Summary of Moby Dick
This Edition: 1851
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What It’s About
Stories of ill-fated ships and their legendary captains have long pervaded human culture, both high-brow and popular: Think Richard Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, or the Disney concoctions The Black Pearl and Captain Sparrow. But arguably none are more iconic than the Pequod and its Captain Ahab, the grimly obsessed whaleman chasing his white whale. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is many things – a portable whaling museum, a pitting of man against nature, and a symbolically rich tale by a literary master. Moreover, readers can understand the Pequod as Melville’s America in microcosm, a political and cultural conceit that offers continued relevance today. The legacy of this great American novel is enduring and vast, including the long-lived symbolism of the white whale and even the ubiquitous coffee chain Starbucks, named after Ahab’s first mate.
- Moby Dick was Herman Melville’s most successful work and defined him as a literary master – though not until well after his death.
- A motley whaling crew and its mad captain, Ahab, pursue a revenge mission against the white whale Moby Dick. The cunning whale severed Ahab’s leg on a previous voyage, driving the captain to obsession and hatred. Despite various dark warnings and cautionary tales they hear along the way, the crew engage in a three-day confrontation with the whale that ultimately wrecks their ship and drowns nearly everyone. Only the lone survivor, Ishmael, lives to tell the harrowing tale.
- In creating Moby Dick, Melville pursued his philosophy that “it is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.”
- Melville’s intense friendship with author Nathaniel Hawthorne significantly shaped the book’s development, which is why Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne.
- Moby Dick blends symbolically rich fiction and poetry with the minutiae of 19th-century whaling science and etiquette, elements of stage plays and monologues, and sermon.
- This cautionary tale of a mad commander who leads his crew to tragic death reveals the dangers of tyranny.
- The novel explicitly discusses the tension or interplay between fate, chance and free will.
- Prophecies, omens and talismans appear throughout the story and often reveal the diverse, arbitrary nature of human perception.
- Moby Dick was Melville’s nuanced response to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism.
- “Call me Ishmael.”
“Call me Ishmael”
Ishmael is a penniless Manhattanite who answers the ocean’s strong call and seeks out his first whaling voyage. After missing his connection to Nantucket to join a whaling ship there, he idles in New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the weekend. His search for cheap lodgings in the dreariest part of town brings him to The Spouter Inn. Within, in the jaws of a whale-shaped bar, appears the old bartender, aptly named Jonah.
The inn is full, but Ishmael avoids returning to the bitter cold by agreeing to share a bed with aloof, brawny harpooner Queequeg. Ishmael is terrified of his comprehensively tattooed roommate who stays out late selling an embalmed human head. After spending the night fearing that Queequeg, a cannibal, will kill him, Ishmael wakes the next morning embraced in the hug of the slumbering harpooner.
Ishmael keeps sailing tradition by attending the Whaleman’s Chapel before his voyage. Sailor-turned-chaplain Father Mapple delivers a seafarer’s sermon about Jonah’s disobedience toward God, the man’s punishment and repentance within the great whale, and, finally, his deliverance. Back at The Spouter Inn, Ishmael warms to Queequeg’s authenticity. The two men bond while smoking a pipe together – so much so that Queequeg declares them “married.”
“The great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” (Ishmael)
Queequeg reveals that on his native island, he was a king’s son. It was his plan to explore the West and bring its art and culture to his people. Yet when he arrived in Sag Harbor and Nantucket, he concluded that humankind was evil everywhere and thus chose to keep his native beliefs and habits. Like Ishmael, he’s an outcast. The new friends commit to making their next seaward adventure together. On a schooner to Nantucket, their cross-cultural friendship draws curious stares and jeers. But the mood quickly changes when Queequeg steadies a dangerously untethered boom and even rescues a boy washed overboard.
Though Queequeg is the seasoned whaler, the harpooner explains that his god, Yojo, wants Ishmael alone to pick the ship they’ll join. Ishmael finds three ships gathering crews for three-year voyages and chooses the Pequod – named for an extinct tribe of native people from Massachusetts – because of its nostalgic, weathered appearance and custom outfitting. On the ship, Ishmael meets the Pequod’s Quaker part-owners. After signing on to the crew, Ishmael regrets not investigating his new captain with the name of an evil biblical king: Ahab. One of the owners explains that Captain Ahab is an educated, good man who became melancholy after losing his leg to a monstrous whale, fulfilling a prophecy from his infancy.
Later, as they return from signing Queequeg onto the Pequod’s crew, Ishmael and Queequeg meet a ragged sailor, Elijah, who delivers obscure hints and warnings about the well-being of their souls, Captain Ahab and their upcoming voyage. Days pass, and finally the ship summons its crew for departure. In the early morning mist, Ishmael vaguely sees other sailors approaching the vessel – his fellow shipmates, he assumes. But Elijah reappears and rankles the two men by suggesting they won’t find the sailors on the boat. Indeed, when the two friends board, the ship is deserted except for a sleeping rigger. Captain Ahab is on board, they soon learn, but won’t leave his cabin.
All Hands on Deck
On Christmas Day, the ship heaves seaward, yet Ahab still hasn’t surfaced. Ishmael becomes acquainted with the ship’s officers: the prudent, dutiful first mate Starbuck; the carefree, jocular second mate Stubb; and the short, aggressive hunter Flask, the third mate. While Queequeg serves as Starbuck’s harpooner, the Native American Tashtego harpoons for Stubb, and the tall African Daggoo assists Flask.
“In looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air.”
After days at sea, Captain Ahab shows himself. The grim, greying captain with a leg of carved whalebone bears a scar down his face and neck. In the passing days and nights, he lingers moodily on deck. One morning, he suddenly shouts for his men’s attention: They are in whale territory, he announces, and all the crew must keep watch for a white one.
On whaling waters, Captain Ahab abruptly orders the crew to gather. He offers a gold coin to the man who spots a white-headed whale with a wrinkled forehead, a crooked jaw and three holes in its tail. The three harpooners recognize the whale by description; it’s Moby Dick, they tell Ahab. The captain vows to pursue Moby Dick through the flames of hell to get his revenge. And that revenge, he emotionally tells the crew, is the true purpose of their voyage. Starbuck calls it blasphemy and madness to seek vengeance on an animal for behaving instinctually. But the captain returns that his suffering is a prison, and the white whale forms its walls. Whether the whale is evil or merely the agent of evil, it has become the target of Ahab’s hatred, he says. Starbuck relents, outmatched by Ahab’s madness. The captain hammers the coin to the mast and makes his crew take an oath to join his vengeful mission.
Some time later, a member of the ship’s night crew hears a cough from the hold and claims there’s a mystery passenger aboard, yet unseen. Meanwhile, though unhinged, Ahab understands that revealing his ship’s strange, secret mission to pursue Moby Dick could leave him vulnerable to mutiny. So he engages the crew in their normal whaling occupation as he charts a course to intercept the white whale.
Soon, someone spots the first whale of the voyage – though not a white one. As the crew rush to their three respective boats, five unfamiliar men materialize, led by a Parsee harpooner, Fedallah. The five new men fill the spare boat with the captain. Ahab’s remaining crew and officers are agog, and Ishmael suddenly recalls the shadowy sailors he saw the morning of the ship’s departure.
“There is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.”
As the four whaling boats quietly wait for the whale and its pod to rise again from the deep, a thick mist descends. A squall approaches. However, Starbuck spots a rising hump, and commands Queequeg to throw his harpoon. The squall hits, the harpoon glances off the whale and Starbuck’s boat capsizes. Amid the squall, bailing is futile. Starbuck’s men can no longer see the Pequod or the other boats, so they light a lantern and grimly hope for rescue. At last, they see their ship and are saved. Ishmael’s initiation into whaling is complete.
One night, Fedallah spies a whale spout from the masthead. Strangely, no one sees a second spout. Just days later, the midnight spout appears again, but once more it disappears without trace. The spout appears to lure the ship onward, and some of the crew attribute it to Moby Dick. The ship sails in eerily pleasant weather until it enters stormy seas filled with strange, vague creatures. Sea ravens appear and begin landing on the ship, as if it’s deserted. And still the midnight spout haunts the crew. Eventually, the Pequod nears another craft, the Goney – the sailing term for “albatross” – which is bleached white and streaked red with rust. As the ships pass, the Pequod’s crew shout out a question about the white whale, but the other ship’s crew can’t hear, and the Goney sails directly away.
However, another passing sperm-whaler, the Town Ho, soon brings a tale of Moby Dick to the Pequod. A cruel, jealous officer’s persecution had spurred one crew member of the Town Ho to plot murderous revenge – but the white whale beat the crewman to it. When the officer hunted the white whale, the animal seized him in its jaws and took him below.
“In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God.”
Toward Java, Daggoo thinks he spies the white whale, and the ship lowers its whaling boats, but the white creature is a giant squid – purportedly, the sperm whale’s only food. Some of the crew interpret this rare sight as another omen, but Queequeg says it means they’ll encounter a sperm whale soon.
Deaths, Prophecies and Talismans
Indeed, a tranquil sperm whale soon surfaces before the ship, and the crew set to their boats. Tashtego harpoons the creature. Lance in hand, Stubb violently takes the whale’s life. They tow the corpse back to the ship, where Ahab, now aloof and unsatisfied, disappears to his cabin. Stubb celebrates his conquest by dining on whale steak. Alongside, in the ocean, sharks take to the corpse. The next day, the crew behead and strip the blubber from the shark-bitten corpse. They hang the whale’s head from the boat and toss the remaining heft to the sea. Like the floating corpses of other whales, it will become an object of superstition for passing ships.
Presently, the Pequod encounters another Nantucket whaling ship, the Jeroboam, which is beset by an epidemic. A crew member of that ship believes he is the archangel Gabriel and commands a following as a prophet. Gabriel warned his own ship against hunting Moby Dick, believing the whale is God incarnate. A Jeroboam officer ordered the harpooning of Moby Dick anyway – and the whale struck the chief mate, who then fell to his death in the sea.
“All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.”
At the Straits of Sunda, the Pequod rejoices in spotting seemingly thousands of sperm whales traveling together. But as the Pequod chases the whales, pirates give chase to the ship. The Pequod outspeeds its pursuers, and on Starbuck’s lowered boat, Queequeg harpoons a whale. The stricken animal drags the boat into the frantic whale herd. The boat’s inhabitants survive and get their whale. Yet, despite the great herd and many wounded whales, the Pequod takes just one more among them. Meanwhile, the crew has come to view the gold coin that Ahab nailed to the mast as Moby Dick’s talisman.
The Pequod’s crew asks the next passing ship about the white whale, and the unfamiliar English captain holds up a prosthetic arm in response. He lost the limb while pursuing the white whale and, unlike Ahab, vows he’ll never seek revenge. Returning to the Pequod, Ahab splinters his ivory limb, refreshing his misery. He orders the ship’s carpenter to make a new one.
Soon after, when Starbuck gently admonishes Captain Ahab for neglecting a leak among the whale oil casks, the stormy captain points a loaded musket at his first mate. Starbuck says the captain should be wary of himself, not his officers. Ahab, suddenly reflective, agrees. Queequeg searches deep in the ship for the leak’s source, and the work makes him feverishly ill. The harpooner thus commissions his own coffin but rallies back to health.
“The white whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.”
The ship reaches the Pacific Ocean, and Ahab commands the ship’s blacksmith to weld him a new harpoon for Moby Dick. The Pequod passes a ship experiencing good luck, which for a day seems to rub off: Ahab and his crew take four whales. But soon after, Ahab dreams of hearses. Fadallah prophesizes that the captain can die only after seeing two hearses on the sea: one not made by “mortal hands,” and the other of American wood. Only hemp could kill the captain, adds the prophet.
Suddenly, a typhoon hits the Pequod. Lightning strikes the mastheads, generating St. Elmo’s fire [sparks of candlelike, bright plasma]. Ahab grasps the masts’ lightning rods to show his fearlessness and defiance. Starbuck cries out, drawing their attention to Ahab’s newly welded harpoon: It has caught fire amid his sea-wrecked whaling boat. God is against their mission, Starbuck warns. The first mate begs to return home. Many of the crew support returning, but Ahab brandishes the burning harpoon, threatening any sailor who breaks his oath of hunting the white whale. Presently, the storm calms, and Starbuck approaches the captain’s cabin to report the weather. He finds the captain sleeping and contemplates whether to shoot Ahab to save the crew. However, he can’t bring himself to violence.
After passing an isle of shrieking seals that unsettles the crew, the ship enters Moby Dick’s territory. A crew member, possibly dozing, falls into the sea from his masthead lookout and drowns. The ship loses its life preserver trying to save him, so the crew decides that Queequeg’s unused coffin must be adapted as a replacement. The next day, a ship called the Rachel reports that it saw Moby Dick just the day before and is still searching for a boat of men who’d harpooned the whale. The captain’s 12-year-old son is on the missing boat, and the father begs Ahab to help him search. But Ahab refuses.
“But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”
While passing a ship giving a funeral for a whaleman lost to Moby Dick, the Pequod is “baptized” by the splash of the corpse entering the sea. Shortly after, Ahab regards his reflection in the ocean and for a moment grasps the madness of his mission. He directs Starbuck to stay alive by remaining on ship when Moby Dick appears. Starbuck nearly persuades Ahab to give up his doomed whale hunt by speaking of their respective families, but Ahab returns to his belief that the hunt is fated.
At dawn, the ship follows the powerful scent of a sperm whale, and Ahab soon spies Moby Dick. The captain has won the gold coin. The ship’s whaling boats lower, except for Starbuck’s. The white whale soon dives deep, and the boats await its surfacing. Sea birds flock to Ahab’s boat, and the man sees a white figure hurtling up from the depths. The whale strikes, then grips Ahab’s boat in its jaws. As Ahab rushes to respond, Moby Dick bites the boat in half, forcing the captain into the sea. Frenzied, the white whale circles the wreckage, with Ahab its epicenter. At the last minute, the Pequod intervenes, scaring off the whale.
“In his fiery eyes of scorn and triumph, you then saw Ahab in all his fatal pride.”
The next day, as the ship’s crew think they see a far-off spout, Moby Dick bursts out of the water near the Pequod. The crew and Ahab race to their boats. The whale charges the three boats open-jawed. All three harpooners snare the whale, but its frenetic movements cause the lines to tangle. Stubb’s and Flask’s boats dash together. The whale charges Ahab’s boat from below, sending it spinning above the waves. Victorious again, Moby Dick swims away, dragging the whalers’ lines with him. Ahab’s ivory limb is destroyed. The boats are lost – and so is Fedallah. Ahab muses that the Parsee was prophesized to die first but reappear before Ahab could die. Throughout the night, the crew prepare the spare boats.
On the third day, Ahab is again the first to spot Moby Dick. Before lowering his boat, he calls Starbuck near to shake hands, bringing the first mate to tears. On the water, sharks swarm Ahab’s boat and oars, but he pushes on. Starbuck, observing, has intimations of his own death. Suddenly the waters churn, and Moby Dick breaches and damages two boats. Tied to the whale’s back among the ropes and lances is the dead Fedallah. Ahab realizes that this is Fedallah’s prophesized return and the first hearse, but the captain has yet to see the second hearse that signals his death.
“Ahab leaned over the side and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity.”
Moby Dick again swims away, and again Ahab pursues – now the only boat on the water. He nears close enough to the whale to drive in an iron, but the line breaks. The white whale changes tactics and charges the Pequod itself. Ahab tries to follow, but his boat is damaged. The ship’s crew see the charging whale and experience their last wishes and regrets. The whale strikes a hole into the ship, and Ahab realizes the Pequod is the second hearse of Fedallah’s prophecy.
Seeing that he won’t have the dignity of going down with his ship, the captain darts his harpoon at the whale. But the quickly tightening line – the hemp from the prophecy – wraps around Ahab’s neck and springs him from the boat. Nearby, the Pequod sinks rapidly, the harpooners still in the mastheads. As Tashtego goes under, he continues to hammer Ahab’s red flag to the main mast, securing a live hawk that pecks at the flag. Only Ishmael, the accidental bowsman of Ahab’s boat, survives the suction of the sinking ship. When its coffin life-preserver pops back to the surface, he finds refuge there. Days later, the Rachel rescues him, enabling him to share the grim tale.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Moby Dick is a diverse, patchwork novel befitting the ragtag crew of the Pequod. The book uniquely mixes symbolically rich fiction with 19th-century science, elements of stage plays and monologues, and sermon. Entire chapters devoted to the minutiae of whaling science, instruments and etiquette interrupt the narrative flow. Though the novel begins in first-person narration – through the eyes of Ishmael – the sailor unpredictably switches to second-person narration or, at times, disappears from the story altogether. Such is the case for several chapters that manifest as soliloquies by Ahab, Starbuck, or others. The story slowly builds to a climax via the “gams,” or social meetings, with nine passing ships that tell foreboding stories or offer symbolic warnings.
In this novel, Melville’s writing style incorporates seafaring vernacular, eloquent prose and scientific treatise. Much of the writing is verbose, with long, complex sentences that hang on numerous dependent clauses. Melville plays with alliteration and also embeds in his writing biblical and mythological allusion, returning repeatedly to the bible’s story of Jonah and the whale. The author coins many of his own phrases, such as “isolatoes,” to describe the isolated, solitary men who come to join the Pequod’s crew.
- In creating Moby Dick, Melville pursued his philosophy that “it is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.”
- Moby Dick was a late Romantic, or even an early Symbolist, work that some consider a response to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism.
- Ahab and Ishmael espouse transcendentalist ideas and seek absolute truth, but such truth remains elusive. Instead of revealing truth, nature ultimately brings destruction.
- Prophecies, omens and talismans appear throughout the story and often reveal the diverse, arbitrary nature of human perception. For instance, when the crew spies a giant white squid, many view it as an omen, but Queequeg, who believes sperm whales eat giant squid, is cheered by the sighting.
- The dangers of tyranny and the importance of democracy are central themes in the story, driving much of the plot. Ahab’s mad tyranny results in widespread death and destruction.
- The novel explores the tension or interplay between fate, chance and free will. Whereas Ahab justifies his mad mission because he believes he’s “the Fates’ lieutenant” and acting without free will, Ishmael conceives of a framework wherein humankind exercises some free will within fate’s confines, and subject to chance.
- Early in the book, Ishmael recounts the story of Narcissus, who, gazing at his own reflection in a pool, drowns reaching for the “image of the ungraspable phantom of life.” Complementing this imagery, at the end of Moby Dick, “Ahab leaned over the side, and watched how his shadow in the water sank and sank to his gaze, the more and the more that he strove to pierce the profundity.”
- Race surfaces throughout the story, first in the diversity of the ship and its friendships, but also in the all-white command of the ship. Moreover, Melville leans heavily into the noble savage trope.
Division and Expansion
When Herman Melville was writing Moby Dick, from 1850 to 1851, he lived in a polarized country and a time of American expansion. The pro-slavery South and largely abolitionist North were at odds. In a decade, the nation would engage in civil war. In September of 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of a compromise between the North and South. The law aimed to prevent Southern slaves from escaping to the North by requiring citizens even in free states to return a runaway slave. Abolitionists called the act the “Bloodhound Act” because of the dogs the law allowed slave owners to use to hunt down those seeking freedom.
At the same time, the United States was globally expanding its political and commercial reach and learning to understand its changing identity and power, factors that play heavily in Melville’s Moby Dick.
In 1849, Melville expressed his disappointment with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transcendentalisms, myths and oracular gibberish.” Two years later – after 18 months of writing – Melville published Moby Dick, which responds to Emerson’s transcendentalism while drawing on Melville’s personal experience as a neophyte whaler aboard the Acushnet. On a previous voyage, the Acushnet had had a first mate named Edward Starbuck, who was mysteriously discharged. Other characters from the novel reflect whalers whom Melville met. The 1820 sinking of the Essex was also a source of inspiration. Melville personally met the Essex’s captain, who lost his ship to a sperm whale. And in the late 1830s, whalers reportedly killed a fierce albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick near the Chilean island of Mocha.
Melville’s reading of Shakespeare and intense, years-long friendship with author Nathaniel Hawthorne significantly influenced the book’s development, adding complexity to the work. Melville ultimately dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. When the two authors met, Hawthorne was famous and Melville, 15 years younger, was struggling after his successful debut of Typee. Melville formed a quick bond with Hawthorne, even relocating his family to the Berkshires to become the older man’s neighbor. Melville remained there through the US release of Moby Dick – a last-minute change in title from The Whale – in 1851. Before the book release, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published the chapter titled “The Town Ho’s Story.”
Legacy and Reviews
Melville’s letters indicate that Hawthorne approved of Moby Dick, yet it was never commercially successful during Melville’s lifetime. Indeed, Melville struggled through the remainder of his novel-writing career and finally turned to poetry. Originally, the British edition of Moby Dick didn’t contain an epilogue and thus neglected to explain how Ishmael survived, contributing to poor British reviews. The negative British reviews heavily influenced the American reception.
By 1876, all of Melville’s books were out of print. However, decades later near the centennial of Melville’s birth, literary scholars reevaluated his work. US critic Carl Van Doren included an article about Melville in a history of American literature in 1917, initiating a Melville revival. D.H. Lawrence and other authors and critics helped recast Melville as a great American writer.
About the Author
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. His family was descended from Revolutionary War officers and participants in the Boston Tea Party. Melville eventually joined the merchant marines, the US Navy and a South Seas whaling ship, occupations that would give shape to his first novel, the romantic adventure Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published in 1846. The debut was successful, and Melville published Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas the following year. Also in 1847, after a short courtship, Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw, daughter of Massachusetts’ chief justice. Melville had four children with Shaw. After publishing three more novels – Mardi: And a Voyage Thither, Redburn: His First Voyage, and White-Jacket – to tepid critical response, Melville published Moby Dick. The tragic epic was a commercial flop, and by 1865, Melville had given up trying to earn a living through his writing, though he continued to write poetry until 1876. Starting in 1866, Melville served as a customs inspector in New York for 20 years. His books were out of print by 1867. That year, his son Malcolm accidentally shot himself and died. Compounding the tragedy, Melville’s second son Stanwix died in a hospital in 1886 after a prolonged illness. These events contributed to Melville’s depression, which lasted many years. On September 28, 1891, while completing the new novel Billy Budd, Sailor, the 72-year-old Melville died of a heart attack. Literary scholars revived his work – including his late-life poetry and books – starting in the late 1910s, and today, Melville’s Moby Dick continues its reign as a great American novel.
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