. What he fails to realize, however, is that such truth exists only beyond the
limits of the physical world; only in death will Ahab be able to reach the “unknown but still reasoning thing”
and learn what cannot be known in this world. Accordingly, his attempt to kill Moby-Dick brings about his
own death. His devotion to the idea that truth exists behind or beyond the physical world forces him to destroy
himself in the attempt to reach it.
Ishmael, on the other hand, escapes destruction in large part because of his different attitude toward the
physical world. While Ahab sees nature as deceptive, Ishmael learns to concentrate on the complexities and
beauties of what he sees. Rather than imagine a truer world beyond that of the senses, Ishmael revels in the
details of the world around him, compiling information and observations on the business of whaling, on the
Pequod’s crew, and on the inexhaustible wonders of the whale itself. Indeed, for Ishmael the whale becomes
the overwhelming symbol of life itself and of the search for knowledge represented by the book that bears its
name. The book’s encyclopedic breadth is meant to suggest the vastness of his subject and the wealth of all
sensual life. “Since I have undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan,” Ishmael tells us, “it behooves me to
approve myself omnisciently exhaustive in the enterprise; not overlooking the minutest seminal germs of his
blood, and spinning him out to the uttermost coil of his bowels.”
Because of its tremendous scope, Moby-Dick offers information and comment on a wide variety of topics
related to nineteenth-century life. For instance, critics have often described the Pequod as a microcosm, or
“little world,” that represents social and political life in pre-Civil War America. Understood this way, Ahab
and Ishmael stand for opposing political and social theories. Autocratic Ahab, with his Shakespearean
speeches and dependence on magic, suggests an aristocratic ruler who maintains power through threat and
superstition. Ishmael, on the other hand, appears to represent the radical democracy of America itself. His
concern for others, his tolerance of different religions and cultures, and his resilience in the face of social
collapse all mark him as a distinctly American character who opposes the old-world values of Ahab.
Other readers have commented on Melville’s use of eastern religions and mythology, as well as his reliance
on the relatively recent discoveries of Egyptian archaeology. In this vein, some have compared Ishmael’s
vision of the circularity of life and death to similar conceptions in Hinduism and Buddhism. His friendship
with Queequeg in particular is often cited as evidence of his adoption of non- Western religious or
philosophical views. Likewise, his descriptions of the whale often rely upon references to Egyptian
architecture and writing to suggest both the whale’s great antiquity and its mysterious power. On the whale’s
skin Ishmael sees “hieroglyphic” marks that, like Queequeg’s tattoos, seem “a mystical treatise on the art of
attaining the truth.” Moby-Dick’s “high, pyramidical white hump” suggests a mixture of geometrical purity
and ancient knowledge. And the ocean itself, source of both life and death, becomes in Ishmael’s mind a
Moby-Dick: An Overview 73
place of miracle, a “live ground” that “swallows up ships and crews.”
Moby-Dick also provides an unprecedented view of the whaling industry in mid-nineteenth-century America.
Ishmael’s detailed descriptions of the hunting, capture, slaughter, and butchering of sperm whales both
celebrates and questions the violent energy of American commerce. In one respect, the whaling industry
demonstrated heroic action and astonishing efficiency. American ships, manned by sailors of all nations,
circled the globe to gather the oil that fed the lamps of homes throughout the country. Hunting whales in small
boats launched from ships demanded enormous courage, skill, and strength. And it seems proper that the
democratic Ishmael should praise the traits of character that made such an industry possible. In other respects,
however, the tremendous violence of whale hunting suggests a world deeply at odds with nature. Disturbing
doubts arise as Ishmael discovers, for instance, that the Pequod is owned by pacifist Quakers and that the
violence that is necessary to run the whaling industry may very well produce the madness that plagues
With the completion of Moby-Dick in 1851, Melville knew he had produced an extraordinary book. His friend
and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the work is dedicated, sent him a letter praising the
accomplishment. Commercially, however, the book was at first a failure. Melville’s reading public still
considered him the author of entertaining sea tales, and people were not prepared to accept his ambition to
write a masterpiece. Melville’s subsequent work fared even worse, and by 1857 he had given up writing short
stories and novels and had turned instead to poetry. Despite this change of format, however, the central
concerns of Moby-Dick never disappear from Melville’s writings. Throughout his poetry and even as late as
his last known prose narrative, Billy Budd, Melville continues to explore the conflict between acceptance and
aggression best represented by Ishmael and Ahab.
Raymond Weaver, one of the critics to rediscover Melville in the early twentieth century, has called
Moby-Dick “an amazing masterpiece” that reads “like a great opium dream.” Despite its difficult passages,
complex philosophical content, and unusual and sometimes awkward form, the book has sustained continuous
and often extreme attention from readers for the last eighty years. Like the meaningful world it creates and
describes, Moby- Dick seems inexhaustible, reflecting that “image of the ungraspable phantom of life” that,
according to Ishmael, “is the key to it all.”
Source: Clark Davis, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999. Davis is an associate professor of
English at Northeast Louisiana University,
The Narrator of Moby-Dick
Throughout Moby-Dick, the theme of human isolation is prevalent. Each character exists as an island. While
they influence each others’ lives, they can never fully understand each other or experience a merger of souls.
This is one reason Ishmael admits to a “strange sort of insanity” when he tells how he felt when squeezing
the sperm in Chapter 94. He wanted then to say to his companions: “Come; let us squeeze hands all round;
nay, let us all squeeze ourselves … universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.” His was, indeed, a
“strange sort of insanity”, as he looks back on it, for Ishmael has come to realize the truth of man’s
unalterable isolation. This is a central theme not only in Moby-Dick but also in Melville’s other work, both
his fiction and poetry. He saw man living utterly alone in a world where overwhelming questions have no
positive answers. [In Studies in Classic American Literature (1964)] D. H. Lawrence saw to the heart of
Melville’s concern with human isolation when he wrote that Melville “pined for … a perfect relationship;
perfect mating; perfect mutual understanding. A perfect friend,” but knew in his heart that such communion
cannot be because “each soul is alone, and the aloneness of each soul is a double barrier to perfect
relationship between two beings.”
The Narrator of Moby-Dick 74
The theme of loneliness is dominant in the reasons for Ishmael’s survival. A great deal has been written on
why only Ishmael is allowed to escape death. [Writing in his The Trying-out of Moby-Dick (1949)] Howard
Vincent believes that Ishmael undergoes a “spiritual rebirth”, symbolically portrayed in his being saved. Only
Ishmael is saved, argues Vincent, because only he has “obtained the inner harmony unrealized by Ahab”.
James Dean Young [writing in American Literature, January, 1954] feels that it is Ishmael’s “humanity” that
saves him. And C. Hugh Holman argues [in Studies in Classic American Literature (1964)] that Ishmael
survives because he alone “of those on the Pequod has faced with the courage of humility the facts of his
These interpretations, which see Ishmael’s survival as his reward for a lesson well learned, are not entirely
satisfying. It may be possible to make a list of the characters in Moby-Dick and then find some flaw in
each—except Ishmael—but such an approach surely does violence to the novel. By almost any standard
Queequeg is noble, courageous, and humane to the last. Starbuck is characterized as sensitive, tender, and
mature. They are both at least as worthy of being saved as Ishmael.
But the point is that it is not at all clear that physical survival is Melville’s symbol for spiritual salvation or
even for moral superiority. Ishmael is not saved because he is a deeper thinker, or because he is more humane,
or because he is stoical. The others of the crew do not die because they are being punished for following Ahab
or for other assorted shortcomings. They are simply victims of Ahab’s destructive design. Man has, as
Ishmael puts it in the “Monkey-Rope” chapter, a “Siamese connection with a plurality of other mortals. If
your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.” Ahab is
their banker and their apothecary.
Melville chose to save Ishmael for at least three reasons, all of which are closely related to the meaning of the
book. The first is that Melville wished to objectify the idea of man’s loneliness through Ishmael. In spite of
the “Siamese connection”, which men have, they are, paradoxically, incapable of sharing each others’
deepest and most meaningful thoughts and intuitions. Having Ishmael die with the rest of the characters would
have, in a sense, made him a part of the group. But he is Melville’s representative of man, alone in the
universe, and saving him—only him—projects this image brilliantly. Perhaps the book’s most unforgettable
image is of Ishmael, after the sinking of the Pequod, alone in the eternal sea, in “the great shroud of the sea
[which] rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Although “the Fates ordained” as Ishmael puts it, that
he should be rescued, he feels merely like “another orphan.”
Ishmael’s feeling about the Fates pervades the book and offers a second explanation for his survival. From
the early pages, one senses the inevitability of the events, what Ronald Mason calls [in The Spirit Above the
Dust (1951)] “fatal compulsion”. But precisely how to account for the strange workings of “the Fates”—this
is the unanswerable question which haunted Melville throughout his life. He resented dogma of all sorts
which claimed to solve the riddle of the universe. In Moby-Dick doctrines of many kinds abound. Father
Mapple’s sermon on Jonah has been offered by some as the key to the book, but this interpretation, I suggest,
goes contrary to all Melville believed. While there may be partial truth in what Father Mapple says, it scarcely
accounts for the existence of a man like Ahab or for what he has to do, drawn on by the necessity of his
innermost being. The sermon which the cook Fleece preaches to the sharks is as relevant to Ahab as are Father
Mapple’s words. For Ahab is like the sharks; he can no more turn back from his search than they can become
“civilized”. From Father Mapple’s Christianity to Queequeg’s pagan idol worship, the doctrines so
frequently mentioned in the book simply underscore the fact that life’s deepest truths are unfathomable. By
what appears to be sheer chance, Ishmael is thrown from his whale boat at a crucial moment and is thus saved
from the fatal encounter with Moby Dick. Ishmael survives to illustrate the inexplicability of life, another of
the book’s important themes. He is not, to restate an earlier point, allowed to live because he is morally better
than anyone else aboard the Pequod.
The Narrator of Moby-Dick 75
The third reason for Ishmael’s survival is in one sense the most obvious. He must live because he, after all, is
the teller of the story. A great deal more is involved here than the obvious technical necessity of keeping the
first-person narrator alive. And here we return to a consideration of the book’s strange, wild tone. Melville
kept Ishmael alive to show the later effect of the Pequod experience upon his mind. Why does Ishmael tell his
story? Because he has to. Since shipping on the Pequod, he has wandered the earth, but it is what happened on
that first whaling voyage that preoccupies him. Everywhere he goes, he feels the necessity to tell of Ahab and
Moby Dick, just as the seemingly mad Elijah does in an early chapter of the novel. For example, in Chapter
54, Ishmael relates how he told part of the narrative—the “Town-Ho’s Story”—in Lima, “one Saint’s eve”.
In a good many ways, Ishmael is similar to the Ancient Mariner of Coleridge. In Chapter 42, “The Whiteness
of the Whale”, Ishmael refers to Coleridge’s poem and tells of the “clouds of spiritual wonderment and pale
dread” suggested by the albatross.
The references in Moby-Dick to Coleridge’s poem suggest an influence which is borne out by a comparison
of the book with “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Although critics have referred in passing to certain
similarities in Moby-Dick and Coleridge’s poem, the subject has not received extensive treatment nor has one
of the most important similarities—the states of mind of the two narrators— been clearly shown. W. Clark
Russell made a provocative statement when he wrote in 1884 [a remark quoted in Jay Leyda’s The Melville
Log (1951)] that Moby-Dick “is of the ‘Ancient Mariner’ pattern, madly fantastic in places, full of
extraordinary thoughts, yet gloriously coherent.”
To give a brief synopsis, the poem is the narrative of a sailor, who begins upon a promising voyage only to
fall under a curse because he wantonly kills an albatross. After days of thirst, the Mariner sees a strange ship,
which comes alongside. On it are two spectres, Death and Life-in-Death. They gamble with dice for the
Mariner and the crew, Life-in-Death winning the Mariner and Death the rest of the men. Soon all members of
the crew perish, leaving only the Mariner. The loneliness overcomes him, and he suffers profoundly. Later he
experiences a sense of love for the creatures he sees in the ocean and is partially redeemed for his earlier sin
of killing the bird. But—and this is an extremely important point in the poem—he has seen and felt too much to
remain completely sane. His ship is manned by spirits that use the bodies of the dead crew, and finally it
arrives in the Mariner’s home port, where it sinks, leaving the Mariner as the sole survivor. He is picked up
from the sea by a pilot, the pilot’s son, and an old hermit. They think him mad, and he does seem to be
partially insane. This entire story he tells to a wedding guest, who is anxious to get to the ceremony but is
retained in fascination by the wild eyes and manner of the narrator. The Mariner must tell his tale because it is
the only way he can relieve himself of the terrible burden with which the experience has left him. Since he
was picked up by the pilot, to whom he immediately related the incidents of the voyage, he has wandered the
earth, frequently feeling the deep need to tell other human beings what he has been through.
This summary may suggest some ways in which the poem is different from Melville’s novel, but many ways
in which the two are fundamentally similar. The Mariner’s sin is a wanton act of cruelty. Ishmael commits no
such act. He does, to be sure, take a vow with the rest of the crew to join Ahab in his frantic search for
revenge, but this vow is by no means the primary cause of a curse. Ahab, and not Ishmael, brings on the
destruction of the Pequod. Other, but less essential differences are also apparent. But the similarities are,
nevertheless, striking. While Ishmael’s vow to follow Ahab is not of the magnitude of the Mariner’s sin, he
is sorry for it. He takes the oath in a frenzy born of Ahab, whose “quenchless feud” seemed his. Later when
he sits with other members of the crew squeezing whale sperm in the tubs before them, he negates his earlier
vow: ‘I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hands and my heart of it.”
In just such a moment the Ancient Mariner feels the weight of guilt leave him as he contemplates the colorful
water snakes before him:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
The Narrator of Moby-Dick 76
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
Ishmael’s survival is a result of the same kind of interplay of fate and chance represented in Coleridge’s
poem. But the most important similarity in the two works is the profound loneliness which both narrators feel,
a loneliness which penetrates to their very souls and produces the wildness, the half-madness which is evident
in their narratives. The effect of the Mariner’s loneliness is apparent in the following passage, which comes
after he explains how he was the sole survivor:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on My soul in agony.
Then toward the end of the poem, he tells his listener:
O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemed there to be.
The ordeal of the Ancient Mariner, his facing of almost unendurable loneliness, is basically the ordeal of
Ishmael. In both works, the experience leaves the character with a burden, which at times makes him all but
unstable. That Ishmael has been left this way by his having witnessed the events he retells and by his
experiencing the most intense loneliness is indicated in Chapter 93, “The Castaway.” This chapter ostensibly
deals with the cabin boy Pip, but it clearly is concerned with Ishmael’s fate, too. Both are castaways. Pip was
taken into one of the whale boats because of the illness of one of the sailors. But he could not contain himself
during the dangerous whale chases. Consequently, he jumped overboard. Stubb, master of that particular boat,
warned him that if he jumped again, he would be left behind. Ishmael fully realizes what it means to be
abandoned in the sea:
Now, in calm weather, to swim in the open ocean is as easy to the practised swimmer as to
ride in a spring-carriage ashore. But the awful lonesomeness is intolerable. The intense
concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity, my God! who can tell it?
Mark, how when sailors in a dead calm bathe in the open sea—mark how closely they hug
their ship and only coast along her sides.
By “the merest chance”, as Ishmael puts it, Pip is rescued, but he is maddened by the experience:
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not
drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange
shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the
miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless,
ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of
the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the
The Narrator of Moby-Dick 77
loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.
The words that end that chapter are highly significant, because they link Ishmael, who is also thrown into the
sea and left behind, only to be rescued by merest chance, with the maddened Pip: “For the rest, blame not
Stubb too hardly. The thing is common in that fishery; and in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen
what like abandonment befell myself.”
What I should like to suggest by this reading of Moby-Dick is that the narrator, a man highly sensitive by
nature, has himself been “carried down alive to wondrous depths” of truth and that this collective experience,
terminating with his isolation in the sea, a symbolic projection of man’s frightening plight in life, has left him
in the state of mind which characterizes the tone of the narrative. If there is a certain wildness about
Moby-Dick, as the early reviewers felt, it is Ishmael’s. Such a reading accounts for the so-called
inconsistencies of point of view and gives Ishmael the stature and importance which a first-person narrator
should have. But more importantly, to see the effect of the events on Ishmael’s mind is to feel the impact of
the book’s theme with profound and dramatic force.
Source: William B. Dillingham, “The Narrator of Moby-Dick,” in English Studies, Vol. 49, No. 1, February,
1968, pp. 20-29.
Moby-Dick … is ultimately a study of evil. But what sort of evil? What is Melville’s notion of evil? Evil’s
first apparent manifestation (or so it is interpreted by Ahab) is the White Whale’s mutilation of his leg. But
the Pequod meets an English whaler whose captain has had his arm torn off by the same whale; this man is
not maddened, nor does he regard the event as more than a perfectly natural, though fearful, accident incurred
in the routine business of whaling. His sensible conclusion is that, as far as he and his men are concerned, this
particular whale is best let alone. Now, Ahab, a deeper man by far, is obsessed not only with what seems the
injustice of the excruciating treatment accorded him (he was delirious for days after the accident, and
convalescent for months); he is obsessed too, as we have seen, with the notion of hidden forces in the
universe. More than this, he is a sinisterly marked man, with a long, livid, probably congenital scar (an
emblem, surely, of original sin); with a record of blasphemy and certain peculiar, darkly violent deeds; with a
series of evil prophecies hanging over him; and with the given name of an idolatrous and savage king.
All this is fittingly suggestive preparation for the complete deliverance of Ahab’s soul to evil through
obsession and revenge. But his motive for revenge is not simple, not merely wicked. His quest for Moby Dick
is in part a metaphysical one, for he is in revolt against the existence of evil itself. His vindictiveness, blind as
it is, and motivated by personal hurt, is nevertheless against the eternal fact of evil. He thinks “the invisible
spheres were formed in fright,” feels his burden is that of all mankind (“as though I were Adam, staggering
beneath the piled centuries since Paradise”), thinks the White Whale either the “principal” or the agent of all
evil. He, Ahab, is evil, Melville seems to say (through Starbuck and Ahab both), because he seeks to
overthrow the established order of dualistic human creation; and yet he is admirable, for he has gone over to
evil not merely, like Faustus, for purposes of self-gratification, but in angry and misguided protest against its
existence and its ravages in him.
What inevitably happens is that, in casting himself as the race-hero opposing the existence of the principle of
evil, he but projects his own evil outward (“deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale”) and
so becomes all the more its avatar and its prey. He would “strike through the mask” of the visible object (the
agent of evil), hoping there to find the key to the riddle. His occasional suspicion (“Sometimes I think there’s
naught beyond”) that this will not result in any discovery whatsoever, and so not in an effective revenge,
deters him not at all, though it drives him ever in upon himself as his fatal hour approaches, till, near the end,
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he does see the working of evil in himself—and yet dies its avowed agent. For he is mad; he is “madness
maddened,” quite conscious of his own derangement, and obsessed with it. The final, terrifying chaos, then, is
that which he discovers within himself as his vestigial sanity contemplates his madness and its futility, as he
admits his incomprehension of the thing that has driven him to irreparable folly and has lost him his very
identity (“Is Ahab, Ahab?”):
“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it [the very language used earlier to
describe evil]; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor
commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding,
and jamming myself on all the time?…”
Here is raised even the question of whether man, this proud and splendid aristocrat of the spirit, is indeed a
free agent; Ahab, having at other times defied all the gods and called them cricket players, having assumed
and never doubted that he could have made himself lord of creation, now turns (in “The Symphony”) from
Edmund’s flouting, freewill cynicism to Gloucester’s craven determinism: “By heaven, man, we are turned
round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike.” He is not captain of his soul
Ahab knows, then, everything about his predicament except its cause in himself—and so its solution. He feels
the cause to be an immemorial curse visited upon all men. An exile from Christendom, he yet perceives and
abhors the existence of evil. Worse still, he resists it; he will not come to terms with it. He wishes it could
simply be swept away, or covered over: “Man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and
glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest
robes.” But the dark side (which cannot be concealed) cannot be explained or avoided, either. And the most
maddening thing of all about it—this is a constant refrain throughout the book—is the deceptive way it lurks
beneath a smiling and lovely exterior. (“These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful, derived a
wondrous potency from the contrasting serenity of the weather.… Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo!
that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea!” And on the very morning of the last terrible day of The Chase—
“What a lovely day again! were it a new-made world, and made for a summer-house to the
angels, and this morning the first of its throwing open to them, a fairer day could not dawn
upon that world.”)
Ahab’s tragedy (and, on this final level, the book’s theme) is, then, his inability to locate and objectify evil in
himself, or to accept it and deal with it prudently as part of the entire created world, and so to grow despite it
and because of it; it is his own fated indenture to evil while he seeks to destroy it, and his more and more
precise knowledge of what is happening to him. It is the magnificence and yet the futility of his attempt. “I
know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent,” he cries to the great impersonal
spirit of fire which he acknowledges as his maker and which, as its individualized creation, he defies. He
defies his paternal maker, light, because, discovering his own dual nature (he says he never knew his mother),
he has revolted and leagued himself now with darkness (the unrecognized mother-symbol, standing here for a
regressive identification, which is of course what supplies the destructive energy). Then, “I am darkness
leaping out of light,” and “cursed be all the things that cast man’s eyes aloft to that heaven, whose live
vividness but scorches him.… So far gone am I in the dark side of earth, that its other side, the theoretic bright
one, seems but uncertain twilight to me.” And at his death, the magnificent line—as great and moving in its
utter verbal simplicity, and yet as fraught with complex resignation as Edgar’s “Ripeness is all”: “I turn my
body from the sun”—a line whose full and exact significance has been specifically constellated in advance by
his own apostrophe to the dying whale in Chapter CXVI.
Ahab is no Faustus. He always has a choice. Many are the times he backslides; the tension between humanity
and will is constantly active. Pip, the piteous embodiment of warmly instinctive human nature, of all that
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Ahab must tread on in himself, acts several times as the unwitting touchstone of that humanity. “Hands off
from that holiness!” But, “There is that in thee, poor lad, which I feel too curing to my malady … and for this
hunt, my malady becomes my most desired health.” Starbuck too again and again is the foil and the polar
opposite; and once Ahab even finds it good to feel dependence on human aid, for when the White Whale has
crushed his ivory leg in the “Second Day,” he exclaims while half hanging on the shoulder of his chief mate,
“Aye aye, Starbuck, ’tis sweet to lean sometimes … and would old Ahab had leaned oftener than he has.”
And just once, in “The Symphony,” “Ahab dropped a tear into the sea; nor did all the Pacific contain such
wealth as that one wee drop.”
He must remain, for the brooding Melville apparently and for us, a symbol of that independent spirit and will
which, scorning all “lovely leewardings,” pushes off from the haven of all creeds to confront an ultimate
chaos in the human soul; admirable, perhaps, beyond all flawed heroes (Bulkington was too simple an
embodiment—pure essence, he was fit only for deification) in his energy and his courage, but condemned to
split at last on the rock of evil, the very thing he willed out of existence; fated—and magnificently, agonizingly
willing—to become the pawn (no, the prince, the king) of evil in consequence of his misguided revolt, to lose
his identity in the end because he sought to exalt it against the immutable principles of its creation.