Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a novel by Herman Melville, first published in 1851.It is considered to be one of the Great American Novels and a treasure of world literature. The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab.
As the novel draws to a conclusion, the Pequod encounters the whaling ship Rachel. The Rachel's captain asks Ahab to help him in a search and rescue effort for his whaling-crew that went missing the day before - and the captain's son is among the missing. But when Ahab learns that the crew disappeared while tangling with Moby-Dick he refuses the call to aid in the rescue so that he may hunt Moby-Dick instead. The encounter with Moby-Dick brings a tragic end to the affair. Ishmael alone survives, using his friend Queequeg's coffin as a flotation device until he is ironically rescued by the Rachel, which has continued to search for its missing crew.
America was in a tumultuous period, establishing its national and international identity at the time Moby-Dick was being written. It is noteworthy that the classic American novel of the period is not ostensibly about westward expansion. Instead it is about pursuit and capture, about following a dream. The American Dream, as it was envisaged by the Founding Fathers, is now considered by some as a dangerous preoccupation, a consuming national obsession. In a real sense, Melville's book is not about its time, but about ours. A possible reading would have the Pequod as modern corporate America, intent on control and subjection, and Ahab as a power-crazed executive, quick to seek vengeance for any received aggression.
Moby Dick can be viewed as a tragedy. Webster's Dictionary defines tragedy as a "dramatic composition, dealing with a serious or somber theme, typically that of a great person destined through flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force, fate or circumstance to downfall or destruction." This describes Moby Dick very well, as we discover as the story unfolds. Ahab, one of the key characters in the novel, can be viewed as the protagonist, one who causes the actions that occur and who brings the story to its tragic conclusion. He is seen as the tragic hero. He is a man distinguished by courage and ability, who is admired for his qualities and achievements. The reader can sympathize, feeling pity and compassion for Ahab. We can understand to some extent the feelings that this man must have experienced and we can relate to them. The villain or antagonist to Ahab is Moby Dick, the White Whale whom Ahab pursues, leading to the death of himself and his crew. This leaves Ishmael as the only survivor to tell the story. Ahab is a deeply disturbed man. He could be viewed as a crazy lunatic. Though crazy as he is, he clearly knows what he wants to do and has a clear plan to do it and carries it out to the end. Ahab can be seen as both the tragic hero and a crazy lunatic.
In this book the reader tends to feel compassion for the obsession-drven Ahab. Most people can relate, maybe not to the extent of Ahab's obsession, but there are people who can get "caught up" on certain things and will not stop until they have it. This is the feeling that the reader can relate to and sympathize with Ahab. This strategy by Melville is important and strategic. Making the reader sympathize and try to understand a character will help the reader become more interested and enticed in the novel.
Chapter twenty-six is mainly about Starbuck, the first mate of the ship. Starbuck represents two figures throughout this chapter, Sir Lancelot of Arthurian Legend and Christ. Starbuck also has many sides to him, which can be explained through quotes within the chapter. The chapter explains about Starbuck’s character and personality, and may possibly give hints to what will happen later on in the book. In the story of Moby Dick Ahab represents King Arthur and Starbuck represents Sir. Lancelot. Sir Lancelot is King Arthur’s bravest and most known knight of the Round Table. As a child, Lancelot was rescued by Morgan le Fay, Arthur’s sister, from his family’s castle as it burned down to the ground. Morgan raised Lancelot on the isle of Avalon, where she as known as The Lady of the Lake, hence Lancelot’s full tittle, Lancelot du Lac. Lancelot grew up to be the bravest and most courageous knight of Arthur’s guild of knights.
A quote that describes Starbuck’s courageous nature and thus showing his relation to Sir Lancelot is “...perhaps in this business of whaling, courage was one of the staple outfits of the ship, like her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted.” This quote describes that when it is needed, Starbuck can be the most courageous man aboard the ship. Starbuck’s courage relates him to Sir Lancelot because of Lancelot’s courage. The title of the chapter shows that there is a relation between the characters described within the two chapters titled “Knights and Squires”, and the characters of medieval legend, and this is the character of legend that Starbuck most closely relates to.
Ishmael tells us before the voyage, “the universe is finished” (2.9). This fits in with Ahab’s theory that he can do nothing to change the course of events. The only thing left to do is try to understand it, a hopeless task for humans. In the chapter, “Cetology” Ishmael shows that even scholars cannot agree on a simple thing like categorizing types of whales, and he claims even the book he is writing, like all human knowledge, can never be finished.
Melville constantly explores how much free will humans have. In a key chapter, “The Mat-Maker,” Ishmael explains the relationship between free will, fate, and chance. He and Queequeg weave a sword-mat for their boat. The warp or fixed vertical threads represent fate or necessity—the things in life that cannot be changed. Ishmael weaves the woof or horizontal threads, representing his free will, while Queequeg packs the threads together, randomly hitting them with a sword, and this represents chance events. Together the three make up the character of time.
Ahab, however, in his madness, ties himself to fate alone; he calls himself “the Fates’ lieutenant,” and he will not swerve from the iron grooves of his soul. His run-in with Moby Dick has sealed his fate, once for all, he thinks. Yet the narrator tells us all humans are born entangled in dangerous “whale lines.”
When Melville, through Ishmael, describes the Sperm Whale during the many non-narrative chapters of Moby Dick, the idea that the whale has no parallel in excellence recurs as a nearly labored point. Melville approaches this theme from a variety of standpoints, whether biological or historical, in order to prove the superiority of the whale over all other creatures. During a number of occasions Melville relates whaling to royal activity, as when he notes the strong devotion of Louis XVI to the whaling industry and considers the whale as a delicacy fit for only the most civilized. In additional, Melville cites the Indian legends of Vishnoo, the god who became incarnate in a whale. Even when discussing the whale in mere aesthetic terms Melville lauds it for its features, devoting an entire chapter (42) to the whiteness of the whale, while degrading those artists who falsely depict the whale.
In the novel, Melville includes many chapters. Some of these chapters are exclusively devoted to describing certain aspects of sperm whales, or whales in general. The purpose of this is to get the reader to think of the sperm whale as a great being; one that is worth description in great detail because in the novel the sperm whale plays the role of something so powerful it can not be obtained by Ahab or anyone else.
The idea that Ahab's quest for Moby Dick is an act of defiance toward God assuming that Ahab is omnipotent first occurs before Ahab is even introduced during Father Mapple's sermon. The lesson of the sermon, which concerns the story of Jonah and the whale, is to warn against the blasphemous idea that a ship can carry a man into regions where God does not reign. Ahab parallels this idea when he compares himself to God as the lord over the Pequod (Chapter 109: Ahab and Starbuck in the Cabin). Melville furthers this idea through the prophetic dream that Fedallah tells Ahab that causes Ahab to conclude that he is immortal.
Just when Ishmael’s curiosity about Ahab has reached a fever pitch, Ahab starts appearing on deck – and we find out that he’s missing one leg. When Starbuck asks if it was Moby Dick, the famous White Whale, that took off his leg, Ahab admits that it was and forces the entire crew to swear that they will help him hunt Moby Dick to the ends of the earth and take revenge for his injury. They all swear.
Our intrepid narrator, a former schoolteacher famously called Ishmael, signs up as sailor on a whaling voyage to cure a bout of depression. On his way to find a ship in Nantucket, he meets Queequeg, a heavily tattooed South Sea Island harpooneer just returned from his latest whaling trip. Ishmael and Queequeg become best buds and roommates almost immediately. Together, they sign up for a voyage on the Pequod, which is just about to start on a three-year expedition to hunt sperm whales.