In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the main character's journey, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. The narrator's reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor's life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides.
Often considered the embodiment of American Romanticism, Moby-Dick was first published by Richard Bentley in London on October 18, 1851 in an expurgated three-volume edition titled The Whale, and later as one massive volume, by New York City publisher Harper and Brothers as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on November 14, 1851. The first line of Chapter One—"Call me Ishmael."—is one of the most famous opening lines in literature. Although the book initially received mixed reviews, Moby-Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and has secured Melville's place among America's greatest writers.
Two actual events inspired Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex, which foundered in 1820 after it was rammed by a large sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,700 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Already out-of-print, the book was rare even at the time. Knowing that Melville was looking for it, his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.
The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who was usually encountered in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Riddled with dozens of harpoons from his numerous escapes from whalers, Mocha Dick often attacked ships with premeditated ferocity. One of his battles with a whaler served as subject for an article by explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker, New York Monthly Magazine. Melville was familiar with the article, which described "an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength... [that] was white as wool". Significantly, Reynolds writes a first-person narration that serves as a frame for the story of a whaling captain he meets. The captain resembles Ahab and suggests a possible symbolism for whales in that, when his crew first encounters Mocha Dick and cowers from him, the captain rallies them thus: "'Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil],' said I, 'this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale.'
Mocha Dick had over 100 battles with whalemen. First noted (because of his color, and later for his wounds) in 1810, he battled whalemen on a regular basis until the late 1830s. He was described as being giant (even for a whale). He was covered in barnacles.
Mocha Dick may not have been the only white whale in the sea. A Swedish whaleship claimed to have taken a very old white whale in 1859,; a retired Nantucket whaleship claimed to have harpooned a white whale in 1902. Nor was he the only whale to attack his hunters. Periodic attacks on whaleboats were recorded until they were replaced by the harpoon gun. In 1850, the bark Parker Cook was rammed in mid-Atlantic; the crew killed and harvested the whale, but had to put into port for repairs. Later that same year, the Pocahontas was almost sunk in the same area. In 1851, not long after publication of the novel, the Ann Alexander was destroyed by a sperm whale near where the Essex was sunk, but the crew were picked up the next day. In 1820 the Essex was alone in mid-Pacific, but by 1851 the area "virtually swarmed with whalers". Other whalers disappeared at sea, perhaps sunk by their prey.
The most important inspiration for the novel was Melville's experiences as a sailor, in particular those during 1841-1842 on the whaleship Acushnet. He had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in previous novels—Mardi the closest to Moby-Dick in its symbolic or allegorical aspirations—but he had never focused specifically on whaling. Melville had read Chase's account before sailing on the Acushnet in 1841; he was excited about sighting Captain Chase himself, who had returned to sea. During a midocean "gam" (rendezvous) he met Chase's son William, who loaned him his father's book.
The novel contains large sections—most of them narrated by Ishmael—that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but describe aspects of the whaling business. Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it. Since Romantics such as Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley had greatly influenced him from an early age, he hoped to emulate them with a book that was compelling and vivid both emotionally and poetically. Early Romantics also proposed that fiction was the exemplary way to describe and record history (after all, Walter Scott had invented the historical novel, and almost all of Irving's work had the trappings of history), so Melville wanted to craft something educational and definitive. However, despite his own interest in the subject, Melville claimed to struggle with it, writing to Richard Henry Dana on May 1, 1850:
The white whale has also been seen as a symbol for many things, including nature and those elements of life that are out of human control.Ch 42 Melville mentions the Matsya Avatar of Lord Vishnu, the first among ten incarnations when Vishnu appears as a giant fish on Earth and saves creation from the flood of destruction. Melville mentions this while discussing the spiritual and mystical aspects of the sailing profession and he calls Lord Vishnu as the first among whales and the God of whalers.
The Pequod's quest to hunt down Moby-Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone's goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man's struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab's vision is seen through the Pequod's occasional encounters, called gams, with other ships. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:
Ahab's pipe is widely looked upon as the riddance of happiness in Ahab's life. By throwing the pipe overboard, Ahab signifies that he no longer can enjoy simple pleasures in life; instead, he dedicates his entire life to the pursuit of his obsession, the killing of the white whale, Moby-Dick.
A number of biblical themes can also be found in the novel. The book contains multiple implicit and explicit allusions to the story of Jonah, in addition to the use of certain biblical names (see below).
Ishmael's musings also allude to themes common among the American Transcendentalists and parallel certain themes in European Romanticism and the philosophy of Hegel. In the poetry of Whitman and the prose writings of Emerson and Thoreau, a ship at sea is sometimes a metaphor for the soul.
In Chapter 1, "Loomings", Ishmael introduces himself. With a mixture of chattiness, seriousness, and humor, he speaks of his temperament, the call of the sea, and contends that every man wants at least once in his life to leave the land behind for the ocean.
Aiming to join the crew of a whaleship, Ishmael heads for Nantucket, the older of the two U.S. centers of the whaling industry. Time problems force him to stop for the night in the newer, more powerful whaling center of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Lacking money, he lodges at the Spouter Inn. The innkeeper, Peter Coffin, puts him in a room with the mysterious tattooed cannibal Queequeg, a harpooner. Despite Ishmael's initial reservations, the two become friends. Queequeg tells Ishmael they are "married", which means they are "bosom friends", and shares his pipe with Ishmael. In turn, Ishmael joins Queequeg in worshipping Queequeg's idol god, Yojo.
The two decide to enlist together on the Pequod, a whaleship owned by three captains: Peleg, Bildad, and Ahab. Ishmael and Queequeg have yet to meet their captain when they sign ship's articles, Queequeg drawing a peculiar mark identical to one of his tattoos. Soon enough they discover that Ahab is captain for this voyage, which Peleg and Bildad hope will reap a handsome profit.
As the ship sets sail, other main characters are introduced: the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask; and the two remaining harpooners, Daggoo and Tashtego, who will later be joined by a mysterious third, Fedallah. For several days, though, Ahab stays below decks, completely out of sight from the common sailors. Ahab finally emerges and plants himself on the quarter-deck, leading Ishmael to ponder his captain's missing leg and the ivory replacing it.
The extremely enigmatic Ahab broods and behaves erratically. He paces the deck, thudding his ivory heel. Stubb suggests that he dampen the sound, but Ahab, furious, calls him a dog. When Stubb objects to the insult, Ahab says, “Then be called ten times a donkey, and a mule, and an ass, and begone, or I’ll clear the world of thee!”
Ahab's eccentricities multiply and intensify. He throws his pipe off the ship. He asks his crew to yell more loudly if they spot a white whale. Then he tells the crew that a gold doubloon will go to the crewman who first spots a "white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw." He nails the coin to the ship's mast, saying, "Whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"
It turns out Tashtego has heard of this white whale, which he says some call "Moby Dick". Starbuck reveals that Moby Dick took Captain Ahab’s leg. With pressure on him mounting, Ahab admits that for him the voyage of the Pequod has no other purpose than to have his vengeance on Moby Dick.
Over the course of the story, the reader is presented with numerous apparent digressions giving scenes and details of whales, the whaling industry, and everyday whaling life. These digressions—sometimes funny, sometimes eerie, and sometimes a combination—often shed light on the ocean of symbolisms and profundities Melville gathers, dives into, plays with, and sometimes strains to surface from. On the other hand, there is always a forward-driving adventure story highlighting various whale sightings, whale hunts, and encounters (again, sometimes spooky or humorous) with other whaleships. The combination of more typical plot elements with many other exploratory and curious styles and registers allows Melville to encapsulate and expand on the localized and cosmic significances of a way of life already in decline.
Toward the end of the novel, the Pequod nears Moby Dick's territory and encounters the Rachel, whose master rows over to the Pequod. He begs Ahab for help in finding a whaleboat crew lost in the previous day's hunt, a crew that includes his young son. When Ahab hears that the whale involved in the crew's disappearance was Moby-Dick, he flatly refuses to help the Rachel so he can take up his own search for the whale.
The journey comes to its dramatic and tragic end when the Pequod, sailing despite dark portents, sights Moby-Dick. For three long days the ship battles the white whale. Moby-Dick shatters the Pequod’s whaleboats and then charges the ship itself, sinking it. Ahab and all the crew drown except for Ishmael, who uses the coffin built for Queequeg as a buoy. By pure luck, the still-searching Rachel sails by and rescues him.
The name Ishmael also appears in the Bible as that of the first son of Abraham in the Old Testament. The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts—in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book, Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan. Ishmael has a rich literary background (he has previously been a schoolteacher), which he brings to bear on his shipmates and events that occur while at sea.
Ishmael resembles Melville in several ways (as well as the narrator of Melville's White-Jacket), being well-educated and reflective. Ishmael sees his shipmates as archetypes of human nature and society, and tells his story couched in a vast array of detail, largely occurring during sections in which Ishmael takes an almost-omniscient viewpoint.
The character Elijah (named for the Biblical prophet, Elijah, who is also referred to in the King James Bible as Elias), on learning that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship, asks, "Anything down there about your souls?" When Ishmael reacts with surprise, Elijah continues:
Later in the conversation, Elijah adds:
The vague and uncertain prophet of the text, ambivalent about religion, is replaced in both the 1956 and 1998 movie adaptations with a prescient Elijah who foretells the fate of the Pequod with confident precision. The 1956 film has Elijah waving his lame arm in pantomime foretelling Ahab's demise, and Ahab (played by Gregory Peck) moves his own arm in fulfillment of Elijah's prophecy. In the 1998 television adaptation, Elijah warns that captain and crew shall all perish except one, and that by signing on they have effectively signed away their souls; Queequeg asks Ishmael what a soul is, to which Ishmael responds by leading Queequeg to a Christian church where Father Mapple (played by Gregory Peck) preaches the story of Jonah. (In the text, the Jonah sermon occurs before Ishmael meets Elijah, and Queequeg leaves the chapel "before the benediction some time." )
Little information is provided about Ahab's life prior to meeting Moby-Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his "girl-wife" whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.
In Ishmael's first encounter with Ahab's name, he responds "When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?" (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).
Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (save for Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby-Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:
The harpoon becomes lodged into Moby-Dick's flesh and Ahab, caught in his own harpoon's rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The whale eventually destroys the whaleboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.
Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero – a great heart and a fatal flaw – and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like the Shakespeare's own pentameters.
Ahab's motivation for hunting Moby Dick is perhaps best summed up in the following passage:
In popular culture, Moby Dick is often depicted as being an albino whale. For example, in the huge whale mural at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a white sperm whale with a red eye and several harpoons (detached from their boats) stuck in its back is prominently displayed. This seems accurate, since the aforementioned chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" refers explicitly to "the albino whale". Others however claim that this is inaccurate, and that Moby Dick is colored like an average sperm whale, but with so many scars as to appear white.
Moby Dick also appears to be unusually intelligent, resorting to many clever stratagems to defeat Ahab and crew. He also seems to be capable of using his injuries to great advantage. On the second day of the chase, he allows Ahab and his men to strike him with their harpoons during a head-on charge; he then swims around wildly to entangle the harpoons before yanking Ahab towards him in order to cut him up with the harpoons embedded in his flesh. Moby Dick then smashes Stubb and Flask's boats with his flukes, before sending Ahab's boat flying with a powerful headbutt.
The three mates of the Pequod are all from New England.
Little is said about Starbuck's early life, except that he is married with a son. Unlike Ahab's wife, who remains nameless, Starbuck gives his wife's name as Mary. Such is his desire to return to them, that when nearly reaching the last leg of their quest for Moby-Dick, he considers arresting or even killing Ahab with a loaded musket, one of several which is kept by Ahab (in a previous chapter Ahab threatening Starbuck with one when disobeying him, despite Starbuck being in the right) and turning the ship back, straight for home.
Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal, which lacks reason. Starbuck advocates continuing the more mundane pursuit of whales for their oil. But he lacks the support of the crew in his opposition to Ahab, and is unable to persuade them to turn back. Despite his misgivings, he feels himself bound by his obligations to obey the captain.
Starbuck was an important Quaker family name on Nantucket Island, and there were several actual whalemen of this period named "Starbuck," as evidenced by the name of Starbuck Island in the South Pacific whaling grounds. The multinational coffee chain, Starbucks was named after Starbuck, although not for any affinity for coffee but after the name Pequod was rejected by one of the co-founders.
The harpooners of the Pequod are all non-Christians from various parts of the world. All come from Islands. Each serves on a mate's boat.
Queequeg hails from a fictional island in the South Seas inhabited by a cannibal tribe, and is the son of the chief of his tribe. Since leaving the island, he has become extremely skilled with the harpoon. He befriends Ishmael very early in the novel, when they meet in New Bedford, Massachusetts before leaving for Nantucket. He is described as existing in a state between civilized and savage; for example, Ishmael recounts with amusement how Queequeg feels it necessary to hide himself when pulling on his boots, noting that if he were a savage he wouldn't consider any such modesty necessary, but if he were completely civilized he would realize there was no need to be modest when pulling on his boots.
Queequeg is the harpooner on Starbuck's boat, where Ishmael is also an oarsman. Queequeg is best friends with Ishmael in the story. He is prominent early in the novel, but later fades in significance, as does Ishmael himself.
Pip (nicknamed "Pippin," but "Pip" for short) is a black boy from Tolland County, Connecticut who is "the most insignificant of the Pequod's crew". Because he is physically slight, he is made a ship-keeper, (a sailor who stays in the Pequod while its whaleboats go out). Ishmael contrasts him with the "dull and torpid in his intellects" — and paler and much older — steward Dough-Boy, describing Pip as "over tender-hearted" but "at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe". Ishmael goes so far as to chastise the reader: "Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets."
The after-oarsman on Stubb's boat is injured, however, so Pip is temporarily reassigned to Stubb's whaleboat crew. The first time out, Pip jumps from the boat, causing Stubb and Tashtego to lose their already-harpooned whale. Tashtego and the rest of the crew are furious; Stubb chides him "officially" and "unofficially", even raising the specter of slavery: "a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama". The next time a whale is sighted, Pip again jumps overboard and is left stranded in the "awful lonesomeness" of the sea while Stubb's and the others' boats are dragged along by their harpooned whales. By the time he is rescued, he has become (at least to the other sailors) "an idiot", "mad". Ishmael, however, thought Pip had a mystical experience: "So man's insanity is heaven's sense." Pip and his experience are crucial because they serve as adumbration, in Ishmael's words "providing the sometimes madly merry and predestinated craft with a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own." Pip's madness is full of poetry and eloquence; he is reminiscent of Tom in King Lear. Ahab later sympathizes with Pip and takes the young boy under his wing.
Dough-boy is the pale, nervous steward of the ship. The Cook (Fleece), Blacksmith and Carpenter of the ship are each highlighted in at least one chapter near the end of the book. Fleece, a very old African-American with bad knees, is presented in the chapter "Stubb Kills a Whale" at some length in a dialogue where Stubb good-humoredly takes him to task over how to prepare a variety of dishes from the whale's carcass.
The crew as a whole is exceedingly international, having a makeup of both the United States' and the world's population. Chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle," highlights, in its stage-play manner (in Shakespearean style), the striking variety in the sailors' origins. A partial list of the speakers includes sailors from the Isle of Man, France, Iceland, Holland, the Azores, Sicily and Malta (Italy), China, Denmark, Portugal, India, England, Spain, Chile and Ireland. Considering that this variety is in only one part of the ship (the forecastle) there could be many other nationalities on board. Melville gives an overall impression of the crew as being a melting pot of every conceivable ethnicity.
... for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.
A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your understanding the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable sociabilities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. It is a strange feeling—no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content—that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.
One problem was that publisher Peter Bentley botched the English edition, most significantly in omitting the (somewhat perfunctory) epilogue. For this reason, many of the critics faulted the book on what little they could grasp of it, namely on purely formal grounds, e.g., how the tale could have been told if no one survived to tell it. The generally bad reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish about picking up the tome. Still, a handful of American critics saw much more in it than most of their U.S. and English colleagues. Hawthorne said of the book: "What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones". Perhaps the most perceptive review came from the pen of Evert Augustus Duyckinck, who was the friend of Melville who introduced him to Hawthorne.
Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. The stage was set for Melville to find his place.
With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Not only did many of Melville's techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends. His new readers also found in him an almost too-profound exploration of violence, hunger for power, quixotic goals, and reckless disregard for the fate of one's fellows. Although many critics of this time still considered Moby-Dick extremely difficult to come to grips with, they largely saw this lack of easy understanding as an asset rather than a liability.
In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville's value.
In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans' attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville's. Perhaps most surprising is that Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the original English edition.
In his 1921 study, The American Novel, Carl Van Doren returns to Melville with much more depth. Here he calls Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.