This is where it all starts: Ishmael gets the itch to go a-wandering and heads out into the world. Of course, he has a more specific form of wanderlust than most young men who get the urge to roam. Ishmael’s specifically drawn to the sea, for reasons he can and does explain, and to whaling, for reasons he can’t. Once he’s signed his name on the dotted line and joined the Pequod, there’s no turning back; we’re committed to this adventure along with him.
Fitting Moby-Dick into a traditional plot structure is challenging for lots of reasons, but identifying the central conflict isn’t one of them. It’s Captain "Monomaniac" Ahab versus Moby "the White Whale" Dick all the way. However, while this traditional aspect of plot certainly exists in the novel, we don’t approach it in the traditional way. Our protagonist and narrator, Ishmael, is simply one more common sailor on the periphery of this conflict, not one of the main parties. This is the first time, but not the last, that we’ll wonder who the main character really is in this novel. Ishmael is our entry point into the story, but his tale is swept away by a larger story onto which he stumbles.
The problem (as so often happens with these things) is money. The Pequod was commissioned to hunt whales and get plenty of barrels of sperm oil to sell back home to make all the investors and sailors rich – not for Captain Ahab to embark on a single-minded search for vengeance. From the first moment that Ahab declares his intention of pursuing Moby Dick to the ends of the earth, there’s a tension between the official purpose of the ship and the secret, sinister one.
On one level, identifying this moment as the novel’s climax is simple: Ahab spends nearly the entire novel looking for the White Whale, and the story reaches its peak when he finally finds it.
You might notice, however, that there’s quite a lot of novel between Chapter 36, in which Ahab declares his quest for revenges, and Chapter 133, in which Ahab finally sees Moby Dick for the first time since embarking on his voyage on the Pequod. That’s because, even though there’s the basic scaffolding of a traditional plot structure underneath, most of this novel is too sprawling, too innovative, and just too strange to be contained by classic plot analysis.
There’s not much to explain on this one: Ahab sights Moby Dick one morning, but the end of this final confrontation between them won’t happen for 72 hours. The suspense just keeps building as Moby Dick destroys one after another of the Pequod’s whaling boats. Every time it happens, we think things over the games up, but Ahab just keeps going back.
Usually, the denouement is a little bit more complex and nuanced than this. After all, denouement literally means "unwinding," and in most novels, several different threads of the plot need to be neatly unwound: the bad guys get their comeuppance, the lovers marry, and so forth. Or, in a tragedy, we need to find out just exactly how things are going to go wrong for every character. Moby-Dick solves the problem of all that tedious what-happens-to-whom stuff by just killing everyone at the end of the last battle. Well, almost everyone…
As we learn in the epilogue, Ishmael is saved because he’s able to catch hold of a life-buoy – the very same life-buoy that was made out of Queequeg’s coffin. Creepy.