Moby Dick Summary and Analysis
Chapter One: Loomings:
The novel begins with the famous statement by the book's narrator: "Call me Ishmael." He has the habit of going to sea whenever he begins to grow "hazy about the eyes." He goes to sea as a laborer, not as a Commodore, a Captain or a Cook, but as a simple sailor. He does so because he may be paid and because it affords him wholesome exercise and pure sea air.
The novel Moby Dick is one of the most ambitious in American literature, one which encompasses several genres and styles of writing. It is a travelogue, a character study and an allegory. Linking each of the episodes of the novel and bridging these various genres is the character Ishmael, the narrator of the novel and the lens from which the reader views the action of Melville's work. The first chapter establishes Ishmael as a prototype, a working man and observer who claims no defining characters; his simplicity is a key to the novel, for it places Ishmael as an everyman whose character is subordinate to the other characters and occurrences of the novel. The name Ishmael, however, imbues the novel with religious undertones that will prevail through the course of Moby Dick.
Chapter Two: The Carpet-Bag:
Ishmael arrives in New Bedford on his way to Nantucket to embark on a whaling voyage. He passes by several inns, including the "Sword-Fish Inn," "The Crossed Harpoons" and "The Trap" before reaching "The Spouter Inn," where he chooses to rest that night.
The religious undertones of Moby Dick continue through this second chapter, in which Ishmael travels from inn to inn, searching for an appropriate place to stay for the night. This is a subtle reference that parallels the travels of Mary and Joseph, as Ishmael finally finds a place where he may stay, in equally questionable accommodations.
Chapter Three: The Spouter Inn:
The Spouter Inn reminds Ishmael of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. There is a long, limber portentous, black mass of something hovering in the center of a picture of a painting there; it bears a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish, but in fact represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane. On the opposite wall is an array of monstrous clubs and spears. The innkeeper tells Ishmael that he must sleep two in a bed, which he dislikes and will do so only if the innkeeper has no other place for him. The innkeeper tells Ishmael about the ship harpooner, a "dark-complexioned" man with whom Ishmael will share a bed. Ishmael suggests that he will sleep on a bench instead, but it is too uncomfortable and he must sleep in a bed. Ishmael goes into the harpooner's room, where there are fishhooks and harpoons. The harpooner, who is from New Zealand, appears dangerous. The harpooner, Queequeg, undresses to show his tattooed chest and arms, and has a tomahawk with him. Ishmael gets in bed with him only after the landlord makes him stash his tomahawk away. Ishmael never slept better in his life.
Even long before Ishmael begins his whaling voyage, Melville creates a portentous atmosphere that foreshadows great tragedy and hardship. Even the name of the innkeeper, Peter Coffin, is a reminder of death. The painting in the Spouter Inn emphasizes the possible dangers of the sea, while the décor of the Spouter is intensely violent imagery that suggests pain and hardship. The painting in the Spouter Inn is of particular significance; it shows a picture that could either be a ship or a gigantic fish, thus blurring the lines between the two different entities. This suggests that the difference between the whaling ship and the titular character of the novel, the great whale, are in some sense one and the same.
The character Queequeg lends himself to several different symbolic interpretations. As an aborigine from New Zealand, Queequeg represents the uncivilized and the foreign. His particular heritage is relatively unimportant to the novel; it is more important to note that he represents the 'other,' a person from a different heritage from the conventional American society which Ishmael may in some sense represent. Yet despite Queequeg's background, he proves himself to be more 'civilized' and refined than originally suggested; his reputation as a savage stems primarily from the tales of the innkeeper and not from any direct behavior.
Chapter Four: The Counterpane:
Ishmael awakes to find Queequeg's arm thrown over him in an affectionate manner. Ishmael finally awakens Queequeg, who dresses by first putting on his hat and his boots. Queequeg is a creature in a transition state, "neither caterpillar nor butterfly . . . just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner." Queequeg washes himself, but only his chest and arms and not his face.
Melville portrays the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael as a perverse romance, placing the two men in bed together and even sleeping with one another in an affectionate manner. The intent of this is not to serious suggest homoeroticism, but rather to demonstrate that the patterns of behavior demonstrated by Queequeg are unconventional, as when he dresses himself by first putting on his boots. The comparison of Queequeg to a creature in the state of metamorphosis is apt, showing him to be a person in the state of transition, neither entirely part of a savage world nor fully accepted and integrated into civilized society.
Chapter Five: Breakfast:
Ishmael goes to the bar-room, which is now full of boarders who are nearly all whalemen. There are some men who appear more at ease in manner because of their travels, although Ledyard and Mungo Park, the great New England and Scotch travelers, respectively, possess the least assurance of the group. Queequeg sits at the head of the table, having brought his harpoon to the breakfast table and using it during the meal.
Melville continues to establish Queequeg as a combination of civilization and savagery. While Ishmael respects his behavior at breakfast, in which Queequeg somehow assumes a position as the head of the table, Queequeg nevertheless brings his harpoon to the breakfast table, considered an obvious breach of polite behavior.
Chapter Six: The Street:
During his first daylight stroll through New Bedford, Ishmael sees around the docks the queerest looking nondescripts from foreign parts. In New Bedford, fathers reportedly give whales for dowers to their daughters, and portion off their nieces with a few porpoises a piece.
This chapter is significant primarily in order to establish the predominance of whaling in the New Bedford community, in which the whales are considered prizes significant enough to be a dowry. Melville also establishes New Bedford as a microcosm of society in which all races and classes are present, thus suggesting a larger applicability of the story outside of its more specific locale.
Chapter Seven: The Chapel:
In New Bedford there is a Whaleman's Chapel, where a scattered and silent congregation worships. There are numerous memorials to whalemen lost at sea. Queequeg has a gaze of incredulous curiosity in this chapel, and is the only one to notice Ishmael's entrance into the chapel. Ishmael regards these memorials with deep feelings, knowing that the same fate may be his own, but he somehow grows merry again. There is death in the business of whaling, but he thinks that we have mistaken the matter of Life and Death, and that persons are like oysters observing the sun, thinking the thickest water to be the thinnest of air.
The Whaleman's Chapel serves as yet another reminder of the high mortality rate at sea, foreshadowing the inevitable hardship that will ensue. Whaling takes on a greater significance in this chapter, representing matters of human mortality and the afterlife. The analogy that Melville uses to show the mistaken human perspective on mortality is significant, for he uses the perspective of the ocean and of the whale to show the errors in human thought.
Chapter Eight: The Pulpit:
Ishmael has not been seated long in the chapel when Father Mapple, the famous preacher, enters. He was once a sailor and a harpooner, but had dedicated his life to the ministry for several years. Father Mapple enjoys a wide reputation for sincerity and sanctity, so Ishmael cannot suspect him of any mere stage tricks. On the front of the pulpit is the likeness of a ship's bluff bows and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship's fiddle-headed beak. Ishmael wonders what the meaning could be, for the pulpit is the earth's foremost part; all the rest comes from in its rear, and the pulpit leads the world. According to Ishmael, "the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete, and the pulpit is its prow."
The dominant theme of this chapter is the relationship between whaling and the Melville relates whaling to spiritual matters once again through this chapter, in which Father Mapple represents both of these disparate aspects. The pulpit from which Mapple preaches also relates whaling to spiritual matters. Melville explicitly makes the comparison between the world and a ship on a voyage, thus preparing the reader to relate the actual ship on its impending voyage to the world in general.
Chapter Nine: The Sermon:
Father Mapple arises to the pulpit and pauses, then offers a prayer in which he states "I saw the opening maw of hell, / With endless pains and sorrows there; / Which none but they that feel can tell / Oh, I was plunging to despair." He then gives a sermon that considers Jonah and the whale, wondering that the lesson of this tale is. He claims that it is a lesson to sinful men and to God, for Jonah flouts God with the sin of disobedience, thinking that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign. Father Mapple recounts the terrors in Jonah's soul. The lesson of Jonah is to preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood, even if this truth may be appalling.
Father Mapple's sermon continues to set the tone for the novel, making the obvious comparison between the story of Jonah and the whale and the impending conflict between Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. Several chapters before the character of Ahab is even introduced, Melville prepares the reader for a comparison between Ahab and Jonah, for both characters flout God through their arrogance and disobedience against God. The story that Father Mapple recounts of Jonah is a long detail of hardship and pain, thus foreshadowing the difficult voyage of the Pequod, and constructs Jonah to be a complex man gripped by terrors in his soul, another important comparison between Jonah and Captain Ahab.
Other than the comparisons between Jonah and the as yet not introduced Ahab, Father Mapple's sermon is also significant for its final instruction to preach the truth in the face of falsehood, even if that truth may be very difficult to take. This part of the sermon relates most directly to Ishmael himself, as the narrator of the novel. This suggests that Ishmael must tell some unspeakable and harsh truth about his voyage with Captain Ahab, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be.
In general, Father Mapple's sermon continues to imbue the novel with a striking religious theme. This religious atmosphere is one with a particular emphasis on pain and suffering which leads to redemption; it is a harsh and brutal form of spirituality the conforms to the brutal setting and nature of the novel. Melville relates spirituality to intense struggle, thus giving the voyage that will be the heart of the novel a larger significance.
Chapter Ten: A Bosom Friend:
Ishmael returns to the Spouter Inn to find Queequeg there alone, having left the Chapel before the benediction. Ishmael notices that, despite Queequeg's marred face, he did not have a disagreeable countenance. He even reminds Ishmael of George Washington, "cannibalistically developed." Queequeg had not consorted with any of the men at the inn, yet seems entirely at ease and preserving the utmost serenity. Ishmael no longer feels threatened by the world, but instead feels as if "the soothing savage had redeemed it." Ishmael asks him if they are again to be bedfellows, and proposes a social smoke. That night they join in a pagan ceremony together, despite Ishmael's Christian upbringing. Ishmael questions the use of worship and the will of God, to do to a fellow man what one would have done to him, and thus decided to turn "idolator." Queequeg and Ishmael fall asleep together, as "man and wife."
While Ishmael initially feared Queequeg, he soon comes to respect and admire him, despite his supposed savagery. In this chapter, Melville explores the idea that within the uncivilized Queequeg there is a greater sense of civility and honor. Ishmael nearly idolizes Queequeg, comparing him to George Washington and finding that Queequeg has given him a sense of serenity and ease. Melville does explore the idea that there is some perversity in the relationship between the two men, at least in the estimation of Ishmael, who worries that he is engaging in a pagan, idolatrous activity. Melville does indicate a certain homoerotic element to the relationship between the two, even comparing the two men sleeping together to a husband and wife. The anxiety that Ishmael feels concerning whether or not he is engaging in some sinful activity with Queequeg definitely lends to this interpretation as well. Yet Ishmael's musing on pagan activity demonstrate that he and the novel are moving past the strict Christian spiritualism that has dominated the novel and approaching a different religious interpretation. Ishmael, and by extension Melville, are questioning the idea of the will of God beyond strictly Christian tenets.
Chapter Eleven: Nightgown:
Queequeg and Ishmael lie in bed, napping at short intervals and often chatting. Upon opening his eyes, Ishmael finds that his strong repugnance to Queequeg smoking in bed begins to fade, for he now likes nothing better to have him smoking because he seems to full of serene household joy.
Melville continues to show the intense bond between Queequeg and Ishmael in this chapter, further continuing the analogy of marriage to demonstrate how Ishmael has become progressively more tolerant toward Queequeg. This also suggests that Ishmael longs for a domestic life that he lacks as sailor, appreciating the intimacy that he shares with Queequeg as a replacement for a conventional household life.
Chapter Twelve: Biographical:
Queequeg is a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. His father was a High Chief, a King, and his uncle a High Priest. A Sag Harbor ship visited Queequeg's father's bay, and there he sought passage to Christian lands. The captain threatened to throw Queequeg overboard, and suspended a cutlass over his naked wrists, but Queequeg did not relent. He was put among the sailors, but did not mind. He was motivated by a profound desire to learn among the Christians. Ishmael wonders why Queequeg did not propose going home and having a coronation, but he is fearful that Christians had unfitted him for ascending the undefiled throne of thirty pagan kings before him. A harpoon had taken the place of a scepter for Queequeg. Queequeg intends to go to sea again in his old vocation. They resolve to go to Nantucket together.
Melville explores the distinction between savage and civilized through the biographical details concerning Queequeg, whose history suggests greater culture and civility than the Europeans with whom he comes in contact. While the sailors believe Queequeg to be a savage, he instead proves to be a literal nobleman whose behavior is highly honorable in contrast to their brutality. The irony of Queequeg's tale is that, having traveled to America and lived among the supposedly civilized, he has in fact become defiled and unfit for his royal position; this calls into questions definitions of savagery and civilization, for Queequeg presumably becomes a savage to his people as he adopts more European customs.
Chapter Thirteen: Wheelbarrow:
The boarders seem amused by the sudden friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. They borrow a wheelbarrow, and start on their way to Nantucket. Queequeg tells a funny story about the first wheelbarrow Queequeg had ever seen, and how he did not know what to do with it. Ishmael and Queequeg board a schooner to Nantucket. On this schooner, a local bumpkin mocks Queequeg, who responds by pushing him back. The bumpkin complains to the Captain that Queequeg is the devil, but the Captain merely warns him. When the bumpkin is swept overboard when the mainsail breaks, Queequeg saves him and thus receives an apology from the captain. Queequeg seems to deserve a medal for his action, but behaves quite magnanimous.
The descriptions of Queequeg as an intensely honorable and admirable character become an actuality in this chapter, in which Queequeg saves a man from drowning despite the fact that he earlier mocked Queequeg. He even behaves with dignity and great humility after doing so, refusing accolades for his bravery.
Chapter Fourteen: Nantucket:
Nantucket is a mere hillock and elbow of sand, all beach without a background. There is a wonderful traditional story of how the island was settled by the red-men when an eagle carried an infant Indian in his talons, and his parents followed the eagle in their canoes to the island, where they found the infant's skeleton.
Melville frequently shifts styles throughout Moby Dick, veering from the narrative to explore different genres of writing. In this chapter, he indulges in writing a travelogue describing the history and locale of Nantucket. The purpose of this is somewhat experimental and purely informative, adding depth and shading to the setting of the novel without actually contributing to the narrative drive of the story.
Chapter Fifteen: Chowder:
It is late in the evening when Queequeg and Ishmael reach Nantucket, and go to the Try Pots, owned by Hosea Hussey, the cousin of Peter Coffin. Two pots hang from a tree near the inn, looking like a gallows. The Try Pots serves chowder for breakfast and dinner, and is paved with clamshells.
Melville deflates a great deal of the tension that he had been building throughout the previous chapters through Ishmael's self-aware observations concerning the various ill omens he has discerned. Ishmael notes the various signs of death, including the gravestones, the name of his previous innkeeper (Peter Coffin), and the gallows imagery, as if performing a symbolic literary analysis of the novel as he narrates. Nevertheless, this does make the reader explicitly aware of the death-related imagery that pervades the novel, muting its ominous, foreboding tone but still making the possibility of great pain and suffering inevitable.
Chapter Sixteen: The Ship:
Queequeg had been diligently consulting Yojo, the name of his black little god, in preparation for selecting their craft. There are three ships up for three-year voyages: the Devil-Dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. The Pequod is named after a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians. The Pequod is a ship of the old school, rather small and with an old fashioned claw-footed look. The Captain was once Peleg, now retired after many years. Ishmael introduces himself to Peleg, who is suspicious because Ishmael has no whaling experience. Peleg tells Ishmael that Ahab is now captain of the ship, and he has only one leg, for the other was lost by a whale. Peleg and Bildad, both Quakers, are owners of the boat, and are "fighting Quakers." Bildad and Peleg look over Ishmael. Bildad is the "queerest old Quaker" he ever saw. Peleg and Bildad negotiate the lay (share of the profits) for the voyage, and Ishmael demands the three-hundredth lay. Peleg and Bildad argue with one another about how much of the lay they should offer, and their argument nearly leads to violence between the two. After Bildad leaves, Ishmael signs the paper and asks to see Captain Ahab. Peleg describes him as a queer man, but a good one, "grand, ungodly, god-like." Peleg compares him to the Ahab of old, who was crowned king, but a vile one. Before even meeting Ahab, Ishmael feels a sympathy and a sorrow for him.
The most significant aspect of this chapter is the introduction of Ahab, who is the central character and the primary focus of the novel, despite his mysterious and long-delayed appearance. Long before Ahab actually interacts with Ishmael and the other characters, Melville establishes him as an imposing and tragic figure, deserving of sympathy and sorrow. Most of the details surrounding Ahab contain some element of legend, such as the story that he lost one of his legs, and Melville further creates a tension between Ahab's supposed grandeur and his more fearsome qualities. Peleg describes him as simultaneously ungodly and godlike, thus suggesting that the dynamic between these sides of Ahab's personality will form the primary internal struggle of Moby Dick. Melville additionally continues the Biblical allusions that dominate the character names; here the name Ahab describes a king who turns vile, suggesting that the Ahab of this novel will be a similarly conflicted leader.
While Ahab is the central character of the novel, Melville introduces in this chapter several minor characters who add shading to the novel. The "fighting Quakers" Bildad and Peleg continue the relationship between whaling and religion, incorporating their religious tradition into their merchant work ethic. Yet, as Queequeg's consultation of his god demonstrates, this relationship between religion and whaling is not specifically Christian; the relationship is more general and related to basic spirituality than to any particular sect.
Chapter Seventeen: The Ramadan:
Queequeg's Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, continues all day, so Ishmael does not disturb him until night. Ishmael considers how foolish some religious traditions are, whether Presbyterian or Pagan. When Ishmael returns to his room, he finds it locked, and panics because he sees that Queequeg's harpoon is missing. He makes Mrs. Hussey unlock the door (there is some suspicion that Queequeg has committed suicide), but they find Queequeg inside, calm and self-collected, holding his Yojo idol on his head and not saying a word. Queequeg does not speak for the entire day, until finally he presses his forehead against Ishmael's and declares that his Ramadan is over. Ishmael suggests to Queequeg that fasts are nonsense, bad for the health and useless for the soul. Ishmael believes that fasting makes the body and the spirit cave in.
Although Herman Melville has approached matters of religious belief with a directness and seem approval as a significant part of human existence, he still remains quite critical of some aspects of religious belief. This chapter illustrates the belief espoused by Ishmael that religious practices are in some sense odd and in many instances detrimental; the message appears to be that spiritual practices should be, in a very distinct sense, useful, and that practices such as fasting have direct negative consequences. Ishmael relates the possibility that Queequeg has committed suicide to his religious beliefs, and cites experience to show that those religions with the most harsh practices are those whose followers become sickly in mind and in temperament.
The greatest argument refuting Ishmael's claim is the very character of Queequeg himself. As the most poised and noble of the characters in the novel, Queequeg demonstrates the judgment and temperament that contradicts the idea of sickness and ill-humor as promoted by Ishmael.
Chapter Eighteen: His Mark:
Captain Peleg gruffly tells Ishmael that no cannibals such as Queequeg can go aboard unless they previously produce their papers. Ishmael tells Peleg that Queequeg is a member of the First Congregational Church, but Peleg and Bildad are both skeptical. Ishmael finally says that Queequeg belongs to the same ancient catholic church as all do, the congregation of the world. Peleg makes Queequeg, whom he calls Quohog, write his name, and he signs using the infinity symbol, an exact counterpart of a figure tattooed on his arm.
The idea of naming is a significant theme throughout Moby Dick, for each of the odd names of the novel has some significance, usually biblical. Melville has established a strong relationship between the name of many characters and the characters themselves (Ishmael, Peter Coffin). In Moby Dick, names serve as a key to the character, more than just an identifying mark and rather a key to their respective personalities. For Queequeg, his name as he writes it is literally part of him, tattooed on his arm. Therefore the assumption that Queequeg cannot be Christian because of his name and the mispronunciation of his name as "Quohog" symbolizes a loss of identity on his part by the estimation of Peleg.
Chapter Nineteen: The Prophet:
A stranger passes Ishmael and Queequeg and asks them whether they have signed the articles, and whether this means that they have signed their souls. He then asks if they have souls at all to sell. The stranger asks if they have met Old Thunder (Captain Ahab). Ishmael says that Captain Ahab is ill, but the strangers says that when Captain Ahab is all right, then his left arm (which he does not have) will be all right. The stranger tells them that Ahab lost his leg. The stranger introduces himself as Elijah, then Ishmael and Queequeg leave him.
The character Elijah has a small but significant role in the novel, serving much as his biblical counterpart as a prophet for Ishmael as he begins his voyage. The whaling voyage appears more and more ominous thanks to the appearance of this prophet, who indicates that Ishmael has sold his soul by agreeing to undertake the three year voyage on the Pequod. Also, the mythic connotations to Ahab continue in this chapter with the reference to him as "Old Thunder," an allusion to the Norse God of War.
Chapter Twenty: All Astir:
There is great activity aboard the Pequod, as the sails are mended and preparations for departure come to a close. The sailors store the Pequod with the food and amenities necessary for the three year voyage. Ishmael only half fancies being committed to so long a voyage, but prepares to sail the next morning.
The preparations for departure underscore the vast nature of the voyage on the Pequod. This is no short-term commitment that Ishmael and Queequeg are making; they are sacrificing three years of their lives for this voyage, and Ishmael only has a partial commitment to the journey. The ambivalence that Ishmael feels toward the voyage affects his narrative; by making his view of the voyage unclear, Melville makes him an even more impartial narrator rather than one with a specific and identifiable agenda.
Moby Dick Essays and Related Content
- Moby Dick: Major Themes
- Moby Dick: Essays
- Moby Dick: Questions
- Moby Dick: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Herman Melville: Biography
- Moby Dick Summary
- About Moby Dick
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-20
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21-40
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 41-60
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 61-80
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 81-100
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 101-120
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 121-Epilogue
- Related Links on Moby Dick
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources