Moby Dick, written by Herman Melville, was published in 1851 during a productive time in American Literature. Written during the same time as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick has been classified as American Romanticism. Melville’s two previous novels, Typee and Omoo, were very well received and won him fans in the USA and elsewhere. Moby Dick was criticized for being too long and some of the characters as being unrealistic. Now the novel is considered ahead of its time and it was not until after Melville’s death that the book began to receive recognition for its brilliance.
Moby Dick is now considered an epic tale. The novel is told from the point of view of Ishmael. Ishmael is a wandering sailor that has experience in the merchant marine but has decided to join the crew of a whaling ship. He arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts and agrees to share a bed with a stranger who isn’t present yet. His bunkmate turns out to be Queequeg. Queequeg is a heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner with whom Ishmael quickly becomes close friends with. Together, they sail together from Nantucket, Massachusetts on a whaling voyage. Ishmael and Queequeg sign up to be part of the crew of the Peqoud whaling ship.
While the captain, Ahab, of the ship is nowhere to be seen, Ishmael and Queequeg are told of him – a “grand, ungodly, godlike man,” who has “been in colleges as well as ‘mong the cannibals. ” While Ahab stays in his cabin during the early part of the voyage, the ship’s officers direct the Peqoud. The two friends become familiar with the chief mate – Starbuck, second mate – Stubb, and third mate – Flask. All three mates are sincere and reliable leaders. Ahab finally appears one morning and is seen as an imposing, frightening figure whose appearance sends shivers over Ishmael.
Ishmael compares Ahab to “a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. ” Ahab begins to unveil his main reasoning for this voyage: hunting down and killing Moby Dick. Moby Dick is an old, very large sperm whale that crippled Ahab on his last whaling voyage. Starbuck, the chief mate, disagrees argues that the ship’s purpose is to hunt whales for their oil and return home profitably, safely, and quickly, not just Moby Dick in particular.
When they pass other ships, Ahab only cares about if the other sailors have seen Moby Dick. As the Peqoud continues to sail, the crew learns from other ships that they are getting closer to Moby Dick. One ship, the Rachel, asks Captain Ahab to assist in searching for one of its missing boats. Ahab refuses because he is getting closer to Moby Dick. Starbuck pleas with Ahab to let up on the chase of Moby Dick. Ahab is relentless and ignores Starbuck’s pleas. The Peqoud chases down Moby Dick for three days. Ahab harpoons the whale but that doesn’t do much damage.
The whale rams into the Peqoud and it begins to sink. Ahab harpoons the whale again but the harpoon line wraps around his neck and he is dragged into the depths of the sea by the diving Moby Dick. Ishmael is the only survivor of the Peqoud. While Moby Dick was a hard and lengthy read, it was a good book. The parts about the whaling industry were a little boring to me. I found myself skimming the descriptions but reading enough just to get an idea of what the industry entails. The characters in the book from Ishmael down to Pippin kept the story going.
While the main plot was Ahab’s vengeance on Moby Dick, Melville also supplied enough mini plots that tied in with the main plot. Ahab’s obsession with the whale makes you think if it is all he cares about. I soon found out that it was his only care. His personal reason soon becomes a more universal motive. On a personal level, Ahab wants to avenge himself because Moby Dick removed his leg in his last expedition. This desire soon shows itself to have grown out of proportion and it consumes Ahab’s life and his crew.
My bible knowledge was also tested during this reading. Melville cites the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale several times in the novel. I discovered that just as the whale swallows Jonah, who has rebelled against God’s wish for him to turn the sinful city of Nineveh, so the whale destroys lesser mortals who have dared to set themselves against it. To me, Moby Dick symbolizes those things we as humans try to control but cannot. Humans will forever remain at the mercy of the powers of God and his creations.