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Definition: Moby-Dick from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Novel by US writer Herman Melville, published in 1851. Its story of the conflict between the monomaniac Captain Ahab and the great white whale explores the mystery and the destructiveness of both man and nature's power.

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Melville, Herman Moby Dick


Summary Article: Moby-Dick: or, The Whale from The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

A novel by Herman Melville, published in New York and London in 1851. The British title was The Whale.

The highly complex story begins with the narrator Ishmael's decision to go to sea. On his way to Nantucket he meets and befriends Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Sea Islands who is the image of the noble savage - a ‘George Washington cannibalistically developed’. The two friends sign aboard the whaler Pequod, named after the first Indian tribe exterminated by white Americans. Before they set sail, a man named Elijah delivers mysterious warnings about a disastrous voyage and Father Mapple delivers a symbolic sermon about the prophet Jonah who was swallowed by a whale.

The Pequod's mysterious Captain Ahab appears after several days at sea. He reveals to the crew the purpose (as he conceives it) of the voyage: to hunt and kill the white sperm whale, known among whalers as Moby-Dick, which took off his leg on a previous voyage. Ahab's eloquence convinces the crew to pledge themselves to his monomaniacal plan for vengeance. Only Starbuck, the first mate, demurs, feeling that Ahab's mission is a sacrilege and a threat to the financial investment the ship's owners have made. Stubb, the second mate, and Flask, the third, are easily drawn into Ahab's plan. The crew, castoffs and refugees of all races and lands, is a microcosm of humanity. The harpooners are Queequeg, Tashtego (a Gay Head Indian) and Daggoo (an African). On the first encounter with whales, they find that Ahab has kept hidden his own boat's crew, which is led by Fedallah, a Parsee and fortune-teller.

The narrative is sometimes naturalistic, sometimes fantastic and shaped into obscure parables. Large sections dwell upon the science of whales or upon the intricacies of the whaling business and its history. Amid the often turbulent complexity of the narrative form, the dramatic events unfold slowly. As the men of the Pequod sail the open sea in search of a single whale, they still occupy themselves with the regular business of whale hunting. Occasional chases after whales, storms, or meetings with other ships punctuate the long voyage. The crew captures and processes a sperm whale; Pip, a young black cabin boy, becomes caught in a harpoon line and is nearly drowned, whereupon he becomes insane; the Pequod nearly founders when Ishmael drowses at the helm; a meeting with the British whaler, the Samuel Enderby, provides Ahab with news that Moby-Dick has been sighted recently; and Queequeg has a coffin made when he nearly dies of fever.

When a lightning storm sets the mastheads ablaze with St Elmo's fire, Ahab delivers a speech to his crew that confirms his mad devotion to the quest; the crew is panic-stricken and Starbuck warns Ahab that God is against him. These ominous events lead up to the eventual sighting of Moby-Dick and the three-day chase with which the novel culminates. On the first day the great whale crushes one of the boats and nearly kills Fedallah. On the second day it drags Fedallah down in Ahab's harpoon line, and Ahab's artificial leg is snapped off as the whaleboat is wrecked. Finally, on the third day, a stricken Moby-Dick charges the Pequod and smashes her sides. Ahab, in the whaling boat, manages to strike a final blow but is himself caught in the harpoon line and drowned, tied to the whale. The Pequod sinks, taking all of the whaling boats and their crews down in the suction. The only survivor is Ishmael, who is shot back up, clinging to the coffin that had been made for Queequeg.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, © Cambridge University Press 2000

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