Moby Dick
Herman Melville

by

Karim Chandra

Plot Summary
Summary

Moby Dick or The Whale is a novel by American writer Herman Melville written in 1851. The Great American Novel is a sailor Ishmael’s narrative of an obsessive ship captain, Ahab, who seeks his revenge from a monstrous white whale for biting off his leg in an earlier hunting expedition.

Ishmael, the narrator, expresses his desire to ship aboard a whaling vessel. As a sailor, he has undertaken countless voyages, but this time, he wants to make it as a whaler. He heads to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he puts up in a whalers’ inn. The place is already full and Ishmael has to share a bed with a harpooner Queequeg from the South Pacific. Ishmael does not likes Queequeg’s strange habits and shocking appearance — Queequeg whole body is covered with tattoos. But gradually he starts appreciating the man’s generosity and kind spirit. The duo decides to work together on a whaling vessel and start looking for work. They go to Nantucket, the traditional capital of the whaling industry. There, they are lucky to get berths on a huge ship, Pequod, which is adorned with the bones and teeth of sperm whales. The Pequod’s Quaker owners, Peleg and Bildad, bargain hard in terms of salary. They tell Ishmael and Queequeg about the ship’s mysterious captain, Ahab, who is still coming to terms after losing his leg in an encounter with a sperm whale on his last voyage. Pequod leaves Nantucket on a Christmas Day with the crew members of different nationalities and races on board. As the ship enters warmer waters, Ahab makes his first appearance on the deck, standing gingerly on his false leg made from a sperm whale’s jaw. He expresses his desire to pursue and kill Moby Dick, the legendary white whale who bit off his leg. This giant creature is an embodiment of evil in Ahab’s eye. He nails a gold doubloon to the mast and announces that it will be the prize for the first man who sees the whale. Pequod heads toward the south of Africa where many whales are sighted but their hunt turns out to be unsuccessful. A mysterious group of men, none of whom anyone on the ship has seen before on the voyage, emerges from the hold. The group is led by an exotic-looking man called Fedallah. They are Ahab’s private harpoon crew, infiltrated aboard without the knowledge of owners Bildad and Peleg. Ahab thinks that their hunting skills and Fedallah’s prophetic abilities can help him in killing the Moby Dick. Pequod circles around Africa and enters the Indian Ocean. Soon, a few whales are caught and processed for their oil. On the voyage, the ship encounters many other whaling vessels. Ahab is always on a lookout for information on Moby Dick from other captains. One of the ships, Jeroboam, has Gabriel, a crazy prophet who predicts doom for anyone who threatens to kill Moby Dick. His prophecy seems to carry some weight, as those aboard his ship who have hunted the whale have met their doom. In a bid to extract oil from the head of a captured sperm whale, one of the Pequod’s harpooners, Tashtego, falls into a whale’s head, which then falls off the ship and starts pulling it down. Queequeg rescues Tashtego by jumping into the ocean and bringing him out of the sinking head. In another hunting expedition, Pip, the Pequod’s black cabin boy, jumps from a whaleboat and is left behind in the middle of the ocean. He goes insane as a result of this harrowing experience and becomes a crazy but prophetic jester for the ship. Pequod meets Samuel Enderby, a whaling ship whose skipper, Captain Boomer, has lost an arm in an encounter with the Moby Dick. The two captains discuss the whale; Boomer is happy simply to have survived that encounter. He is unable to understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance. Later, Queequeg falls ill and asks the ship’s carpenter to make him a coffin in anticipation of his death. He, however, recovers and the coffin eventually becomes the Pequod’s replacement life buoy. Ahab in anticipation of an encounter with Moby Dick soon orders to forge a harpoon. He baptises the harpoon with the blood of Pequod’s three harpooners. Pequod, meanwhile, hunts several more whales. Fedallah makes a prophecy about Ahab’s death and declares that the captain will first see two hearses, the second of which will be made only from American wood. He also predicts that the captain will be killed by a hemp rope. Ahab comes to believe that he will not die at sea as there are no hearses and no hangings in the sea. A typhoon hits Pequod, illuminating it with electrical fire. Ahab takes it as a sign of imminent encounter and success, but, Starbuck takes it as a bad omen. He also considers killing Ahab to end the mad quest. After the storm passes by, one of the sailors falls from the ship’s masthead and drowns — indicating a grim future that lies ahead. Unaffected, Ahab is fuelled by a burning desire to kill Moby Dick, and his desire continues to intensify, even as mad Pip is his constant companion. Pequod inches toward the equator where Ahab expects to find the great whale. The ship encounters two more whaling vessels, the Rachel and the Delight, both of which have recently had fatal encounters with the whale. Ahab finally sights Moby Dick and launches the harpoon boats immediately, but the leviathan destroys them completely. The next day, Moby Dick is sighted again, and the boats are lowered again. The crew is successful in harpooning the whale but Moby Dick attacks Ahab’s boat again. Fedallah, trapped in the harpoon line, is dragged overboard to his death. In the encounter between Ahab and the angry whale, Starbuck maneuvers Pequod to safety. The chase continues on the third day, but an unrelenting Moby Dick charges at the boats. The crew members can see Fedallah’s corpse tangled to the whale’s body by a harpoon line. Moby Dick hits Pequod with full force and sinks it. Ahab is trapped in a harpoon line and thrown out of his boat to his death. The remaining boats and crew members are caught in the whirlpool formed by the sinking Pequod, and meet their doom. Ishmael was lucky to be thrown out of his boat and far away from the action to escape unhurt. He floats atop Queequeg’s coffin and is the lone survivor. Rachel, which is still looking for the crewmen lost in her earlier encounter with Moby Dick, comes to his rescue next day.

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