Moby Dick or The Whale - Herman Melville, review

I. Theme

Voyage during, which characters are searching meaning of their lives. Ishmael is depressed, Queequeg wants to recognize life of Christians and then return to his homeland, Ahab is eager for revenge, Starbuck wants to earn money, Flask likes killing whales, etc. It is a desire to kill allegory on nature presented by M.D. It is allegory on nature and fate.

II. Subject

Contradictions: immortal versus mortal, man versus nature, life and death, Christians versus pagans, religion, friendship, whaling and life of whalers

III. Plot and structure

Story of the novel can be seen in several levels that are mixed together into one complex plot. In my opinion, there can be found story of Ishmael and his decision to embark whaling ship in order to solve his personal economic problems that usually end up in depression. Then there is story about friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, it is also story of Christian and pagan and their mutual tolerance. There can be found story of hard life of whalers and their relatives expressed by consequences in chapel of Father Mapple and the will of another characters to embark Pequod, including descriptions of preparations for three-year voyage. Finally, there is story of revenge conducted by Captain Ahab on Moby Dick, the White Whale, which joins all the previous stories together and creates one story of quasi united and independent nation which flows towards their own aim, while motivating by one mad leader – Ahab.

Except for these stories there is inserted another level to the story, the educational, the reader can learn almost everything about whales and whaling, especially its history and of Nantucket.

Conflict: between person and nature, the man and whale. It is conflict between mortal (free will) and immortal (fate). There is conflict between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. Captain Ahab aches for revenge because Moby Dick, the white whale, bit off his leg and turned his mind into madness. But there is also conflict between money and revenge or will to life and risk of death, in other words conflict between Starbuck, Stubb and Flask who are on the voyage to earn money and Ahab who wants only the revenge p. 155.

  1. Exposition – From chapter 1 to chapter 35. Ishmael introduces himself as narrator “Call me Ishmael”. Ishmael leaves Manhattan and travels to New Bedford from where he can get to Nantucket where he intends to embark one of the whaling ships. He arrives to New Bedford too late and is forced to stay during the weekend. He finds cheap inn called Spouter Inn – Peter Coffin, where he meets his future friend Queequeg. After the accident in bed they become bossom friends and Quequeg’s idol Yojo chooses Ishmael to select the ship they should embark together. There is introduced Pequod as a ship named after extinct Indian tribe. Captain Peleg interviews Ishmael. Captain Bildad offers Ishmael 777 lay but Peleg gives him 300. They sail out on Christmas day – symbol they are flung out from normal society
  2. Complication – Chapter 36, 37, when Captain Ahab after having all the men summoned on the board knocks Spanish ounce of gold on the mast and explains that the voyage is his personal revenge to the white whale called Moby Dick (man versus nature) who cut off his leg and turn him into madness p. 134. The gold is reward for those who see the white whale, p. 135 In this chapter he requires promise of the other to join him in hunting Moby Dick. Starbuck doesn’t like it. In chapter 37 there is clearly visible complication between Ahab and his prophecy (should be disremembered and wants to disremember) – again nature versus man.
  3. Crises – From chapter 109 to chapter 134. In previous chapters Ahab got new leg made and is prepared for battle with M.D. Starbuck is, however, careful of the ship and announces Ahab leaking of the oil and tries to persuade him of unloading the oil in the near ports. Ahab refuses. (He leaks himself). Starbuck warns Ahab not of him but of Ahab alone. Crises continue as they sail further. There are plenty of signs and symbols that warn the ship and Ahab to stop the chase and turn back, but he is mad and doesn’t listen. Also weather warns him, strong tycoon, lightening that lighted his harpoon. Ahab to avoid attempts of his mates changed magnetism in the compass (declares that the lightening did it). Pequod meets 3 ships Batchelor, Rachel, Delight that should prevent Ahab from proceeding in his chase. Finally, they find M.D and cannot decide to whom the doubloon belongs. Ahab leaves it alone but promises reward for killing the whale (gold). During the two days of chasing Ahab was twice beaten, his boat was wrecked and must have been saved, lost his ivory leg and Parsee. Still time to stop and return.
  4. Climax – Chapter 135 Third day is the worst. M.D. chases Ahab, boats are wrecked, Tashtego tries to hammer flag only his hand is visible above the sea. All men sank everybody is death.
  5. Resolution – Chapter 135, Epilogue after Parsee disappeared Ishmael became Ahab’s bowsman, when he saw what was happening on the sea he hid himself in the lifebuoy coffin and after wreckage was saved by the Raquel.

IV. Setting

Mainly natural setting, sea, but also manufactured, buildings and premises of the ship.

City of Manhatto, which Ishmael leaves, New Bedford, Spouter Inn, Nantucket, Try Pots, Pequod, acific,Indian Ocean, Great canal Hang-Ho, China, Sumatra Java, Timor, Philipine Islands, Japanese Islands, Japanese sea,

V. Characters division of the characters


Peleg, Bildad, Ahab


Starbuck – the chief mate, Stubb – second mate, Flask – third mate


Queequeg – with Starbuck, Tashtegoo – with Stubb, Daggoo – with Flask

There are 5 oarsmen in each boat

There is also one illegal boat crew with Fedallah and Parsee that serves for Ahab

Black little Pip

Main characters:

  1. Ishmael – protagonist, narrator of the story. He retells it in the first person, but doesn’t refer to everything as to facts only but also thinks philosophically. He feels depressed and needs to resolve his situation so he decides to go to sea, but he won’t go as a passenger because they need purse, p. 5. He will go as a sailor although it is not honourable for him because he is from well established family, but he will sail to be paid. He was a teacher before, but he needed money and adventure. Most of all he will sail to catch huge whale, p. 7 – similarity with Captain Ahab. Ishmael is Presbytarian and in the past he sailed a merchant ship.
  2. Queequeg - cannibal of a dark purplish yellow colour, with marks all over the body, having no hair only scalp up on his forehead. He was trying to sell his New Zealand head. He has a wooden idol Yojo that he worships. Apart from that Queequeg is civilised, he went from bed first to let Ishmael dress. Queequeg comes from Rokokovo, his father is king and uncle high priest. He wanted to know Christian land but could not get onto the ship. When he got onto one he was cared as a sailor and decides to leave. As soon as learn that Ishmael intends to embark a ship he wants to follow him. Queequeg was not at first allowed to embark because he was pagan, but after Ishmael’s sermon and Queequegs ability with harpoon he was offered 90 lay. Becomes Ishmael’s best friend.
  3. Captain Ahab – captain of the Pequod, with ivory leg that was lost during whaling near Japan by a sperm whale. After this incident Ahab became revenge hungry and became mad. He wants to kill the white whale, Moby Dick and doesn’t care other aims (other whales) such as the aim of the ship owners and shareholders etc. he is interested only in the one white whale, p. 109. Ahab was doomed by prophecy to damnation and he tries to change it (chapter 37). Ahab has special sense how to find M.D. he knows how whale behave and furthermore Ahab is educated, he visited colleges so he can predict where he can meet M.D. that the reason why he uses charts. He wants to fight M.D. in person. Ahab is referred to as monomaniac. Someone stricken by some idea. Ahab is about 58. He sails from the age of 18 that is 40 years and he was at home 3 or four years. He married young wife that he abandoned and thus made a widow of her. Sometimes look like a devil, he wants to kill nature, but nature is stonger.
  4. Starbuck – He is the first mate, native of Nantucket, he is about 30 years old, has a wife Mary and child. In character he is earnest man and he doesn’t like Ahab’s idea to change the voyage into the revenge. He tries several times to stop Ahab from self-destruction and destruction of the others. Ahab promises him not to be lowered in the hunting on Moby Dick but it is helpless.
  5. Stubb – He is the second mate of Pequod and is native of Cape Cod. He is brother in law of Captain Peleg and Aunt Charity. Stubb likes to smoke pipes, he kept whole row ready loaded. He thinks that Stabuck is careful. Stubb is cruel towards his subordinates (cook - Fleece) but is himself coward as he himself declares it is the reason why he sings.
  6. Flask – nicknamed King Post according to square limber. He is native of Tisbury in Martha’s Vineyard. He is short, stout and rudy and likes killing whales. Flask is usually hungry and apologizes of getting small portions for dinner. He is usually the last person down at dinner but first man up.
  7. Tashtegoo – unmixed Indian from Gay Head, harpooner of the Stubb boat
  8. Daggoo – gigantic coal black Negro savage coming from Africa, Azore Islands
  9. Black little Pip – Alabama boy, native of Tolland country, called ship keeper, after one accident became mad and became company of Ahab.
  10. Fedallah – one of the Ahab’s men that he get to ship without knowledge of Peleg and Bildad, white turbaned man, belongs to watchman, asiat.
  11. Moby Dick (whale) – Ahab’s enemy – huge white whale. Which is not completely white, he has spots, extremely cruel etc. Moby Dick is considered as immortal, he is impossible to kill. His white colour expresses dread and fear Moby Dick represents strength of whole nature with contradictions of good and bad. M.D. is sometimes taken as Jesus – 3 days, final victory. The fatal is his ferocity.

Minor  - stereotype (flat) characters:

  1. Peter Coffin – landlord of the Spouter Inn, where Ishmael and Qeeequeg were accommodated
  2. Father Mapple – chaplain who used to be harpooner and sailor, now older man
  3. Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad – both captains are part owners of Pequod, Bildad is also licensed pilot.
  4. Aunt Charity - sister of Captain Bildad, responsible for food, shares two dollars of the ship
  5. Elijah – stranger, prophet reveals Ishmael and Q secret about Ahab and loosing his leg
  6. Dough Boy – has pale face, does steward on the Peqoud, and announces time for dinner.
  7. Old Manxman – old hearsedriver – belongs to Parsee’s crew
  8. Perth – blacksmith, had wife, hose, everything, but due to alcohol was forced to whaling, chapter 114

VI. Point of view

First person – first hand – participant “Call me Ishmael.”

VII. Style

The author uses middle and neutral diction to convey information about whales and whaling to underline reality of the story and low and informal diction when he refers to dialogues between sailors on Pequod and between the ships. The language is of whaling jargon, there are used many special expressions such as ambergris, affidavit, which can be found in dictionary but have different meaning in whaling industry.

VIII. Tone

Satire – chapter 36 Stubb and Flask have mocking comments about Ahab’s nervous walking before he hammered the doubloon on the mast.

Can’t you see the world where you stand? – Verbal irony – the world is everywhere the same it depends on us what world we will create.

Verbal irony – chapter 54, The Town-Ho’s Story – here Moby Dick appears as avenger of injustice, when he prevents Steelkit from committing murder. It is contradiction to the normal behaviour of Moby Dick because he himself usually kills and damages.

Irony of fate – chapter 87 whales are chased by Ahab and Ahab is chased by pirates

Satire – 30 lively men jumping into one coffin in case of emergency

IX. Symbolism, allegory

Coffin, tombstone – symbol of death – whole story retold by Ishmael will end in death (chapter 15)

Pequod – the name of celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now extinct – the ship is doomed to destruction

Allegory – chapter 8 – Yes, the world‘s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow. -  The whole world is one ship and the only right way how to survive in is to obey law of God and follow its symbol – pulpit – that is placed in its front. There is no way back.

Starbuck /Ahab – symbol for life and death. (Chapter 38)

Meet Albatros – they didn’t see M.D

Town-Ho - M.D. – as saviour of injustice (chapter 54) when Radney wanted to kill Steelkit M.D. swallowed Radney. M.D., nature is wise and tries to keep order in life. That means Ahab is predestined to damnation.

Sharks – symbol of clearing the sea from carcasses. They appear always before something death

Jeroboam of Nantucket – ship with prophet on board Gabriel and pleague. Gabriel shows Ahab that is he chases M.D. he will be / is dammed – letter is symbol that Ahab will die

Jungfrau (virgin) – Dutch ship dry of oil – suddenly whales appeared but virgin hunted wrong whales – result too many people chase unchaseble in life, something like Plato’s ideas – symbol Pequod won’t catch M.D.

Ahab – when he stays in position Pequod in the position of libra as a tower volcano and victorous fowl. p. 356

Samuel Enderby of London – ship that saw M.D. and whose captain lost arm in fight with him.

Batchelor of Nantucket – they are full of sperm and do not believe in M.D. they want to celebrate. Ahab refuses. Symbol – Ahab should slow down and forget M. D.

Raquel – ship looking for lost sons. Saw M.D. yeasterday. They met Pequod but Ahab didn’t know he was lost.

Delight – another ship that met M.D. and tried to fight him. They were running from battle field.

Wild hawk – flying with his hat / Ahab will be damned

Symbolism – Ahab – devil, monomaniac type of man

The crew – symbol of humanity, victims of devil (Ahab)

M.D. – symbol of nature, Jesus

X. Genre (type) - fiction

It is novel of adventure, there is plenty of dramatic action, especially during the catching the whales and at the end but there can be found fragments of the novel of the soil because Ishmael also depicts hard life of men earning their living on the sea by whaling. It is tough relationship of man and nature. Moby Dick is also example of romance in which romantic heroes believing in success die in the end.

XI. Own interpretation

The novel offers fatalistic point of view on human life. I as a reader was warned from very beginning that the Ahab’s revenge won’t be successful. I am not revenge hungry but I do not understand why a human cannot change his prophecy or his fate. Sometimes I ask myself the question “Who’s over me?” p. 136 and I do not think I would do something wicked, I only try to overcome myself and I think in the same way was intended the character of Captain Ahab, who tried to overcome himself, that captain who ended up in the loss of his leg and in “madness”, however, he hadn’t lost his will.

As I learned he has been whaling since 18 and was consequently crippled by the white whale when doing his job. This accident turned him mad, so cannot this madness be considered as an attempt to overcome his own strength? I think it depends on the point of view. Ahab, his illness made him a person with strong sense for life challenge, maybe too strong in case of this book he refers to himself – monomaniac – and the idea of revenge hidden under whaling business offers complex story with typical American action ending with drama that should educate all the people that man and nature will be eternal opponents and that one misfortune would not stop the others from trying to overcome our own possibilities. Unfortunately, in this case, case of Captain Ahab, the end was determined somewhere at the beginning, which could be assigned to unknown technologies for catching whales and in this case also wrong tactical approach towards the enemy. He hadn’t used his education till the end as properly as at the beginning (charts). And finally the opponent was really stronger than crippled captain Ahab.

To conclude Moby Dick is in my opinion story about challenge and attempts to overcome fate, even if the approach to these aims was badly planned and influenced by one typical human trait – restlessness, which is so typical for whole U. S. nation and humans generally. Furthermore, the story where nature annihilates mortal man should be used as an example that man should use more his knowledge (education, colleges that Ahab attended) than senses and strength.

Herman Melville

By adopting the name Ishmael, the author adopts the fictional posture of an outcast son -- which in real life he was. He grew up in a wealthy family and become poor when his father went insane and died; -- at sea, having seen the seamy side of life as a merchant seaman, as a common sailor on a whaleship, and as a deserter who lived among cannibals in the South Pacific; -- and back on shore as a struggling writer of fiction. So M. D. is mostly his own story.

Herman Melville was a very learned, but much tormented man who wrote this novel to express some of his gloomy, erudite meditations about life. Melville works with the question of the fate versus free will and the M.D. is a story of the Voyage of the Soul.

Melville writes around 1850, after Nantucket's Great Fire of 1846, which completely wiped out the commercial section of town and warehouses full of whale oil, and severely damaged the wharves. The city recovered quite quickly but the whaling business was never recovered again. Remained only his and similar stories. In creating Moby Dick Melville used one true and documented case, known to Melville, was the sinking of the whaleship Essex of Nantucket, Captain George Pollard, Jr., by a Sperm Whale in the Pacific in 1820. Otherwise he used his life experience from merchant ships where he served.

Herman Melville, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, was a descendant of an old, wealthy family that fell abruptly into poverty upon the death of the father. Despite his patrician upbringing, proud family traditions, and hard work, Melville found himself in poverty with no college education. At 19 he went to sea. His interest in sailors' lives grew naturally out of his own experiences, and most of his early novels grew out of his voyages. In these we see the young Melville's wide, democratic experience and hatred of tyranny and injustice. His first book, Typee, was based on his time spent among the supposedly cannibalistic but hospitable tribe of the Taipis in the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific. The book praises the islanders and their natural, harmonious life, and criticizes the Christian missionaries, who Melville found less genuinely civilized than the people they came to convert.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville's masterpiece, is the epic story of the whaling ship Pequod and its "ungodly, god-like man," Captain Ahab, whose obsessive quest for the white whale Moby-Dick leads the ship and its men to destruction. This work, a realistic adventure novel, contains a series of meditations on the human condition. Whaling, throughout the book, is a grand metaphor for the pursuit of knowledge. Realistic catalogues and descriptions of whales and the whaling industry punctuate the book, but these carry symbolic connotations. In chapter 15, "The Right Whale's Head," the narrator says that the Right Whale is a Stoic and the Sperm Whale is a Platonian, referring to two classical schools of philosophy.

Although Melville's novel is philosophical, it is also tragic. Despite his heroism, Ahab is doomed and perhaps damned in the end. Nature, however beautiful, remains alien and potentially deadly. In Moby-Dick, Melville challenges Emerson's optimistic idea that humans can understand nature. Moby-Dick, the great white whale, is an inscrutable, cosmic existence that dominates the novel, just as he obsesses Ahab. Facts about the whale and whaling cannot explain Moby-Dick; on the contrary, the facts themselves tend to become symbols, and every fact is obscurely related in a cosmic web to every other fact. This idea of correspondence (as Melville calls it in the "Sphinx" chapter) does not, however, mean that humans can "read" truth in nature, as it does in Emerson. Behind Melville's accumulation of facts is a mystic vision -- but whether this vision is evil or good, human or inhuman, is never explained.

The novel is modern in its tendency to be self-referential, or reflexive. In other words, the novel often is about itself. Melville frequently comments on mental processes such as writing, reading, and understanding. One chapter, for instance, is an exhaustive survey in which the narrator attempts a classification but finally gives up, saying that nothing great can ever be finished ("God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught -- nay, but the draught of a draught. O Time, Strength, Cash and Patience"). Melvinne's notion of the literary text as an imperfect version or an abandoned draft is quite contemporary.

Ahab insists on imaging a heroic, timeless world of absolutes in which he can stand above his men. Unwisely, he demands a finished text, an answer. But the novel shows that just as there are no finished texts, there are no final answers except, perhaps, death.