Moby-Dick - the official title of the first edition - is a novel by Herman Melville. It was first published in expurgated form as The Whale on October 18, 1851, and then in full on November 14, 1851, in the United States. Moby-Dick's style was revolutionary for its time: descriptions in intricate, imaginative, and varied prose of the methods of whale-hunting, the adventure, and the narrator's reflections interweave the story's themes with a huge swath of Western literature, history, religion, mythology, philosophy, and science. Although its initial reception was unfavorable, Moby-Dick is now considered to be one of the canonical novels in the English language, and has secured Melville's reputation in the first rank of American writers.
Moby-Dick follows the crew of the Pequod, led by Captain Ahab, a Quaker, on a whaling expedition that takes them around the world. The expedition soon degenerates into a monomaniacal hunt for the legendary "Great White Whale", as Ahab seeks revenge on the animal that cost him one of his legs and gave him a vicious scar down his torso.
The plot was inspired in part by the November 20, 1820, sinking of the whaleship Essex (a whaling ship from Nantucket, Massachusetts). The ship went down 2,000 miles (3,700 km) from the western coast of South America after it was attacked by an 80-ton Sperm Whale. The story was recounted by the survivor Thomas Nickerson in his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Moby-Dick also undoubtedly draws on Melville's experiences as a sailor, and in particular on his voyage on the whaler Acushnet in 1841–1842. Melville left no other account of his career as a whaler, so we can only guess as to the extent to which Moby-Dick is a roman à clef (like his previous novels Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket), and how much is wholly invented.
The crew-members of the Pequod are carefully drawn stylizations of human types and habits; critics have often described them as a "self-enclosed universe."
Ishmael is the narrator. "Call me Ishmael" is one of the best-known opening sentences in English language literature. A newcomer to whaling, Ishmael serves as our eyes and ears aboard the Pequod. He is, at the end, the only witness alive to tell the tale. Ishmael was the name of the first son of Abraham in the Old Testament. The Biblical Ishmael was born to a slave woman because Abraham believed his wife, Sarah, to be infertile; when God granted her a son, Isaac, Ishmael and his mother were turned out of Abraham's household. The name has come to symbolize orphans and social outcasts. From the beginning, Ishmael tells us that he turns to the sea out of a sense of alienation from human society. Ishmael, like Melville, has a rich literary background that he brings to bear on his shipmates and their adventure.
Ishmael resembles Melville himself in many ways, as well as the narrator of Melville's White-Jacket: The World in a Man-of-War. All are literary, reflective types who see their shipmates as exemplars of human nature and the universe, and tell their stories with a wealth of philosophical reflection. "White Jacket" is--as symbolized by the garment that gives him his name--very much an outsider to his crew. Ishmael himself sometimes completely vanishes into Moby Dick: toward the end of the novel it can be easy to forget that it is being told by a first-person narrator and not simply an omniscient narrator. In many ways the Pequod is a ship of outcasts that manage to form a complete society among themselves. Ishmael is perhaps its voice, or its self-consciousness.
Ahab is the captain of the whaling ship Pequod. Having lost a leg to Moby Dick on their last meeting, Captain Ahab is consumed with the desire for revenge. He has a peg leg made of whale bone, and a livid white scar that runs from head to toe, that looks like the mark a bolt of lightning leaves in the bark of a tree. There are two Ahabs named in the Bible, one a King of Israel, the other a blasphemous prophet delivered by God to be killed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The captain is named after the king, who is described in the novel as "bloodthirsty."
Moby Dick is a livid white sperm whale who has been attacked by multiple whaling ships, but has been able to destroy his attackers. Melville spelled the whale's name without a hyphen, but used a hyphen in the title of the book.
Starbuck, the young first mate of the Pequod, is a thoughtful and intellectual Shaker.
- "Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance... [H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him ... from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. "I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward." --Moby-Dick, Ch. 26
Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal that lacks the capacity to understand such human concepts. Starbucks Coffee is named after him.
Stubb is the second mate of the Pequod, who always seems to have a pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face. "Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whaleboat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests."--Moby-Dick Ch. 27
Flask is the third mate of the Pequod. "A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered."--Moby-Dick Ch. 27
Queequeg the harpooner is a "savage" cannibal from a fictional island in the south seas. The son of the chief of his tribe, he befriends Ishmael in Nantucket before they leave port. Queequeg is a skilled harpooner on Starbuck's boat. His behaviour is both civilized and savage.
Tashtego is described as a "savage" -- a Native American harpooner. The personification of the hunter, he has turned from hunting land animals to hunting whales. Tashtego is the harpooner on Stubb's harpoon boat.
Daggoo is a gigantic "savage" African harpooner with a noble bearing and grace. Daggoo is the harpooner on Flask's harpoon boat.
Fedallah is the sinister leader of Ahab's secret harpoon boat crew. "[T]all and swart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head." Moby-Dick Ch.48
All of the members of the Pequod's crew have biblical-sounding, improbable or descriptive names, and the narrator deliberately avoids specifying the exact time of the events and some other similar details. These together suggest that perhaps we should understand the narrator--and not just Melville--to be deliberately casting his tale in an epic and allegory mode.
The white whale itself, for example, has been read as symbolically representative of good and evil, as has Ahab.
The white whale has also been seen as a metaphor for the elements of life that are out of our control.
The Pequod's insane 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 be expanded allegorically to so that the whale represents everyone's goals. 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? Thus, the outcome of the quest is irrelevant, and actually completing the journey is not the goal - it's the "thrill of the chase" that's important. Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life.
Selected adaptations and references
- A 1926 silent movie, The Sea Beast, starring John Barrymore as a heroic Ahab with a fiancee and an evil brother, loosely based on the novel. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017354/)) Remade as Moby Dick in 1930. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021149/))
- Moby Dick Rehearsed a 1955 television "play within a play" directed by Orson Welles. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0349829/))
- A 1956 film directed by John Huston and starring Gregory Peck, with screenplay by Ray Bradbury. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049513/))
- "The Doomsday Machine" is a Star Trek episode written by Norman Spinrad that is loosely based on the Moby Dick story.
- Nova, a 1968 science fiction novel by Samuel R. Delany, features a starship voyage with a misfit crew, and an obsessive and facially scarred captain strongly resembling Ahab.
- "Moby Dick" was an instrumental recording by Led Zeppelin featuring a drum solo by John Bonham.
- Bruce Sterling's 1977 novel Involution Ocean is a science fictional pastiche of Moby-Dick.
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) borrows liberally from Moby-Dick. Khan and his first officer Joachim are based on Ahab and Starbuck, and many of Khan's lines are taken almost verbatim from the novel. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084726/))
- Moby Dick! The Musical, a 1990s West End musical about a school production of the classic tale.
- In Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Jean-Luc Picard compares his fight against the Borg to that of Captain Ahab against Moby Dick. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0117731/))
- Moby Dick, a 1998 television movie starring Patrick Stewart as Ahab. (IMDb link (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120756/))
- In the late 1990s, performance artist Laurie Anderson produced the multimedia stage presentation Songs and Stories From Moby Dick. Several songs from this project were included on her 2001 CD, Life on a String.
- Rakhnam, a purple arcwhale which threatens the party at various points in the 2001 video game Skies of Arcadia, is an homage to Moby-Dick (his name in the Japanese version of the game is "Mobys").
- Francis Macbeth composed a five-movement suite for wind band named 'Of Sailors and Whales' which is based on scenes from the book Moby-Dick. The bombastic suite begins with the quiet Ishmael, which builds to a heavy climax. Queequeg follows with a flitting melody and ends with bleak chords and finally a quick note at the end. The middle movement Father Mapple is supposed to be a hymn that an imaginary man sings during the voyage. This movement is actually sung by the band, and begins very wearily but has a rather strong ending. Next is Ahab and this movement readily depicts the captain. The same is true of The White Whale, the final movement of the suite and by far one of the most fearsome pieces composed for a wind band. Each movement is preceded by some text supposed to be read to give an indication of the movement.