The Two Primary Characters in Moby-Dick
The narrator of the book is also a possible Everyman. He does almost nothing important in the book – except to survive the sinking of the Pequod. His job is to describe everything around him – in particular, the conflicts. One of Ishmael’s more interesting traits is his notion that the sperm whale possesses ethereal characteristics and deserves worship. His relationship with Queequeg, the harpooner, is the only relationship in the novel, and it is an odd one, at best – their relationship is portrayed, at times, the same way that a nuptial bond is.
The name Ishmael could be seen as an allusion to the character from the Old Testament. Abraham, the patriarch of the Hebrew nation, receives a prophecy from God that he will be the father of a mighty nation. However, his wife does not become pregnant. After several years, Abraham fathers a baby with his wife’s servant, and the baby is named Ishmael. When Abraham’s wife later has a son, Ishmael and his mother are driven out of their household. While Ishmael also becomes the father of a great people, he lives a life of exile from the very beginning. Ishmael, the narrator, feels this way when he goes to sea – he calls himself “hazy about the eyes,” referring to a general discontent.
Like Ishmael, Ahab shares a name with an Old Testament character – in this case, the character is an idolatrous king who receives destruction from God. Captain Ahab lost his leg to the great white whale, Moby-Dick, which is why Ahab has one leg made of ivory. Ahab is almost a flat character in many ways – we only see him as an intimidating leader with one drive, the killing of the whale. He appears in Stubb’s dreams; he appears to lack normal appetites; conventional emotions do not affect him. He declares himself a god, mirroring the idolatry of his Old Testament namesake.
He also receives destruction at the hands of his obsession, being tangled up and drowned in the harpoon lines attached to the great white whale.
Other Characters Chasing the Whale
Captain Ahab’s chief mate’s primary physical attribute is his thinness. While Melville believed in the human capacity for evil and error, Starbuck is more conflicted – he knows that mankind is flawed, but he also believes that people can overcome their flaws. Starbuck is the only crew member who stands up to Captain Ahab, calling the chase of the whale foolish – a conflict that is only resolved when Ahab menaces Starbuck with his musket.
Starbuck is the vehicle for expressing the way Melville thought his audience would respond to the book – most people know that we are flawed, but most people also believe that we can overcome our flaws. Starbuck ultimately gives in and helps his captain – most people do not rise up against their authority but, ultimately, believe in its goodness.
Queequeg – This is the harpooner whom Ishmael meets on his way to finding a berth on a whaler. The two of them have to share a bed at an inn, and throughout the novel their relationship has terminology normally associated with a nuptial relationship. Queequeg shows that even the “uncivilized” (he is a primitive from New Zealand) can show just as much class and courage as the most educated of us all.
Stubb – the second mate on the ship. His response to Captain Ahab’s bluster is an exterior of humor, even if he has misgivings inside. His manner makes his men listen to him without feeling like they’re being bossed around.
Pippin – He becomes frightened on the way down to chase a whale and jumps out of his boat. Stubb saves him once but tells him he won’t do it again. The fact that others would let him die drives him insane, and Ahab uncharacteristically pities Pippin and lets him use his cabin.
Fedallah (the Parsee) – this is one of the members of Ahab’s special whaling team. His dreams of hearses turn out to prophesy his own end and that of Ahab.
Father Mapple – a famous former harpooner who is now a priest. He gives a sermon on Jonah before Ishmael leaves on the ship.
There are numerous other characters, but these are the ones with the most thematic significance. Who’s your favorite character in the novel?
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.