On Melville’s birthday today I remembered his most revered work, Moby Dick. This story reminds us not to be egotistical maniac like Captain Ahab, who for his personal revenge destroys his voyage along with all its people. The story reminds us to sing; and one cannot sing if one is seeking revenge.
Shiv, don’t use a harpoon to destroy an enemy that your revenge has created (“Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”); that harpoon will drown you in the end. The purpose of life is to sing, and singing begins where ego ends.
Following is the plot and characters. For more see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby-Dick
“Call me Ishmael,” Moby-Dick begins, in one of the most recognizable opening lines in English-language literature. The narrator, an observant young man setting out from Manhattan, has experience in the merchant marine but has recently decided his next voyage will be on a whaling ship. On a cold, gloomy night in December, he arrives at the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and agrees to share a bed with a then-absent stranger. When his bunk mate, a heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner named Queequeg, returns very late and discovers Ishmael beneath his covers, both men are alarmed, but the two quickly become close friends and decide to sail together from Nantucket, Massachusetts on a whaling voyage.
In Nantucket, the pair signs on with the Pequod, a whaling ship that is soon to leave port. The ship’s captain, Ahab, is nowhere to be seen; nevertheless, they are told of him — a “grand, ungodly, godlike man,” who has “been in colleges as well as ‘mong the cannibals,” according to one of the owners. The two friends encounter a mysterious man named Elijah on the dock after they sign their papers and he hints at troubles to come with Ahab. The mystery grows on Christmas morning when Ishmael spots dark figures in the mist, apparently boarding the Pequod shortly before it sets sail that day.
The ship’s officers direct the early voyage while Ahab stays in his cabin. The chief mate is Starbuck, a serious, sincere Quaker and fine leader; second mate is Stubb, happy-go-lucky and cheerful and always smoking his pipe; the third mate is Flask, short and stout but thoroughly reliable. Each mate is responsible for a whaling boat, and each whaling boat of the Pequod has its own pagan harpooneer assigned to it. Some time after sailing, Ahab finally appears on the quarter-deck one morning, an imposing, frightening figure whose haunted visage sends shivers over the narrator.
“ He looked like 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… Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. ”
One of his legs is missing from the knee down and has been replaced by a prosthesis fashioned from a sperm whale’s jawbone.
Soon gathering the crewmen together, with a rousing speech Ahab secures their support for his single, secret purpose for this voyage: hunting down and killing Moby Dick, an old, very large sperm whale, with a snow-white hump and mottled skin, that crippled Ahab on his last whaling voyage. Only Starbuck shows any sign of resistance to the charismatic but monomaniacal captain. The first mate argues repeatedly that the ship’s purpose should be to hunt whales for their oil, with luck returning home profitably, safely, and quickly, but not to seek out and kill Moby Dick in particular — and especially not for revenge. Eventually even Starbuck acquiesces to Ahab’s will, though harboring misgivings.
The mystery of the dark figures seen before the Pequod set sail is explained during the voyage’s first lowering for whales. Ahab has secretly brought along his own boat crew, including a mysterious harpooneer named Fedallah (also referred to as ‘the Parsee’), an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab. Later, while watching one night over a captured whale carcass, Fedallah gives dark prophecies to Ahab regarding their twin deaths.
The novel describes numerous “gams,” social meetings of two ships on the open sea. Crews normally visit each other during a gam, captains on one vessel and chief mates on the other. Mail may be exchanged and the men talk of whale sightings or other news. For Ahab, however, there is but one relevant question to ask of another ship: “Hast seen the White Whale?” After meeting several other whaling ships, which have their own peculiar stories, the Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean. Queequeg becomes deathly ill and requests that a coffin be built for him by the ship’s carpenter. Just as everyone has given up hope, Queequeg changes his mind, deciding to live after all, and recovers quickly. His coffin becomes his sea chest, and is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod’s life buoy.
Soon word is heard from other whalers of Moby Dick. The jolly Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby has lost an arm to the whale, and is stunned at Ahab’s burning need for revenge. Next they meet the Rachel, which has seen Moby Dick very recently. As a result of the encounter, one of its boats is missing; the captain’s youngest son had been aboard. The Rachel’s captain begs Ahab to aid in the search for the missing boat, but Ahab is resolute; the Pequod is very near the White Whale now and will not stop to help. Finally the Delight is met, even as its captain buries a sailor who had been killed by Moby Dick. Starbuck begs Ahab one final time to reconsider his thirst for vengeance, but to no avail.
The next day, the Pequod meets Moby Dick. For two days, the Pequod’s crew pursues the whale, which wreaks widespread destruction, including the disappearance of Fedallah. On the third day, Moby Dick rises up to reveal Fedallah tied to him by harpoon ropes, clearly dead. Even after the initial battle on the third day, as Moby Dick swims away from the Pequod, Starbuck exhorts Ahab one last time to desist, observing that “Moby-Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”
Ahab ignores this voice of reason and continues with his ill-fated chase. As the three boats sail out to hunt him, Moby Dick damages two of them, forcing them to go back to the ship and leaving only Ahab’s vessel intact. Ahab harpoons the whale, but the harpoon-line breaks. Moby Dick then rams the Pequod itself, which begins to sink. As Ahab harpoons the whale again, the unfolding harpoon-line catches him around his neck and he is dragged into the depths of the sea by the diving Moby Dick. The boat is caught up in the whirlpool of the sinking ship, which takes almost all the crew to their deaths. Only Ishmael survives, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin-turned-life buoy for an entire day and night before the Rachel rescues him.
The crew-members of the Pequod are carefully drawn stylizations of human types and habits; critics have often described the crew as a “self-enclosed universe”.
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. Maintaining the Biblical connection and emphasising the representation of outcasts, Ishmael is also the son of Abraham and the slave girl Hagar, before Isaac is born. In Genesis 21:10 Abraham’s wife, Sarah, has Hagar and Ishmael exiled into the desert. 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.
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:
Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any,” he said quickly. “No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any — good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”
Later in the conversation, Elijah adds:
Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it’s all fixed and arranged a’ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity ’em! Morning to ye, shipmates, morning; the ineffable heavens bless ye; I’m sorry I stopped ye.
Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the whale that maimed him on the previous whaling voyage. Although he is a Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion’s well-known pacifism. Ahab’s name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 16:28).
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 last harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:
… to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.
The harpoon becomes lodged in Moby Dick’s flesh and Ahab, caught around the neck by a loop 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 mechanics of Ahab’s death are richly symbolic. He is killed by his own harpoon, and symbolically killed by his own obsession with revenge. 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 Shakespeare’s own pentameters.
Ahab’s motivation for hunting Moby Dick is perhaps best summed up in the following passage:
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. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;
Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; 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; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
He is a giant, albino sperm whale and the main antagonist of the novel. He had bitten off Ahab’s leg, and Ahab swore revenge. The cetacean also attacked the Rachel and killed the captain’s son. Although the novel is named for him, he only appears at the end of it and kills the entire crew with the exception of Ishmael. As he is a whale, the reader does not have access to Moby Dick’s thoughts and motivations, but he is still an integral part of the novel. Moby Dick is sometimes considered to be a symbol of a number of things, among them God, nature, fate, the ocean, and the very universe itself.
The three mates of the Pequod are all from New England.
Starbuck, the young first mate of the Pequod, is a thoughtful and intellectual Quaker from Nantucket.
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.
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 kept by Ahab (in a previous chapter Ahab threatens Starbuck with one when Starbuck disobeys him, despite Starbuck’s 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, not for any affinity for coffee but after the name Pequod was rejected by one of the co-founders.
Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, is from Cape Cod, and 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) Although he is not an educated man, Stubb is remarkably articulate, and during whale hunts keeps up an imaginative patter reminiscent of that of some characters in Shakespeare. Scholarly portrayals range from that of an optimistic simpleton to a paragon of lived philosophic wisdom.
Flask is the third mate of the Pequod. He is from Martha’s Vineyard.
King Post is his nickname because he is 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.
The harpooneers of the Pequod are all non-Christians from various parts of the world. Each serves on a mate’s boat.
Queequeg hails from the fictional island of Kokovoko 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 boots 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 harpooneer 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.
Tashtego is described as a Gay Head (Wampanoag) Native American harpooneer. The personification of the hunter, he turns from hunting land animals to hunting whales. Tashtego is the harpooneer on Stubb’s boat.
Next was Tashtego, an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring island of Nantucket with many of her most daring harpooneers. In the fishery, they usually go by the generic name of Gay-Headers.
Daggoo is a gigantic (6’5″) African harpooneer from a coastal village with a noble bearing and grace. He is the harpooneer on Flask’s boat.
Fedallah is the harpooneer on Ahab’s boat. He is of Persian Zoroastrian (“Parsi”) descent. Because of descriptions of him having lived in China, he might have been among the great wave of Parsi traders who made their way to Hong Kong and the Far East from India during the mid-19th century. At the time when the Pequod sets sail, Fedallah is hidden on board, and he emerges with Ahab’s boat’s crew later on, to the surprise of the crew. Fedallah is referred to in the text as Ahab’s “Dark Shadow.” Ishmael calls him a “fire worshipper” and the crew speculates that he is a devil in man’s disguise. He is the source of a variety of prophecies regarding Ahab and his hunt for Moby Dick. Ishmael describes him thus, standing by Ahab’s boat:
The figure that now stood by its bows was tall 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.
Other notable charactersPip (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 aboard the ship 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 foreshadowing, 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 (Perth), and Carpenter of the ship are each highlighted in at least one chapter near the end of the book. Fleece, a very old, half-deaf African-American with bad knees, is presented in the chapter “Stubb’s Supper” 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. Ahab calls on the Carpenter to fashion a new whalebone leg after the one he wears is damaged; later he has Perth forge a special harpoon that he carries into the final confrontation with Moby-Dick.
The crew as a whole is exceedingly international, having constituents from both the United States and rest of the world. 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, the Netherlands, the Azores, Sicily and Malta, China, Denmark, Portugal, India, England, Spain, and Ireland.