Meeting Ishmael and Boarding the Pequod
The narrator, Ishmael, introduces himself to the reader and declares his desire to sail on a whaling ship, as all is not right with him – he’s a bit “hazy around the eyes.”
He goes to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to find a ship, and stays in an inn that is very full – so full, in fact, that he has to share a room (and a bed) with Queequeg, a harpooner from New Zealand. This begins a relationship that takes on matrimonial terminology to describe its closeness.
Together, the two men find work on the Pequod, a ship decorated ominously with teeth and bones from sperm whales. After negotiating a tiny salary with Bildad and Peleg, the owners of the ship, Ishmael is ready to go.
Meeting Captain Ahab
Captain Ahab does not appear on deck until the cold December of Massachusetts is in the past, and the ship has reached warmer climes in the south. He first appears with his ivory leg, and tells the crew the one purpose of this trip: to chase and kill the sperm whale Moby Dick, who had robbed Ahab of his leg at their last encounter. Ahab nails a golden doubloon to the ship’s mast as a reward for the first crew member to see the whale.
**The Quest for the White Whale
As the voyage progresses, the crew find and try to hunt other whales. Eventually, Ahab’s secret crew, led by the Parsee (Fedallah), whose skills at whale-hunting and prophecy are Ahab’s hope in finding the whale.
As time goes by, and the ship goes around Africa into the Indian Ocean, the crew does catch some whales and starts to take them apart for their oil. Now and then, the Pequod will run into other ships that have seen Moby-Dick, and each time Ahab stops to get information from the captains of the ships.
The first boat that they encounter, the Jeroboam, has an insane prophet named Gabriel foretelling doom for those who pursue the great white whale. The negative prophecies start to find fruit: the harpooner Tashtego falls into a whale’s head while the crew is trying to drain the oil from it. The head falls off and into the ocean, and Queequeg has to dive into the ocean and cut Tashtego out.
The Pequod also encounters the Samuel Enderby, whose captain had lost an arm to Moby-Dick, and is amazed that Ahab would go back for more after having lost a leg to the monster.
Ahab’s Fatal Obsession with Moby-Dick
Not to be deterred, even when threatened with mutiny from Starbuck, Ahab presses on with his goal of finding the whale. He has a new harpoon forged, and he sprinkles the blood of his three harpooners on it. The crew hunt and kill several more whales.
Fedallah makes a prophecy about Ahab’s death, claiming that he will see two hearses, the second of which will be made from American wood, and that a rope made of hemp will kill him. Ahab is pleased, because he believes there are no hearses or hangings at sea. When an electrical storm lights up the entire ship, Ahab believes that he has received a positive omen. However, at the end of the storm, one of the crew falls off the masthead and dies.
The three climactic days of the novel are the three in which the Pequod chases Moby-Dick. Despite the fact that the harpooners strike the whale, he only seems to get stronger. Fedallah gets caught in the harpoon line and is drowned; on the third day, the same fate befalls Captain Ahab himself.
In a rage, Moby Dick charges the Pequod and sinks it. Because Ishmael was thrown off early during the chase on the third day, he is far enough away to avoid the vortex made by the sinking ship. He floats on Queequeg’s unused coffin until the crew of another ship saves him.
Whew… we’re done
Moby Dick is an exciting read and a personal favorite of mine. I hope this summary will assist you in understanding the flow of the novel. It’s definitely not the easiest read out there, though well worth the effort!
This post is part of the series: Study Guide for “Moby-Dick”
This study guide will assist high school and college students with the reading and understanding of Herman Melville’s classic American novel.