A century and a half after its publication, Moby-Dick remains an indisputable literary classic. The story is about an eerily compelling madman waging an unholy war against a creature as vast, dangerous, and unknowable as the ocean itself.
However, Moby-Dick is more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaler lore and legend, it is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with some of literature’s most memorable and enduring characters.
Melville’s nautical epic has inspired many films over the years, including the film adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Ben Whishaw, and Brendan Gleeson.
Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
In this Moby-Dick book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
An ageing sea captain suffers madness and death while hunting his bated enemy, the Great White Whale.
A narrator, Ishmael, begins his story of the Great White Whale, Moby-Dick, with “Call me Ishmael.” He reveals little about himself other than that he is tired of his boring life in Manhattan and seeks adventure at sea.
On a cold and dismal Saturday night in December, with no one around, Ishmael arrives at the Spouted-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on his way to Nantucket, where he hopes to join a whaling boat and go to sea.
He is horrified when the innkeeper says he must share a bed with Queequeg, a “dark complexioned” harpooner from the South Seas who is presently outside somewhere, trying to sell an embalmed human head from New Zealand.
But Ishmael decides that he might be harboring unfair prejudice against the man, and when he meets Queequeg, they quickly become friends. Ishmael finds him an honest, polite, considerate man with a sort of natural nobility about him (“these savages have an innate sense of delicacy”).
Queequeg, to whom Ishmael refers as “the Pagan,” worships a “little negro idol,” eats raw meat like a cannibal, and is not a Christian. His head is shaved, he has large “fiery black and bold” eyes, and his eyebrows are bushy. He is quiet and courteous toward Ishmael and the other men at the inn.
The next morning, when Ishmael goes to the Whalemen’s Chapel for church services, he is surprised to find Queequeg seated near him. Father Mapple delivers a powerful, dramatic sermon about the sins of Jonah and his struggle with the Whale.
The preacher stirs his listeners to reject sin and take up the pursuit of truth against evil and falsehood. He stresses that man’s delight in life and his highest achievement come in acknowledging God above all other things: “if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves.”
Ishmael and Queequeg leave New Bedford for Nantucket, where they hope to find a whaling ship. The differences between Queequeg and the other men are revealed when a foolish young boy, making fun of Queequeg’s strange black and tattoo coloring, accidentally falls into the freezing water. Only Queequeg, the muscular heathen, dives in to save him.
The next day, Ishmael goes out alone and selects the Pequod as the ship on which he and Queequeg will travel. One of the ship’s owners, Captain Peleg, grunts about Ishmael’s lack of experience, but the other owner, Captain Bildad, hires Ishmael for a very small wage. Peleg informs him that the ship’s captain, Ahab, is a strange man who lost his leg to a monstrous whale on his last voyage.
Confined to his cabin due to a strange sickness, the captain has been in a savage mood since his encounter with the whale. Ishmael points out that the biblical Ahab was an evil man, but Peleg says that, in his opinion, Ahab is a good man: “He’s a grand, ungodly, godlike man” who is “kind of moody—desperate moody, and savage sometimes.” When Queequeg arrives to sign up, he is told to produce papers proving that he is a Christian. Ishmael successfully argues that Queequeg belongs to the church of the world (universal catholic church), like everyone else.
As Queequeg and Ishmael leave the ship, they encounter Elijah, a “prophet” who warns them about Captain Ahab, “Old Thunder.” On Christmas Day, a cold gray day, they board the ship, although not before seeing several dark figures scurrying aboard. Soon the Pequod sets sail and Ishmael finds himself surrounded by the mysterious sea.
Starbuck is the chief mate, Stubb the second mate, and Flask the third mate. When the chase for the whale begins, they will navigate the three whaleboats, with Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, respectively, as their harpooners.
At first, Ahab does not make an appearance. But when the ship arrives in warmer, more pleasant waters, Ahab comes out of his cabin and Ishmael sees him for the first time. He shivers at the sight of this awesome captain with a whitish scar on his face and a white peg leg resting on the deck.
Whalers and the whaling industry are described in a chapter called “Cetology” (the science of whales). The sperm whale is the most valuable in commerce, since it provides the oil for lamps, perfumes, and other products. Ishmael also describes the organization of a whaleship, where officers and crew members have their own responsibilities.
The narration shifts from Ishmael to Ahab, who goes into detail about his hatred of the color white; people tend to think of white as being pure and clean, but Ahab points out that sharks, polar bears, and other dangerous animals are also white. He tells the crew that his one purpose for the voyage is to hunt down the evil Great White Whale.
The crew members know this white demon is Moby-Dick, who symbolizes the evil of the whale that deprived Ahab of his leg. The crew willingly vow to help him pursue the white whale. Their prey is no ordinary fish. Moby-Dick is a monstrous sperm whale, with a deformed lower jaw, an unusual snow-white forehead, a white hump, and a terrible temper that drives him to madness when attacked. For Ahab, he represents all evil in the world—and Ahab’s goal, which becomes increasingly desperate, is to rid the entire universe of evil.
Ahab spends hours plotting a course to find Moby-Dick as he carefully studies the charts of the world’s seas. Soon the first sperm whales are sighted and the whaleboats set out. Ishmael discovers that the mysterious figures he saw the first morning of their voyage are East Indians; headed by Fedallah, they make up a special crew to man Ahab’s boat.
The first lowering is exciting, but there is no catch. When Ishmael’s boat capsizes and everyone is saved, the camaraderie often enjoyed by the crew in this dangerous whaling adventure begins to form.
Some of the chases are productive; others are more serious, such as when Little Pip, the young black man, jumps into the sea after being frightened when a harpooned whale thumps the boat.
He is told that if he jumps again, he will be left behind in the sea. When he does jump overboard again, he is left in the sea for hours before the Pequod finally rescues him. After this, he behaves almost like an idiot. Various ships are encountered, but with
Ahab’s single-minded purpose, he takes interest in them only if they have seen the white whale. They travel from the South Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Once the Pequod enters the Japanese Sea, where Moby-Dick is likely to be found, the suspense of the hunt increases dramatically.
Queequeg catches a chill and grows deathly ill while searching for leaks in the oil casks. Certain that he will die, he asks the carpenter to make a coffin shaped like a canoe so that he can sail on the ocean after his death. Despite a terrible typhoon on the Pacific Ocean that strikes the Pequod, they plunge ahead.
Starbuck tries to convince Ahab to give up his mad chase, but Ahab will not be deterred. A calm follows the storm and they meet the Rachel, a ship that has lost one of its whaling boats. Ahab pushes on with his chase after the captain of the Rachel tells him that Moby-Dick dragged one of his boats out of sight the day before. As Ahab and his men close in on Moby-Dick, the pace quickens.
Finally, Ahab sees the Great White Whale. The final chase takes three days. On the first day, Moby-Dick is harpooned, but he ferociously smashes Ahab’s boat. The whalers are saved, but Moby-Dick escapes. On the second day, the giant whale’s sides are gashed by the harpoons of the three whaleboats. Ahab’s boat again capsizes while Stubb’s and Flask’s boats are smashed. Everyone is saved except Fedallah. On the third day, Ahab shoots his harpoon into Moby-Dick, but the whale snaps the rope. Ahab’s whaleboat is the only one left to do battle against Moby-Dick.
The whale crashes into the Pequod, and Ahab regrets that he was not on the ship when this happened. Left alone in his boat, Ahab throws his harpoon into Moby-Dick as the whale passes him to attack the ship again, but the harpoon’s rope catches Ahab around the neck, and Moby-Dick plunges into the depths of the ocean, dragging Ahab with him. The Pequod sinks and Ishmael is the sole survivor.
Queequeg’s coffin/canoe shoots out of the sea. After holding on to it for 24 hours, Ishmael is rescued by the Rachel, retracing the search for its missing crew members.
Captain Ahab: Veteran sea captain, age 58. Rugged, dedicated to evil, committed to the devil. Moody, scheming, determined to kill the whale. Ruined by false pride. His name is reminiscent of the biblical King Ahab who worshiped idols as gods. During Ahab’s last whaling expedition, he lost his leg in a vicious attack by a whale and now desires vengeance. His major flaw is that he believes he can defy fate; he considers himself immortal, godlike, and all-powerful. He wants to capture and kill the Great White Whale, confront the universe, and rid the world of evil. Ahab narrates certain portions of the novel.
Ishmael: Narrator for most of the novel, which begins with his famous sentence, “Call me Ishmael.” His exact age is unknown, but he is apparently young. Once a schoolteacher; becomes a crewman aboard the ship Pequod to escape the recent “hypos” (boredom, depression) of life in Manhattan; no whaling experience. Wants to learn about human life and the world. Sense of humor, enjoys adventure. Discovers the power of spiritual wisdom. Compassionate, thoughtful, orderly, intelligent observer. Ishmael is the lone survivor of the voyage. His name is symbolic: in the Bible, Ishmael is the son of Abraham and Hagar (a slave woman); Abraham’s wife, Sarah, made Abraham abandon Ishmael, who then became a wanderer and outcast. Note the dual meaning: Ishmael roams the seas, but is also a spiritual wanderer.
Queequeg: Harpooner on Starbuck’s whaleboat. Prince of the South Sea island of Kokovoko. Tattoos on arms; reputation as a cannibal. Becomes Ishmael’s friend; symbolizes love and brotherhood. He is a pagan, in contrast to Ishmael’s Christian friends; a “noble savage” figure. Ever since childhood, he has wanted to know “more of Christendom.”
Starbuck: Chief shipmate from Nantucket. Of Quaker descent; age 30. Thin, but strong. Religious, noble, superstitious. Represents the traditional American values of hard work, family, and fitness. Starbuck is the only one to protest Ahab’s revenge.
Stubb: Second mate, native of Cape Cod. Easy-going, good-natured. Fears Ahab.
Little Pip: Ship-keeper; a poor black man. Becomes an idiot who appears more enlightened and closer to God after nearly losing his life at sea. Plays the role of Ahab’s fool.
Fedallah: Old Oriental harpooner who works for Ahab and who has a mysterious, superstitious hold on him. Ghostlike; called a devil in disguise.
Moby-Dick: White whale; the world’s largest creature. Powerful, legendary image of nature. Swims peacefully in the sea until disturbed by humans, then shows terrible fury and anger. For Ahab, Moby-Dick is the symbol of evil. The whale lives in “pyramidical silence.”
Themes and Ideas
1. Search For Truth
The story deals with the human pursuit of truth and the meaning of existence. Melville is not merely writing a story about a whale, but rather is more interested in life’s mysteries: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”
The search for truth parallels the sea voyage with its discovery, sense of adventure, and challenge of one’s values. Melville is not comfortable with the status quo or tradition; he questions the conventional values of religion, social behavior, and morality to discover the truth or falsehood behind them.
For example, Ishmael is nervous that Queequeg might ask him to worship the “little negro idol,” yet instead of rejecting the idea, Ishmael asks himself, “What is worship?” He opens his mind to new answers and tries to understand other people.
The quest begins with Ishmael, but the central focus becomes Ahab, who asks, “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines [i.e., limits].” Ahab is not convinced of God’s existence: “Sometimes I think there’s naught [nothing] beyond.” He questions science, his own existence, and supernatural force, and undertakes the crazed course of ridding the world of evil.
2. Good and Evil
Ahab’s goal is to seek revenge on Moby-Dick and to rid the world of sin. He fails because (a) the scope of his ideals is unrealistic; (b) he lacks faith in a superior being who rules the universe and he fails to understand the necessity of evil in the world as a counterpoint to good; (c) he fears no one, defies the gods, and thinks he is immortal; (d) he is not satisfied with the revenge
he has had to date (i.e., he harpooned Moby-Dick once); (e) he will not listen to anyone in his pursuit of evil; and (f) he fails to see good; he sees only humankind’s general rage and hatred.
3. Friendship and Love
Ishmael’s story begins in the midst of a universe that lacks humanity; he penetrates hostility through friendship with Queequeg and comes to realize the spiritual possibilities of genuine friendship.
There are other relationships on board (Ahab/Pip, Ahab/Starbuck, Ahab/Fedallah), but none reaches the depth of love and friendship that Ishmael feels for Queequeg. Melville uses the language of love to describe the Ishmael/Queequeg bond: In the beginning, they are a “cozy, loving pair” who share a bed, have “serene household joy,” and sleep in the nude (“Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over me”).
Queequeg touches Ishmael “in the most loving and affectionate manner.” Their friendship is free and uninhibited by prejudice: “See how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.” Critics have pointed out the homosexual undertones of this language, but readers will reach their own conclusions about this.
As they set out on the voyage, Ahab is “shut up in the caved trunk of his body.” Melville’s idea is that humans lose their identity at sea, and that “awful lonesomeness is intolerable.” As the ocean voyage leads to further isolation, Ishmael comes closer to understanding humankind and is able to focus on what is most important about life: love, friendship, togetherness (not isolation), and the peaceful coexistence of human beings (not enemies hunting each other, as with Ahab and Moby-Dick).
5. Man vs. Nature
Note the detailed contrast between humans and nature: the vastness of the seas, the terror of the typhoon, the burning sun, and the world of living animals are sharply contrasted to the highly complex human organization on the ship. In both, there is good/evil, productivity/waste, and beauty/horror. Yet Ahab tries to destroy nature in his pursuit of revenge; he is unable to coexist with it. The narrator says the whale is a model for humankind: “rare virtue of a strong individual vitality.”
Ahab becomes mad as the quest for revenge consumes his entire being. His only purpose in life is to pursue evil (i.e., Moby-Dick). Through revenge, Ahab is willing to destroy not only himself, but life around him; indeed, his madness leads the Pequod to destruction. He believes madness comes from the devil: “I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!”
He fools himself by thinking that he alone can accomplish the impossible task of ridding the world of evil; he commits himself to the devil to do so, but in the process becomes a slave to the internal devil of madness. Ahab fails to accept human limitations; by assuming it is possible to impose his concept of “truth” on the world, he considers himself equal to God and commits the fatal sin of pride, and thus dooms himself by trying to control fate.
1. The Great White Whale
Symbolizes the natural evil that puzzles and frustrates humans in their pursuit of good; but because of its whiteness, the whale seems to represent good and purity. It is an elusive figure and is everywhere at the same time.
Whiteness is the symbol of evil in Ahab’s white scar; it represents the enemy—a demon, a nameless terror—all in the white image of Moby-Dick (the whale is compared to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air”).
Melville finds symbolism in everything (“Some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are of little worth”); he uses symbols to represent “unseen” ideas, emotions, and objects.
For Ahab, the whale is a symbol of that which cannot be captured or conquered by humans (e.g., evil, injustice). He sees whiteness as a symbol of evil (“the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity [God],” a sort of “colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink”).
Melville sets a religious tone in the beginning of the novel with Father Mapple’s pulpit: “What could be more full of meaning? … the pulpit leads the world.” He uses the pulpit as a symbol of God’s Word and of the spiritual message that underlies the novel; it is a symbol of civilized religion as practiced on land, in contrast with the spiritual, mystical religion as experienced on the seas (no churches, pews, or pulpits—only a direct contact with God). Melville has serious doubts about orthodox religion but sees great value in the natural, spontaneous celebration of God.
3. Voyage of The Pequod
Symbolizes the pursuit of ideals, adventure, and the hunt in the vast wilderness.
A pure gold coin nailed into the mainmast of the Pequod. Ahab offers it to the first man to locate the white whale. Beyond its monetary value, the doubloon comes to symbolize the wonders of the world, wisdom, the lure of evil, and enticements to greed.
Intended for Queequeg’s burial, but ironically serves as Ishmael’s life buoy. Symbol of life and resurrection for Ishmael.
Represents vastness, loneliness, and isolation.
1. The Artistic and Cinematic Writing Style
Melville’s writing style in Moby Dick is artistic and cinematic. He employs vivid and stunning descriptions that make the story come to life. From the majestic image of the white whale to the musings of Captain Ahab, the writing style is simply magnificent. For instance, the scene where Starbuck ponders murderous thoughts while holding a musket is cinematic and thrilling. The book is full of such moments, making it a joy to read.
2. The Exploration of Narrative Forms
Melville experiments with various narrative forms in Moby Dick, and it’s a treat to experience. From chapters written as scenes in a play to script-like musicals, the book is a treasure trove of literary devices. It makes for a unique and engaging reading experience that is unlike anything else out there.
3. The Metaphorical Layers
Moby Dick is a book that’s full of metaphors. Everything on board the ship serves as a metaphor for something else, making it a multi-layered work. Melville doesn’t shy away from exploring the deeper meanings of things, and the result is a book that’s both thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating.
1. A Disappointing Multimedia Experience
Unfortunately, the promise of a fantastic multimedia experience fell short when the link to the audiobook failed to work. The site hosting the audiobook seemed to be unavailable, which was quite frustrating. The saving grace is the searchable table of contents, allowing readers to quickly navigate to any chapter they wish.
However, the fantastic early 20th century illustrations from a renowned American artist are lost in the digital format, making it tempting to seek out a physical copy of this edition for a more visually pleasing experience.
2. A Drifting Narrative
While Moby Dick is undoubtedly a beautifully written book, the narrative can be frustratingly slow at times. The story is prone to wandering off course, often diving into superfluous details about other whale hunts and historical events that can easily be Googled today. These interruptions to the story’s main action can make it a slog to get through, despite its status as a classic historical novel.
3. A Needlessly Lengthy Classic
Moby Dick has been hailed as the great American novel, but its length and convoluted narrative structure make it a difficult read for many. Although the book’s archaic language, subject matter, and themes may be appreciated by some, many contemporary readers may find it challenging to get through the text.
Moreover, the story seems to be much longer than necessary, with many historical reviews pointing out that the book could have been significantly shorter without sacrificing its core story. While Moby Dick remains an important work of literature, its length and complexity may leave some readers wishing for a more concise, accessible version of the tale.
Moby Dick is a masterful tale that requires patience and persistence to fully appreciate its intricacies. While it may be a challenging read for some, Melville’s deliberate pacing and detailed descriptions serve to build anticipation and immerse the reader in the world of whaling. By interspersing moments of excitement and action with informative passages about whales, ships, and the lives of the men aboard, Melville ensures that readers are fully equipped to understand the complexities of the climactic battle.
Indeed, the book’s structure mirrors that of a whaling journey itself, with periods of intense action followed by stretches of time dedicated to learning and reflection. Through this journey, readers are granted a unique opportunity to delve into a realm that would otherwise remain inaccessible to them.
Despite its initial hurdles, Moby Dick ultimately rewards those who persevere, offering a rich and deeply engaging literary experience that goes beyond the mere telling of a story. It is an exploration of the human spirit and the natural world, and a testament to the power of literature to transport readers to a time and place they may never have imagined.
Herman Melville (1819–91) was born in New York City. His adventures aboard a merchant ship and with whalers in the South Sea Islands led to his writing of popular sea romances: Typee (1846), White Jacket (1850), and his major novel., Moby-Dick.
Considered to be his greatest work and widely regarded as the Great American Novel, Moby-Dick was, however, a critical and commercial failure when published; its symbolism puzzled readers accustomed to the Romantic and Realistic writing of the period. From this point forward, Melville wrote in obscurity.
He wrote Civil War poems Battle Pieces (1866), short stories, and Billy Budd. His later years were spent as a customs inspector in New York City.
Melville is seen as a moralist whose novels depict the struggle between good and evil and who shows rebels protesting against injustice and authority.
Buy The Book: Moby-Dick
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