English 12 JMZ
By Herman Melville
The Characters and Plot
There are numerous characters in Moby Dick, but only a few of them
have any impact on the story. A common sailor named Ishmael is the
narrator. The book, however, focuses on Captain Ahab, the one-legged
commander of the whaling ship Pequod. Ahab has sworn to kill the
gigantic whale Moby Dick, who took away his leg. Starbuck is the
first mate of the Pequod. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are the
The story begins with Ishmael becoming restless. He decides to go
out to sea on a whaling ship. In the port of New Bedford, he meets
and shares a room with a harpooner named Queequeg. The two of them
become close friends, and agree to ship out together.
The day after they reach Nantucket, Ishmael begins searching for a
whaling ship preparing to leave harbor. Out of three ships ready to
leave, he chooses the Pequod. The owners of the ship, Captains Peleg
and Bildad are excited to hear of Queequeg from Ishmael and gladly
let him join the crew. They are told the captain of the ship is
named Ahab. Peleg and Bildad say that he is a good man, but because
of some strange illness, he is confined to his cabin.
On Christmas day, and with Ahab still in his cabin, the Pequod sets
sail in the Atlantic. As the weather begins to warm up (several
months after leaving port), Ahab is finally seen on deck. The
strangest thing about Ahab is his leg. Instead of flesh and bone, he
has a white ivory peg leg.
As the weeks wear on, Ahab starts to become friendlier. One day, he
calls the crew before him. He tells them that the sole mission of
the Pequod is to kill Moby Dick. Moby Dick is a gigantic sperm whale
with a crooked jaw and a deformed forehead. He has never been
defeated, and has attacked and sunk entire ships. Ahab admits he
hates Moby Dick for taking his leg away, and wants revenge. The crew
agree to this challenge, and swear to hunt him down. The only who is
not excited about hunting down Moby Dick is first-mate Starbuck.
For many months, the Pequod sails South, through the Atlantic,
around the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa), and into
the Indian Ocean. Along the way, they kill and drain the spermaceti
oil from every sperm whale they encounter. Each time they meet
another ship, Ahab begins the conversation with "Hast seen the White
Finally, after entering the Japanese sea, the Pequod encounters a
whaling ship named the Enderby. The Enderby's captain had just
recently lost his arm to Moby Dick. Ahab becomes so excited at the
news that he breaks his ivory leg. The ship's carpenter builds him a
Once reaching the waters around the equator, the Pequod meets
another whaling ship, the Rachel. They had seen Moby Dick, and had
become separated from one of the whaling boats during the battle.
Ahab refuses to help them look for the missing men.
At last, Moby Dick is spotted by Ahab. In the first day of
fighting, the whale is harpooned many times, but escapes after
smashing Ahab's boat. On the second day, the whale is harpooned
again, but still escapes. On the third day, Ahab's harpoon pierces
the whale, but the rope catches him by the neck and Moby Dick drags
him to the bottom of the sea. An angry Moby Dick rams and sinks the
Pequod. Only Ishmael survives, and he is rescued by the Rachel.
Moby Dick was not the novel I expected. I was under the impression
that it would be about seafaring and the whale Moby Dick. Instead,
Moby Dick is a story about Captain Ahab's obsession. There is very
little in the story about the revenge itself, just about Ahab's
monomania. Out of 465 pages, only forty-two of them deal with the
actual battle between Ahab and Moby Dick.
The novel places very little emphasis on actual seafaring. Ishmael
never even steps on a boat until page seventy-four. Even when the
ship finally leaves port, the mention of anything involving sailing
or the life of sailors is kept to an absolute minimum.
There is, however, plenty of emphasis is on whaling, the anatomy of
whales, and their behavior. The book goes into great detail
describing the whalers of Nantucket, and gives in-depth explanations
of the different types of whales, quoting several outside sources in
the process. The narrator mentions the awesome size of the sperm
whale, and how few books even try to describe it. He also shows
great respect for people who go whaling, and describes the
camaraderie that forms between them. This is an annoying
inconsistency in the novel, since Ishmael (the narrator) tells the
reader that he has never been on a whaling ship before, and has never
seen a live whale.
The first twenty-three chapters focus on Ishmael's thoughts and
actions. He introduces the reader to whaling and describes the
Pequod. After the ship sets sail, he seems to vanish from the story.
At certain intervals, however, he plays minor roles, and it is
Ishmael that survives to tell the story.
From chapter twenty-four onward, the novel is almost completely
about Ahab hunting for Moby Dick. He has the blacksmith construct a
special harpoon, made from the finest iron, and soaked in the blood
of the three harpooners. The forging of the harpoon is somewhat
ironic, since the rope attached to that same harpoon is what drags
Ahab to the bottom of the sea.
Despite Ahab's apparent madness, he still seemed able to reason
clearly. He carefully and methodically located the region of the sea
that Moby Dick is most likely to be in (an almost impossible task,
considering the size of the Earth's Oceans). When he first set sail,
Ahab's original plan was to hunt only Moby Dick and ignore other
whales. Once he realizes that his men will abandon him if they do
not make some sort of a profit while at sea, he encourages them to
hunt other whales and boosts the morale of the crew.
Ahab is definitely the hero of Moby Dick, but he is a tragic hero.
Everyone in the novel who knew Ahab prior to losing his leg
considered him to be a great man, and one of the finest captains
ever. After the loss of his leg during the first battle with Moby
Dick, Ahab's tragic flaw appeared. He was obsessed. He wanted
revenge, and nothing else. Ahab considered Moby Dick to be the
embodiment of all that is evil. This monomania is what sent the
Pequod halfway around the world to the Pacific Ocean, where Ahab (and
almost everyone else on the Pequod) died.
Ahab becomes focused on his one view of the whale. Ahab's preceives
the whale as the embodiment of evil. The whale's white color lends
an ambiguity to the image of the whale as evil.
The great White Whale, Moby Dick, symbolizes many different things.
The first thing it represents is Ahab's anger. The whale's body is
deformed, as is Ahab's. The whale is driven by animalistic rage,
mirroring the anger in Ahab. Ahab thinks Moby Dick is a monster, but
it is really Ahab who has become the monster. The whale serves as a
scapegoat for Ahab's miserable existence.
Another thing Moby Dick can represent an unreachable goal. He is a
legendary whale, and the object of a wild and exciting chase through
three oceans. And, despite the efforts of the Pequod, they never
defeated him. The whale was a goal that no one could achieve, but
people still destroyed themselves trying.
One odd thing about the novel is that despite all the pain, death
and destruction Moby Dick has caused, I do not consider the whale to
be evil or monstrous. In fact, I was almost happy to see the whale
turn on his hunters and destroy them. I cannot fully appreciate all
the feeling about whales that the novel attempts to create.
When Moby Dick was written, whales were thought of as dumb brutes.
They were found in large enough numbers that people hunted them
endlessly, and never worried about killing them all. Whaling was an
admired profession. People needed whale oil for their lamps.
Spermaceti oil was used to make perfume and other cosmetics.
In today's society, things are radically different. Whales are
thought to be just as intelligent--if not more intelligent--than
humans. Some scientists believe they have a complex language,
something not mentioned in the book at all. Whales are an endangered
species, almost hunted to extinction. In fact, many countries have
outlawed whaling. Most people consider whaling to be cruel and
inhumane. The Japanese are despised worldwide for continuing to hunt
them. Television programs portray them in a positive light. Whale
are mammals that nurse their young and breathe air, just like human
beings. They are not giant fish. Today's children are taught to
respect whales, and are taken to aquariums to be educated about them.
After the invention of the electric light bulb, whale oil lamps were
no longer used. Modern cosmetic products contain no spermaceti oil.
Their manufacturers proudly make claims that no animals were harmed
while making the cosmetics.
The real "dumb brutes" in the novel are not the whales, but the
whalers. They are uneducated about the true nature of their prey.
In a sense, Moby Dick was simply exacting revenge for the centuries
of pain and death mankind has inflicted on whales.
In the time of Herman Mellville, man's dominance over nature was
idealized. Today, we are taught to respect and preserve our
environment. This different frame of reference makes it very
difficult to appreciate the symbolism in this novel. The main focus
of the novel, however, is on obsession and its destructiveness.
One of the most important elements in a great literary work is
universality. The main idea of the novel (destructive obsession) is
universal, even though the symbolism is not. Moby Dick was clearly a
great novel, although it was nothing like what I expected.
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