by Herman Melville
Analysis: Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis
Christopher Booker is a scholar who wrote that every story falls into one of seven basic plot structures: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. Shmoop explores which of these structures fits this story like Cinderella’s slipper.
Plot Type : The Quest
Ishmael, bored and depressed, feels a strange yearning to go to sea on a whaling ship.
Ishmael’s feeling that there’s something in the air, something incomprehensible but powerful that’s drawing him toward a whaling voyage, isn’t just a crazy whim. It’s his sense that he’s being Summoned as the Protagonist of a Major Quest in an Important Novel. We think Frodo Baggins probably felt the same way even as he was scampering around the Shire at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Hero’s Companions
Ishmael becomes close friends with Queequeg, and later, once the novel moves on board the Pequod, we’re introduced to the ship mates and crew.
Moby-Dick has not one but two sequences in which we meet The Hero’s Companions. The Fellowship of the Whale, we could call them. OK, maybe not, but you get the idea. The doubling of this stage is significant because it reminds us that we’re fairly uncertain about who is actually the main character of this novel: Ishmael or Ahab.
First occurrence: When Ishmael is forced to share a room at a crowded inn, he meets Queequeg, a South Sea Islander and harpooneer who becomes his best friend and roommate. Our introduction to Queequeg and the fast friendship that develops between Ishmael and Queequeg is the first version of this stage, after which the two of them set out together to find a whaling ship and embark on a Great Journey.
Second occurrence: Once the novel moves on board the Pequod, we’re introduced to the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, and the other two harpooneers, Daggoo and Tashtego, and finally to Captain Ahab himself. Ahab, even before he appears, starts to take center stage, and we get a pair of long chapters called "Knights and Squires" that introduce the three mates and the three harpooneers who become Ahab’s band of followers.
Ishmael and Queequeg join the crew of the Pequod for a three-year voyage. During the voyage, the crew of the Pequod battles other whales, the elements, and their own growing unease.
The journey here is long – nearly three years, to be precise – and takes Ishmael, Queequeg, and the rest of the men on the Pequod through the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, from the New England Coast around the southern tip of Africa and east all the way to the Sea of Japan. Along the way, they’ll see everything there is to see on the ocean in the nineteenth-century, which (if you believe this novel) pretty much consists of other whaling ships, whales, and a lot of water.
While at sea, the Pequod meets a variety of other whaling ships, most of which have interesting stories of their own to tell about Moby Dick.
Instead of meeting Galadriel or the riders of Rohan to help them on their way, the men on the Pequod meet other ships, each of which has something to tell about that area of the ocean or even the latest news on Moby Dick. Sometimes the captains of the other ships give advice that Ahab refuses to follow; sometimes they help him by mentioning where Moby Dick was last seen; and sometimes they represent alternatives to the Pequod.
Arrival and Frustration
The Pequod arrives in the equatorial region of the Pacific, but the wind is against them and a typhoon threatens to destroy the ship if they don’t turn around. Navigational instruments are breaking left and right.
Everything seems to be conspiring to keep the Pequod away from Moby Dick: the wind is gusting hard against the ship and eventually blows itself into a typhoon. Ahab tramples on his quadrant, a thunderstorm messes up the magnetic field of the ship’s compasses, and the line part of the log and line breaks – in other words, everything that could help them find their way is broken except the sun itself! But Ahab’s determined that weather, coincidence, and divine intervention can all be overcome by pure hatred. As, apparently, they can.
The Final Ordeals
Over three harrowing days, the Pequod pursues Moby Dick, engaging him in battle several times but never defeating him. Finally, the pursuit culminates in a life-or-death struggle between man and whale.
This three-day sequence of ordeals quickly settles down into a cozy little routine: around dawn, Ahab sights Moby Dick, lowers his boat, attacks the White Whale, the boat gets destroyed, and the Pequod has to rescue everyone. Every time we think Ahab is going to give up and go home, he lowers yet another boat and gives it another try. (We were wondering just how many spare boats there are on this ship.)
The Life-Renewing Goal
Ishmael is the only survivor of the Pequod, but now he has an incredible story to tell (and to write.)
Oh, sorry, you expected them to triumph here? To kill the White Whale? To defeat Sauron and the legions of Mordor? Nope, that’s not how it works in this book. Moby-Dick turns the quest narrative on its ear by preventing the quest’s successful fulfillment. But something is gained: Ishmael is now set to write an incredible novel about his experience, a novel not unlike the book of Jonah…