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Ishmael, the narrator, announces his
intent to ship aboard a whaling vessel. He has made several voyages
as a sailor but none as a whaler. He travels to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where
he stays in a whalers’ inn. Since the inn is rather full, he has
to share a bed with a harpooner from the South Pacific named Queequeg.
At first repulsed by Queequeg’s strange habits and shocking appearance
(Queequeg is covered with tattoos), Ishmael eventually comes to
appreciate the man’s generosity and kind spirit, and the two decide
to seek work on a whaling vessel together. They take a ferry to
Nantucket, the traditional capital of the whaling industry. There
they secure berths on the Pequod, a savage-looking
ship adorned with the bones and teeth of sperm whales. Peleg and
Bildad, the Pequod’s Quaker owners, drive a hard
bargain in terms of salary. They also mention the ship’s mysterious
captain, Ahab, who is still recovering from losing his leg in an
encounter with a sperm whale on his last voyage.
The Pequod leaves Nantucket on a cold
Christmas Day with a crew made up of men from many different countries
and races. Soon the ship is in warmer waters, and Ahab makes his
first appearance on deck, balancing gingerly on his false leg, which
is made from a sperm whale’s jaw. He announces his desire to pursue
and kill Moby Dick, the legendary great white whale who took his
leg, because he sees this whale as the embodiment of evil. Ahab
nails a gold doubloon to the mast and declares that it will be the
prize for the first man to sight the whale. As the Pequod sails
toward the southern tip of Africa, whales are sighted and unsuccessfully
hunted. During the hunt, a group of men, none of whom anyone on
the ship’s crew has seen before on the voyage, emerges from the
hold. The men’s leader is an exotic-looking man named Fedallah.
These men constitute Ahab’s private harpoon crew, smuggled aboard
in defiance of Bildad and Peleg. Ahab hopes that their skills and
Fedallah’s prophetic abilities will help him in his hunt for Moby
The Pequod rounds Africa and enters the
Indian Ocean. A few whales are successfully caught and processed
for their oil. From time to time, the ship encounters other whaling
vessels. Ahab always demands information about Moby Dick from their
captains. One of the ships, the Jeroboam, carries
Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom for anyone who threatens
Moby Dick. His predictions seem to carry some weight, as those aboard
his ship who have hunted the whale have met disaster. While
trying to drain the oil from the head of a captured sperm whale,
Tashtego, one of the Pequod’s harpooners, falls
into the whale’s voluminous head, which then rips free of the ship
and begins to sink. Queequeg saves Tashtego by diving into the ocean
and cutting into the slowly sinking head.
During another whale hunt, 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 the result of the experience
and becomes a crazy but prophetic jester for the ship. Soon after,
the Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby, a
whaling ship whose skipper, Captain Boomer, has lost an arm in an
encounter with Moby Dick. The two captains discuss the whale; Boomer,
happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s
lust for vengeance. Not long after, Queequeg falls ill and has the
ship’s carpenter make him a coffin in anticipation of his death.
He recovers, however, and the coffin eventually becomes the Pequod’s
replacement life buoy.
Ahab orders a harpoon forged in the expectation that he
will soon encounter Moby Dick. He baptizes the harpoon with the blood
of the Pequod’s three harpooners. The Pequod kills
several more whales. Issuing a prophecy about Ahab’s death, Fedallah declares
that Ahab will first see two hearses, the second of which will be
made only from American wood, and that he will be killed by hemp
rope. Ahab interprets these words to mean that he will not die at
sea, where there are no hearses and no hangings. A typhoon hits the Pequod, illuminating
it with electrical fire. Ahab takes this occurrence as a sign of
imminent confrontation and success, but Starbuck, the ship’s first
mate, takes it as a bad omen and considers killing Ahab to end the
mad quest. After the storm ends, one of the sailors falls from the
ship’s masthead and drowns—a grim foreshadowing of what lies ahead.
Ahab’s fervent desire to find and destroy Moby Dick continues
to intensify, and the mad Pip is now his constant companion. The Pequod approaches
the equator, where Ahab expects to find the great whale. The ship
encounters two more whaling ships, the Rachel and
the Delight, both of which have recently had fatal encounters
with the whale. Ahab finally sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats
are launched, and Moby Dick attacks Ahab’s harpoon boat, destroying
it. The next day, Moby Dick is sighted again, and the boats are
lowered once more. The whale is harpooned, but Moby Dick again attacks
Ahab’s boat. Fedallah, trapped in the harpoon line, is dragged overboard
to his death. Starbuck must maneuver the Pequod between
Ahab and the angry whale.
On the third day, the boats are once again sent after
Moby Dick, who once again attacks them. The men can see Fedallah’s
corpse lashed to the whale by the harpoon line. Moby Dick rams the Pequod and
sinks it. Ahab is then caught in a harpoon line and hurled out of
his harpoon boat to his death. All of the remaining whaleboats and
men are caught in the vortex created by the sinking Pequod and
pulled under to their deaths. Ishmael, who was thrown from a boat
at the beginning of the chase, was far enough away to escape the
whirlpool, and he alone survives. He floats atop Queequeg’s coffin,
which popped back up from the wreck, until he is picked up by the Rachel, which
is still searching for the crewmen lost in her earlier encounter
with Moby Dick.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!