On November 14th, 1851 Herman Melville published Moby Dick, the classic tale of Captain Ahab‘s whale hunt. To celebrate this anniversary we have excerpted from The Concise Oxford Companion to American Literature which we found by searching on Oxford Reference Online. This article is by James D. Hart.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, novel by Melville, published in 1851. Within this realistic account of a whaling voyage is set a symbolic account of the conflict between man and his fate. Captain Ahab declares, “All visible objects are but as pasteboard masks,” and Melville, holding this thesis, strikes through the surface of his adventurous narrative to formulate concepts of good and evil imbedded as allegory in its events.
The outcast youth Ishmael, feeling “a damp, drizzly November” in his soul, goes to New Bedford, planning to ship on a whaler. There he draws as a roommate Queequeg, a Polynesian prince, and the two become comrades. After Ishmael hears a symbolic sermon by Father Mapple, he and Queequeg go to Nantucket and sign on the Pequod, which sails on Christmas Day. The captain, Ahab, is a monomaniac whose one purpose is to capture the fierce, cunning white whale, Moby-Dick, which had torn away his leg during their last encounter. He keeps below deck for some time, but finally declares his purpose and posts a doubloon on the mast as a reward for the man who first sights the white whale. The characters of the sailors are revealed by their reactions. The chief mate, Starbuck, earnest, prudent, and fretful, dislikes it. Stubb, the second mate, is happy-go-lucky and takes perils as they come. Flask, the third mate, is incapable of deep thought and for him killing whales is simply an occupation. Others in the crew include Fedallah and his mysterious Asiatics; the American Indian harpooner, Tashtego; the African, Daggoo; and the black cabin boy, Pip. Through the plot of the voyage, which carries the Pequod nearly around the world, runs a comprehensive discussion of the nature of the whale, the history of science and art relating to the animal, and the facts of the whaling industry. Whales are captured during the pursuit, but circumstances seem to conspire against Ahab: storms, lightning, loss of the compass, the drowning of a man, and the insanity of Ahab’s favorite, Pip. The white whale is finally sighted, and in the first day’s chase he smashes a whaleboat. The second day, another boat is swamped, and the captain’s ivory leg is snapped off. On the third day the whale is harpooned, but Ahab, fouled in the line, is pinioned to Moby-Dick, who bears down on the Pequod. The ship is sunk and, as the final spars settle in the water, one of the men nails to the mast a sky hawk that pecks at the flag he is placing as a signal. The ship, “like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.” Ishmael, the only survivor, is rescued by another whaler, the Rachel.
How to cite this entry: “Moby-Dick” The Concise Oxford Companion to American Literature. James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, 1986. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Oxford Online OUP-USA. 14 November 2006.