Introduction to Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick or The Whale is a popular novel by the American novelist, Herman Melville. It was published in 1851 and gained popularity among children and adults alike. It also appeared in London in the United Kingdom at that time in three. The story revolves around the obsession of a young man, Ishmael, about the whale hunting that leads him to different oceanic regions where he meets mysterious persons and faces unfortunate accidents.

Summary of Moby-Dick

The story of the novel starts with Ishmael who wants to board a whaling ship. For this purpose, he moves to New Bedford and stays in the inn of the whalers, sharing a room with Queequeg, a harpooner. Although at first Queequeg rather seems him an odd person due to his bizarre habits, they soon develop a rapport, and Ishmael, praising his munificence, move to Nantucket with him, the main city where the whaling industry is in a boom at that time. When they visit the market for securing a ship, they find the Pequod, a mysterious ship having whaling relics displayed on its deck. Its owners, Peleg and Bildad, prove hard to deal with besides Ahab, its mysterious captain, who is recovering from his last encounter with a whale, Moby Dick. He has also lost his leg in that encounter.

Soon both decide to board the Pequod on Christmas day with several other people on board. When the ship leaves the harbor, Ahab, its captain, emerges on the deck, staggering on his artificial leg. He announces to go after Moby Dick which has broken his leg. He also declares a prize for the man who spots the whale and after that, they move toward Africa, the part of the sea teeming with the whales. Soon a group of anglers led by Fedallah, a mysterious person, emerge and become the captain’s hunting crew. Having prophetic abilities to sense the whales, Fedallah becomes Ahab’s henchman.

Following its round of the African coastal areas, the Pequod reaches the Indian ocean after having successfully hunted some whales. Getting more information about that mythical whale, they come across Gabriel, a harpooner of another ship, having prophetic abilities. He informs them about Moby Dick that whoever tries to hunt that whale cannot avoid an accident. During this time, an accident happens with an oil-draining man who falls into the sea with the head of the whale from which he is draining oil. During this fiasco, they leave Pip, the cabin boy of the ship, behind. When they bring him aboard, he seems to have gone crazy. Soon they meet another ship whose captain narrates his own accident after having tried to hook Moby Dick. Both the captains sympathize with each knowing the accident. Unfortunately, Queequeg becomes sick but recuperates after some days despite seeing the preparation of his burial.

Meanwhile, Ahab becomes expectant about encountering Moby Dick and orders the preparation of a good harpoon to hunt it. To invite religious blessings, he baptizes that harpoon with the blood of the three harpooners to make his hunt a sure kill. However, Fedallah announces the death of the captain after having seen two hearses in his dream but says that it would happen not during the voyage or encounter but on the land. Soon the Pequod meets a fierce storm in which Starbuck, a person on the ship, says that it would end with the sacrifice of Ahab. However, when the storm ends, one of the sailors dies after falling from the mainmast, reminding the bad luck of the ship in its quest of Moby Dick. Yet, it does not pacify Ahab who becomes more fervent in his quest to find that legendary whale. He also dreams of finding it when they reach the equator and meets two ships having met fatal accidents in their quest for the same whale. Not satisfied with these narratives, Ahab continues and finally spots the whale. It launches an attack on the harpoon boats they have launched to hunt it. Following the first attack, it attacks the main boat in which Ahab is on the hunt, causing the death of Fedallah after he is trapped with the line of one of the harpoons. However, Starbuck knows that he must save the Pequod from Moby Dick to save the life of other crew members.

Not backing down, they again send boats to kill the whale, but it confronts them head-on. It attacks the ship, sending it to the bottom of the ocean. Ahab also dies after he is trapped in a line and the remaining men try their best to save themselves. Meanwhile, Ishmael survives during this hunting expedition. Another passing-by ship, The Rachel, picks him and saves his life.

Major Themes in Moby-Dick; or, The Whale

  1. Blasphemy: Moby-Dick shows the theme of blasphemy during its narration while whale hunting. From the very beginning, there is some sacredness or mysteriousness associated with Moby Dick, the whale, yet Ahab insists on hunting it. He does not care about anything despite warnings from different people such as Gabriel, who asks him to ponder over “blasphemer’s end” to which he turns a deaf ear. Peleg also warns him, terming him an unholy individual to which he spurns with disdain. His defiance to these warnings seems that he spurns superstitions yet it seems that God does not want them to hunt Moby Dick, or that the whale is too intelligent to let them hook it. Although Fedallah and Starbuck are with Ahab, they think of the whale as an enigma of the divine power with Ahab associated with the devilish hunting party.
  2. Symbolic Meanings of Whale: To Ishmael, Moby Dick is a sign of greatness. Ishmael’s obsession with whale hunting in the beginning and his subsequent voyages with Ahab, the expert navigator, and sailor, demonstrate that Moby Dick is also unique and does not let the sailors take a breath. He tests their mettle and takes the lives of several skilled fishermen and whale hunters. It is perfectly in line with the human spirit of playing with adventures when fishing, or hunting, and Moby Dick offers exactly the same symbolically.
  3. Man and Nature: Moby-Dick shows that there are some mysterious relationships and some symbolic connections between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, the whale. He is on his hunting expedition from the day when Ishmael meets him and continues pursuing the whale despite facing discouraging reports and fatal accidents during his voyage. It seems that their relationship is the relation between man and nature. Humans are always in the awe of nature whether it is in the shape of an animal, natural vegetation, or even sea storms. Even though several of Ahab’s comrades, colleagues, and experts get killed during this hunt, he does not accept this argument, and goes after Moby Dick and dies during the hardest battle of his life.
  4. Enigma of Whale: Enigma of the whale as a creature looms large in the background of the story as another theme. Melville has never defined it as a concrete thing, or object that the hunters are after it. He rather presents it as a white creature displaying mysterious existence in the vastness of the sea where its whiteness highlights the oceanic vastness. This whiteness could be holy or sacred as compared to the evil plans of the whale hunters. Although Ishmael accepts various versions of the whale, he does not budge from his position of hunting with Ahab. They also meet several persons who have not seen Moby Dick. It has rather soaked in their mental conflict as an abstract idea and stays there until the end of Ahab’s life.
  5. Allurement of Seas: Whale hunting is a perspective but it is the allurement of the seas and oceans that is displayed through the story. Ishmael is more allured to the seas in search of something mysterious. It could have been on the land, but the land has no comparable vastness as it does not pose serious challenges to the human mind. On the other hand, Moby Dick, a hunted whale, also disappears in the sea’s vastness. These seas also test human mental and physical capacities. Pippin becomes insane after he survives the battle, while others lose their lives in the chase of a whale that plays hide and seek with them in the sea.
  6. Superstition: The theme of superstition also emerges from different character experiences in Moby Dick. Several people interpret the appearance and hunting of this whale differently with every story having a mysterious accident. Superstition becomes dominant when Ahab learns about the deaths related to Moby Dick’s hunting and its victims. It becomes reality when Ahab and Gabriel also lose their lives.
  7. Limits of Knowledge: Moby Dick demonstrates the limit of human knowledge with limited thinking capacity or too little space for taking action. Moby Dick, the whale, lays bare these limitations of human knowledge in its appearance, its behavior, and its enigmatic nature. Ishmael learns that only death can provide complete knowledge of such an existing mystery to human beings.
  8. Question of Free Will: Free will is displayed through Ishmael’s obsession with the idea of whale hunting and going after Moby Dick. Its interesting aspect, however, is that he admits that fate is taking him in the direction of the whale. His meeting with Queequeg as well as mysterious hints dropped by Elijah demonstrate that he is free to go and abandon dangerous voyages. Ishmael was given free will
  9. Insanity: The significance of insanity or madness in the novel impacts each character differently. It impacts Ahab into taking the voyage and going after Moby Dick against all pieces of advice given to him by people he met. Pippin becomes mentally disabled which paralyzes him.

Major Characters in Moby-Dick

  1. Ishmael: Ishmael is the narrator and protagonist of Moby Dick. He narrates the death of all others except himself. He talks about other significant characters like Queequeg and Captain Ahab, keeping himself behind them to save himself during the whale hunting expeditions. His desire for marine life shows him the way to the seas where he boards the Pequod with the assistance of Queequeg, and then meets Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with the idea of hunting Moby Dick despite receiving highly disturbing and horrifying premonitions and news of accidents. He sees others dying and battling Moby Dick that tears apart the lives of all the harpooners, hunters, and whale catchers, leaving him alone to tell the tale.
  2. Captain Ahab: Captain Ahab, supervises the Pequod crew with his vast experience and grey hair, signifying his superiority in age. With more than forty years of sailing experience and a family man, he holds an obsession over Moby Dick, a terrifying whale. He vows to hunt it down, despite the fact that it had disabled him during the earlier hunt. In one way, his portrait reflects impulsive human tendencies of exacting revenge and retaliating even at the cost of one’s life, abandoning the rationality of surviving against the odds. His claims of having godly powers become his final hubris, taking his life when fighting against the same sperm whale he has vowed earlier to kill.
  3. Starbuck: A thin and gaunt fellow, Starbuck is chief of the ship, the Pequod. His gaunt physique also demonstrates his penchant for trimmed suits and his behavior, having some tinge of condescension toward the naïve or inexperienced sailors. His uncertainty between his rationality and idealist nature forces him to come against Ahab, believing that his suicidal decision of chasing the deadly Moby Dick would cost the entire crew dearly. Despite this, he remains loyal.
  4. Queequeg: Queequeg holds excellent skill of harpooning the whales and is natural in cultivating relations with different people. When he sees Ishmael’s passion for whaling, he immediately takes him to the relevant quarters and familiarizes him with the concerned professionals. His visit to the Spouter-Inn and his journey to Nantucket shows his skillful career, yet he is somewhat ancient and savage in his nature despite having a strong sense of mannerism. Queequeg’s dynamism stays with him until the end of the novel.
  5. Stubb: Stubb is a happy-go-lucky person, as he doesn’t care about the ravages of Moby Dick and urges his mates to continue the course through his laughable quibbles. He tries to avoid wrath from his fellow mates and makes them smile with his humor. Despite these easygoing mannerisms, his professionalism in whaling is at a higher level as he harpoons the first whale when on the Pequod.
  6. Flask: Although Flask is quite ahead in the hierarchy of characters on the Pequod, his unsatiated appetite for whale hunting makes him an excellent character to stay with the captain and Ishmael.
  7. Pippin: Young Pippin is useful, resourceful, and can-do attitude on the Pequod. He has some close shaves during the whaling. Sadly, after a while, he becomes insane when others do not care much about his death or life.
  8. Fedallah: Fedallah is an oriental mystery and has ghostly features that make him even more enigmatic on the Pequod. His predictive abilities make him a much sought-after fellow, yet he becomes the victim of his own wrong prophecies.
  9. Father Mapple: Father Mapple is known for his religious performance, sincerity, and holiness embedded in his sermons. His sermons inspire Ishmael to start his whaling career.
  10. Peleg: This retired sailor with enough marine service experience and Quaker background.

Writing Style of Moby-Dick

Although Moby-Dick starts in the first person narrative style, its long and winding sentences considerably test the reading ability of its readers. They are also highly imaginative with the excessive use of figurative language. The diction shows Melville’s marine background and his skillful use of the marine jargons. The conversation as well as the character descriptions show that Moby Dick has taken a considerable time to portray the depth of its character. For literary devices, Melville mostly relies on similes, personifications as well as parallelism.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in Moby-Dick

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises the story of Ishmael, his obsession with whale hunting and his survival after all of his colleagues die in hunting Moby Dick. The rising action occurs when they all come face to face with Moby Dick, while the falling action occurs when Captain Ahab gets killed and Ishmael survives.
  2. Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora as given below,
    i. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. (Chapter-1)
    ii. But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson: a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. (Chapter-9)
    These examples show the repetitious use of “some” and “a lesson.”
  3. Alliteration: Moby-Dick shows the use of alliterations at several places as given in the below examples,
    i. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul. (Chapter-1)
    ii. What do you see? —Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. (Chapter-1)
    iii. For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me. (Chapter-2)
    iv. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, halfattained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. (Chapter-3)
    v. Wrapping myself in my shaggy jacket of the cloth called bearskin, I fought my
    way against the stubborn storm. (Chapter-7)
    vi. The perpendicular parts of this side ladder, as is usually the case with swinging ones, were of cloth-covered rope, only the rounds were of wood, so that at every step there was a joint. (Chapter-8)
    These examples from the novel show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /g/, /s/, /m/, /f/, /c/, and /p/ occurring after an interval, making the prose melodious and rhythmic.
  4. Allusions: The examples of allusions are as below,
    i. Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. (Chapter-1)
    ii. Besides though New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling, and though in this matter poor old Nantucket is now much behind her, yet Nantucket was her great original—the Tyre of this Carthage. (Chapter-2)
    iii. Even in Broadway and Chestnut streets, Mediterranean mariners will sometimes jostle the affrighted ladies. Regent street is not unknown to Lascars and Malays; and at Bombay, in the Apollo Green, live Yankees have often scared the natives. (Chapter-6)
    iv. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: “Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah — ‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’ (Chapter-8)
  5. Antagonist: Moby Dick, is the antagonist of the novel as it defeats almost all the great whale hunters accompanying Ishmael. Therefore, Moby Dick is the antagonist of the novel.
  6. Conflict: The novel shows the internal as well as the external conflict. The external conflict is going on between the harpooners, the whale catchers, the whale hunters, and Ishmael, while internal or mental conflict is going on in the mind of Ishmael about his obsession, his capability, and different rumors about the whale.
  7. Characters: The novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, shows dynamic as well as static characters. Ishmael, the young boy, is a dynamic character as he demonstrates a considerable transformation in his behavior and actions by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static characters such as Captain Ahab, Queequeg, Father Mapple, Stubb, etc.
  8. Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Captain Ahab thinks that he cannot turn back from his whale-hunting expedition, or that it is too late now.
  9. Foreshadowing: The novel shows the use of foreshadowing as given in he examples below,
    i. Now having a night, a day, and still another night following before me in New Bedford, ere I could embark for my destined port, it became a matter of concernment where I was to eat and sleep meanwhile. It was a very dubious looking, nay, a very dark and dismal night, bitingly cold and cheerless. (Chapter-2)
    ii. But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. (Chapter-3)
    Both examples show that the changes in night and day and that the puzzling situations shows some mysterious happenings are going to occur.
  10. First Person Narration: The novel is written in first-person narrative.
    i. Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. (Chapter-1)
    ii. I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific. Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. (Chapter-2)
    The above examples show the use of the first person narrator in the words of Ishmael.
  11. Hyperbole: The below sentences use hyperboles.
    i. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperboreanal winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the ice-bound stream of Time. (Chapter-3)
    ii. They are mostly young, of stalwart frames; fellows who have felled forests, and now seek to drop the axe and snatch the whale-lance. Many are as green as the Green Mountains whence they came. (Chapter-6)
    These examples exaggerate things such as time could not have a stream nor the people could be green like trees.
  12. Imagery: Moby-Dick or The Whale use imagery as given below,
    i. It was a queer sort of place—a gable-ended old house, one side palsied as it were, and leaning over sadly. It stood on a sharp bleak corner, where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul’s tossed craft. Euroclydon, nevertheless, is a mighty pleasant zephyr to any one in-doors, with his feet on the hob quietly toasting for bed. “In judging of that tempestuous wind called Euroclydon,” says an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant—“it maketh a marvellous difference, whether thou lookest out at it from a glass window where the frost is all on the outside, or whether thou observest it from that sashless window, where the frost is on both
    sides, and of which the wight Death is the only glazier.” (Chapter-2)
    ii. And it was so light too; the sun shining in at the window, and a great rattling of coaches in the streets, and the sound of gay voices all over the house. I felt worse and worse—at last I got up, dressed, and softly going down in house. I felt worse and worse—at last I got up, dressed, and softly going down in my stockinged feet, sought out my stepmother, and suddenly threw myself at her feet, beseeching her as a particular favor to give me a good slippering for my misbehavior; anything indeed but condemning me to lie abed such an unendurable length of time. (Chapter-4)
    iii. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. (Chapter-10)
    These examples show images of feelings, sound, sight, movement, color, and emotions.
  13. Metaphor: Moby-Dick has good use of metaphors as given below,
    i. There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Chapter-1)
    ii. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, halfattained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. (Chapter-3)
    iii. Wrapping myself in my shaggy jacket of the cloth called bearskin, I fought my
    way against the stubborn storm. (Chapter-7)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first one shows a city compared to reefs, the second shows sublimity compared to extreme winter, while the third one shows a storm has been compared to a man adamant on his position.
  14. Mood: Moby-Dick shows a very light and happy mood in the beginning but turns very emotional, puzzling, mysterious, and suspenseful at times.
  15. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, are seas, whiteness, evil, and expanse of the sea.
  16. Narrator: The novel, Moby-Dick is narrated in a first person point of view by Ishmael, who is also the protagonist of the novel.
  17. Parallelism: The novel shows parallelism in the sentence construction as given below,
    i. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and
    leaves you there by a pool in the stream. (Chapter-1)
    ii. He was a native of Cape Cod; and hence, according to local usage, was called a Cape-Cod-man. (Chapter-27)
    iii. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. (Chapter-27)
    Note that all these sentences have parallel structures in their clauses.
  18. Paradox: The below sentences use paradoxes,
    i. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. (Chapter-1)
    ii. Such dreary streets! blocks of blackness, not houses, on either hand, and here and there a candle, like a candle moving about in a tomb. (Chapter-2)
    iii. However, a good laugh is a mighty good thing, and rather too scarce a good thing; the more’s the pity. (Chapter-5)
    iv. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow. (Chapter-8)
    v. Because no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more
    congenial to our clayey part. (Chapter-11)
    These examples show the author having inserted paradoxical ideas in several sentences. The first example shows the idea of right and left, the second of black and white, the third of a good and a bad thing, the fourth of fair and foul, while the last one shows paradoxical ideas of darkness and light.
  19. Personification: The below sentences are perfect examples of personifications,
    i. There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs—commerce surrounds it with her surf. (Chapter-1)
    ii. Wrapping myself in my shaggy jacket of the cloth called bearskin, I fought my way against the stubborn storm. (Chapter-7)
    iii. However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. (Chapter-15)
    These examples show as if commerce, storm, and steam have life and emotions of their own.
  20. Protagonist: The young boy, Ishmael, is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the story and ends when he survives though some have called Captain Ahab as the protagonist on account of his courage and boldness to face the whale.
  21. Repetition: The examples of repetitions are given below,
    i. In vain the captain threatened to throw him overboard; suspended a cutlass over his naked wrists; Queequeg was the son of a King, and Queequeg budged not. (Chapter-12)
    ii. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. (Chapter-14)
    iii. Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fishbones coming through your clothes. (Chapter-15)
    These examples show repetitions of different things and ideas such as Queequeg, climb, fish and chowder have been repeated.
  22. Rhetorical Questions: The below sentences are examples of rhetorical questions,
    i. Ha! thought I, ha, as the flying particles almost choked me, are these ashes from that destroyed city, Gomorrah? But “The Crossed Harpoons,” and “The Sword-Fish?” (Chapter-2)
    ii. I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? (Chapter-10)
    iii. What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin? It is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men—has no substantive deformity—and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so? (Chapter-42)
    This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
  23. Rhyme Scheme: The novel also has a poem as given in the below example,
    i. “The ribs and terrors in the whale,
    Arched over me a dismal gloom,
    While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by,
    And left me deepening down to doom.
    This quatrain shows the rhyme scheme of ABAB.
  24. Setting: The setting of the novel, Moby-Dick is different parts of the ocean, some cities of the United States such as Nantucket and the New England Coastal area, the Indian ocean, and some places near the equator.
  25. Simile: The below sentences are good examples of similes,
    i. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. (Chapter-14)
    ii. His broad fins are bored, and scalloped out like a lost sheep’s ear! (Chapter-44)
    iii. His body was reaching eagerly forward, his hand stretched out like a wand, and at brief sudden intervals he continued his cries. (Chapter-47)
    These similes show that things have been compared directly with “as” or “like” such as the first shows the comparison of the person with the chamois hunters, the second shows the fins of the whale compared to the lost ears of the sheep, and the third shows the hand likened to a wand.