The novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville is an epic tale of the voyage of the whaling ship the Pequod and its captain, Ahab, who relentlessly pursues the great Sperm Whale (the title character) during a journey around the world. The narrator of the novel is Ishmael, a sailor on the Pequod who undertakes the journey out of his affection for the sea.
Moby Dick begins with Ishmael's arrival in New Bedford as he travels toward Nantucket. He rests at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, where he meets Queequeg, a harpooner from New Zealand who will also sail on the Pequod. Although Queequeg appears dangerous, he and Ishmael must share a bed together and the narrator quickly grows fond of the somewhat uncivilized harpooner. Queequeg is actually the son of a High Chief who left New Zealand because of his desire to learn among Christians. The next day, Ishmael attends a church service and listens to a sermon by Father Mapple, a renowned preacher who delivers a sermon considering Jonah and the whale that concludes that the tale is a lesson to preacher Truth in the face of Falsehood.
On a schooner to Nantucket, Ishmael and Queequeg come across a local bumpkin who mocks Queequeg. However, when this bumpkin is swept overboard, Queequeg saves him. In Nantucket, Queequeg and Ishmael choose between three ships for a year journey, and decide upon the Pequod. The Captain of the Pequod, Peleg, is now retired, and merely owns the boat with another Quaker, Bildad. Peleg tells them of the new captain, Ahab, and immediately describes him as a grand and ungodly man. Before leaving for their voyage, Ishmael and Queequeg come across a stranger named Elijah who predicts disaster on their journey. Before leaving on the Pequod, Elijah again predicts disaster.
Ishmael and Queequeg board the Pequod, where Captain Ahab is still unseen, secluded in his own cabin. Peleg and Bildad consult with Starbuck, the first mate. He is a Quaker and a Nantucket native who is quite practical. The second mate is Stubb, a Cape Cod native with a more jovial and carefree attitude. The third is Flask, a Martha's Vineyard native with a pugnacious attitude. Melville introduces the rest of the crew, including the Indian harpooner Tashtego, the African harpooner Daggoo.
Several days into the voyage, Ahab finally appears as a man seemingly made of bronze who stands on an ivory leg fashioned from whalebone. He eventually gets into a violent argument with Stubb when the second mate makes a joke at Ahab's expense, and kicks him. This leads Stubb to dream of kicking Ahab's ivory leg off, but Flask claims that the kick from Ahab is a sign of honor.
At last, Ahab tells the crew of the Pequod to look for a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow: Moby Dick, the legendary whale that took Ahab's leg. Starbuck tells Ahab that his obsession with Moby Dick is madness, but Ahab claims that all things are masks and there is some unknown reasoning behind that mask that man must strike through. For Ahab, Moby Dick is that mask. Ahab himself seems to recognize his own madness. Starbuck begins to worry that the ship is overmatched by the mad captain and knows that he will see an impious end to Ahab.
While Queequeg and Ishmael weave a sword-mat for lashing to their boat, the Pequod soon comes upon a whale and Ahab orders his crew to their boats. Ahab orders his special crew, which Ishmael compares to "phantoms," to their boats. The crew attacks a whale and Queequeg does strike it, but this is insufficient to kill it. Among the "phantoms" in the boat is Fedallah, a sinister Parsee.
After passing the Cape of Good Hope, the Pequod comes across the Goney (Albatross), another ship on its voyage. Ahab asks whether they have seen Moby Dick as the ships pass one another, but Ahab cannot hear his answer. The mere passing of the ships is unorthodox behavior, for ships will generally have a 'gam,' a meeting between two ships. The Pequod does have a gam with the next ship it encounters, the Town-Ho.
Ishmael interrupts his narration to tell a story that was told to him by the crew of the Town-Ho, just as he would tell it to a circle of Spanish friends after his journey on the Pequod. The story concerns the near mutiny on the Town-Ho and its eventual conflict with Moby Dick.
The Pequod does vanquish the next whale that it comes across, as Stubb strikes a whale with his harpoon. However, as the crew of the Pequod attempts to bring the whale into the ship, sharks attack the carcass and Queequeg nearly loses his hand while fending them off.
The Pequod next comes upon the Jeroboam, a Nantucket ship afflicted with an epidemic. Stubb later tells a story about the Jeroboam and a mutiny that occurred on this ship because of a Shaker prophet, Gabriel, on board. The captain of the Jeroboam, Mayhew, warns Ahab about Moby Dick.
After vanquishing a Sperm Whale, Stubb next also kills a Right Whale. Although this is not on the ship's agenda, the Pequod pursues a Right Whale because of the good omens associated with having the head of a Sperm Whale and a head of a Right Whale on a ship. Stubb and Flask discuss rumors that Ahab has sold his soul to Fedallah.
The next ship that the Pequod meets is the Jungfrau (Virgin), a German ship in desperate need of oil. The Pequod competes with the Virgin for a large whale, and the Pequod is successful in defeating it. However, the whale carcass begins to sink as the Pequod attempts to secure it and thus the Pequod must abandon it. The Pequod next finds a large group of Sperm Whales and injures several of them, but only captures a single one.
Stubb concocts a plan to swindle the next ship that the Pequod meets, the French ship Bouton-de-Rose (Rosebud), of ambergris. Stubb tells them that the whales that they have vanquished are useless and could damage their ship, and when the Rosebud leaves these behind the Pequod takes them in order to gain the ambergris in one of them.
Several days after encountering the Rosebud, a young black man on the boat, Pippin, becomes frightened while lowering after a whale and jumps from the boat, becoming entangled in the whale line. Stubb chastises him for his cowardice and tells him that he will be left at sea if he jumps again. When Pippin (Pip) does the same thing again, Stubb remains true to his word and Pip only survives because a nearby boat saves him. Nevertheless, Pip loses his sanity from the event.
The next ship that the Pequod encounters, a British ship called the Samuel Enderby, bears news of Moby Dick but its crewman Dr. Bunger warns Ahab to leave the whale alone. Later, Ahab's leg breaks and the carpenter must fix it. Ahab behaves scornfully toward the carpenter. When Starbuck learns that the casks have sprung a leak, he goes to Ahab's cabin to report the news. Ahab disagrees with Starbuck's advice on the matter, and becomes so enraged that he pulls a musket on Starbuck. Although Ahab warns Starbuck that there is but one God on Earth and one Captain on the Pequod, Starbuck tells him that he will be no danger to Ahab, for Ahab is sufficient danger to himself. Ahab does relent to Starbuck's advice.
Queequeg becomes ill from fever and seems to approach death, so he asks for a canoe to serve as a coffin. The carpenter measures Queequeg for his coffin and builds it, but Queequeg returns to health, claiming that he willed his own recovery. Queequeg keeps the coffin and uses it as a sea chest.
Upon reaching the Pacific Ocean, Ahab asks Perth the blacksmith to forge a harpoon to use against Moby Dick. Perth fashions a harpoon that Ahab demands be tempered with the blood of his pagan harpooners, and he howls out that he baptizes the harpoon in the name of the devil.
The next ship that the Pequod meets is the Bachelor, a Nantucket ship whose captain denies the existence of Moby Dick. The next day, the Pequod slays four whales, and that night Ahab dreams of hearses. He and Fedallah pledge to slay Moby Dick and survive the conflict, and Ahab boasts of his own immortality.
Ahab must soon decide between an easy route past the Cape of Good Hope back to Nantucket and a difficult route in pursuit of Moby Dick. Ahab easily chooses to continue his quest. The Pequod soon comes upon a typhoon on its journey in the Pacific, and while battling this storm the Pequod's compass moves out of alignment. When Starbuck learns this and goes to Ahab's cabin to tell him, he finds the old man asleep. Starbuck considers shooting Ahab with his musket, but he cannot move himself to shoot his captain after he hears Ahab cry in his sleep "Moby Dick, I clutch thy heart at last."
The next morning after the typhoon, Ahab corrects the problem with the compass despite the skepticism of his crew and the ship continues on its journey. Ahab learns that Pip has gone insane and offers his cabin to the poor boy. The Pequod comes upon yet another ship, the Rachel, whose captain, Gardiner, knows Ahab. He requests the Pequod's help in searching for Gardiner's son, who may be lost at sea, but Ahab flatly refuses when he learns that Moby Dick is nearby. The final ship that the Pequod meets is the Delight, a ship that has recently come upon Moby Dick and has nearly been destroyed by its encounter with the whale. Before finally finding Moby Dick, Ahab reminisces about the day nearly forty years before in which he struck his first whale, and laments the solitude of his years out on the sea. He admits that he has chased his prey as more of a demon than a man.
The struggle against Moby Dick lasts three days. On the first day, Ahab spies the whale himself, and the whaling boats row after it. Moby Dick attacks Ahab's boat, causing it to sink, but Ahab survives the ordeal when he reaches Stubb's boat. Despite this first failed attempt at defeating the whale, Ahab pursues him for a second day. On the second day of the chase, roughly the same defeat occurs. This time Moby Dick breaks Ahab's ivory leg, while Fedallah dies when he becomes entangled in the harpoon line and is drowned. After this second attack, Starbuck chastises Ahab, telling him that his pursuit is impious and blasphemous. Ahab declares that the chase against Moby Dick is immutably decreed, and pursues it for a third day.
On the third day of the attack against Moby Dick, Starbuck panics for ceding to Ahab's demands, while Ahab tells Starbuck that "some ships sail from their ports and ever afterwards are missing," seemingly admitting the futility of his mission. When Ahab and his crew reach Moby Dick, Ahab finally stabs the whale with his harpoon but the whale again tips Ahab's boat. However, the whale rams the Pequod and causes it to begin sinking. In a seemingly suicidal act, Ahab throws his harpoon at Moby Dick but becomes entangled in the line and goes down with it. Only Ishmael survives this attack, for he was fortunate to be on a whaling boat instead of on the Pequod. Eventually he is rescued by the Rachel as its captain continues his search for his missing son, only to find a different orphan.