Moby Dick Book summary

Herman Melville

Overview

About

Moby Dick was Herman Melville's sixth novel, and it was meant as a way for him to return to the mainstream after his last few novels had failed to make a splash in the literary world. When he set out to write Moby Dick, he had intended to create a fun and adventurous tale, but during the course of writing the book, he was deeply influenced by Nathaniel Hawthrone, the author of The Scarlet Letter. It was to him that Melville dedicated the book upon its publishing in October 1951. This first publishing was done in England, and the publisher had failed to include the epilogue in the book. This led to much criticism for the tale didn't quite make sense without it.

The book was published in America the following month without any significant censorship and with all its parts intact. The critics weren't kind to the nature of the book for all the readers had expected the book to be more similar to the kind of books that Melville had authored in the past. The brilliance of the novel was recognized much later and it was then hailed as a major novel of American literature

Plot Summary

The novel opens with a man called Ishmael, who has served aboard merchant ships in the past but now wishes to return to sea and explore the realm of whaling. He heads out to New Bedford where he encounters Queequeg, a savage cannibal from an island in the south pacific ocean. Queequeg had left his home to gain a better understanding of the Christian world, the sailors that he had boarded with had made a whaleman out of him and taught him the trade of a harpooner. Queequeg was a skilled harpooner as evidenced by how he carried and used his harpoon in daily life. Ishmael and Queequeg become very close friends as they are forced to sleep together in the same room. Their friendship evolves quickly and Queequeg declares Ishmael to be his bosom friend and vows to sail on the same whaling ship as him. They set out together for Nantucket where Ishmael secures their place aboard the whaling vessel called the Pequod, captained by the mysterious Ahab who had his leg taken by a whale. The captain is away recovering and is never seen by the sailors until the Pequod is stocked for a 3 year-long voyage and well on her way in ocean waters.

Aboard the ship, the three mates, Starbuck, Stubbs, and Flask maintain the order of the ship, they are also responsible for the whale hunting, where they set out in little whaleboats with teams of oarsmen and a harpooner. Queequeg is made the harpooner for Starbuck, the first mate of the Pequod, and Ishmael works as an assistant to Queequeg. Captain Ahab soon makes an appearance on the deck of the vessel once the ship has begun to enter the southern latitudes. He has replaced the leg the whale took with an ivory leg made of whalebone.

One evening, the captain summons all the hands of the ship to the deck and presents to them the one and true motive of the Pequod, the killing of the whale called Moby Dick, as identified by the three harpooners aboard the Pequod. Ahab promises the reward of a doubloon to any man that sights the whale and raises an alarm for her and most of the crew are enthused by the passion of their charismatic Captain. Starbuck, however, feels strongly opposed to an enterprise that would seek to enact revenge on an unthinking beast that was only trying to preserve itself when it attacked the captain, but his oppositions are dismissed by Ahab.

Moby Dick is a gigantic albino whale, with a distinct jaw and brow, many whaling captains are aware of the dangerous beast while others are convinced that it is but a legend.

In order to keep the crew in good spirits, Ahab ensures that the crew is kept occupied with the hunting of other whales. Stubbs is the first to kill a sperm whale on the voyage, and this is soon followed by the hunting of a right whale. During the first hunting foray into the waters, Ahab discloses a surprise to his crewmates, unbeknownst to anyone, Ahab had brought along with him a crew of hands for his very own whaleboat. This group was led by a mysterious old turbanned man called Fedallah.

Ahab is aware of a particular place in the oceans where he can expect to find Moby Dick, but since the location is extremely distant, he sets about hunting through the other cruising grounds of whales and in the meanwhile making his way to the specific location so as to be ready when the season for the white whale approached. The Pequod has many adventures as it makes its way through the seas, it hunts many more sperm whales and even encounters pirates on the way. With the aid of the other whaling ship they encounter on their route, they are able to form a trail of the beast, Ahab also comes across another whaling captain that has lost a limb to the beast. During the course of the voyage, it is learned that Fedallah has made a prophecy of how Ahab will face his end, the most important detail of which is that Ahab will die by cause of hemp, and the captain takes this to mean that he will be hung and so never die at sea.

As they near their quarry, the sailors begin to see omens of bad fortune all around them, but Ahab brushes aside all concerns until at last, they catch sight of the whale. Ahab fights the beast for three days, and each time Moby Dick triumphs over the crew. In the last attack, Moby Dick retaliates by turning and attacking the ship and causes it to sink. Ahab is distraught with the loss and buries his iron in the whale, and is killed by the rope of his harpoon. Ishmael is the only survivor of the wreck and is rescued by one of the nearby whaling ships.

  • Author(s)

    Herman Melville
  • Publication date

    October 18, 1851

  • Language

    English

  • Classification

    Adventure fiction, Epic novel

  • Pages

    378

Keywords

Literature, Fiction

Publisher

Richard Bentley (England) Harper & Brothers (US)