The main term we’re going to use to describe Melville’s tone in Moby-Dick is versatile. It’s almost as though, to prove his greatness as a novelist, Melville’s writing his way through a variety of tones the way a singer might practice all the notes of a scale. Just to show you how densely compacted these different degrees of tone are, we’ll point them all out using examples from just the first chapter.
The "default" tone in Moby-Dick is thoughtful, with a dash of humor and affection—the tone Ishmael (or Melville) often adopts when he’s considering scenes of whaling and sailing that are dear to his heart. We find this tone in the very first paragraph of the novel:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. (1.1)
But this flippant, affectionate, self-mocking humor that Melville uses when discussing the details of a seafaring life can turn into bitter sarcasm at a moment’s notice:
The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition! (1.10)
But both the gentler humor and the scathing sarcasm can disappear when Melville wants to play up the capital-L Literary qualities and symbolic register of Moby-Dick. Then he gets kind of flowery:
By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air. (1.14)
By demonstrating to the reader how easy it is for him to swing between the grand "flood-gates of the wonder-world" and the comical "damp, drizzly November" of Ishmael’s soul, Melville get to show off his superior writing skills. Not that we're complaining, mind you.
Moby-Dick collects genres the way some people collect loose change: the novel has lots of them, all different types, tucked in its pockets and hidden in its rigging and floating alongside its whaling boats.
You can read Moby-Dick and think about it as an adventure yarn, a story of a journey on the high seas in which a band of brave men meet sharks, squids, whales, and rival whaling ships as they travel most of the way around the world.
Of course, Ahab’s single-minded desire to get revenge on Moby-Dick puts this squarely in the genre of the quest, as does the long and complicated search he goes through in order to find the White Whale.
Our focus on Ahab’s mental state turns it into something of a psychological thriller; it’s a shame Alfred Hitchcock never directed a film version of this novel, because Ahab’s weird mix of sanity and insanity seems right up his alley.
The fact that everyone dies at the end makes it a tragedy, as does the way that Melville tries to give Ahab the feel of a Shakespearean tragic hero. (In fact, there’s a specific genre of Elizabethan drama called the "revenge tragedy"—Hamlet can be considered an example.)
Above all, this novel is literary fiction if ever there was any. Not only is Moby-Dick’s language complex, allusive, and highly wrought, but it’s also very conscious of itself as a novel. It explicitly tackles questions of comprehensibility of writing and believability of narrative.
So: this is a novel about a hunting quest, and the title of the novel is the name of the beast that’s being hunted: Moby Dick, the White Whale (dum dum dummm). It does seem a little strange, though, to imagine titling other famous in-quest-of-the-beast epics with the name of the evil adversary: imagine naming a movie about a bunch of dudes chasing a shark something like Shark or Jaws or... oh, wait.
When a title focuses on the beast, not the hero, it confuses all our ideas of character roles in the novel and makes us ask a lot of questions. Why isn’t the novel’s title the name of the protagonist, which was a common nineteenth-century practice (think David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, even Frankenstein)? As you’re reading, ask yourself: could Moby-Dick be called Ishmael or Captain Ahab’s Revenge, and how would it seem different if it was? Maybe using the name of the antagonist as the title keeps us from being certain whether the hero is Ishmael or Ahab.
But there’s another possibility, too: maybe the novel’s title is the name of the protagonist. Maybe Moby Dick is the real star of this story, and Ahab the antagonist, and Ishmael just a bystander. Or there’s a third possibility: that the White Whale is neither good nor evil. It’s just a weird (and really, really dangerous) thing being encountered—sort of like the alien in Alien. (For more speculation on who’s playing what part, see the "Character Roles" section.)
Come to think of it, it seems significant that the title is the whale’s name instead of a descriptive phrase like "The White Whale." In fact, when this novel was first published (in England in an edited version), it was just titled The Whale, which ended up being the subtitle of the novel as we know it today.
Calling Moby Dick "The Whale" instead of just "a whale" makes it seem like a universal type for all whales. But in the American edition and all the editions after, Melville uses the whale’s name for the title. Emphasizing the whale’s name, instead of its symbolic whale-ness, anthropomorphizes it—makes it seem to have human characteristics (like a personality) instead of just being a natural creature. (For more about Moby Dick as a character, see the "Character Analysis" section.)
We wish we could tell you that the White Whale’s name, "Moby Dick," is a joke, because this novel is so full of phallic puns, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "dick" doesn’t start meaning "penis" until the late nineteenth century, so we’re out of luck on that one. (Although it’s always possible that Melville was ahead of the dictionary’s editors in his use of slang.) Rest assured, however, that everything else that looks like a crude joke in this novel is actually a crude joke, so you’re in for plenty of belly laughs while you’re in this whale’s belly.
But let's get back to that pesky title.
Well, apart from the fact that giving the novel the whale’s name, "Moby Dick," 1) makes the character roles of the novel more ambiguous, and 2) emphasizes the whale’s supposed personality, it also 3) doesn’t mean anything.
What do we mean by that? Well, it’s not that the title isn’t significant after we’ve read the novel—at that point, we’ve come to know that Moby Dick is a famous, vicious white whale that attacks ships and chomps people into smithereens—but usually, titles are supposed to give us some kind of clue about the contents of a work.
When you write an essay, your teacher wants you to give it a title that makes it obvious to the reader what it’s going to be about. Newspaper headlines, essays, and most novels follow this rule in their titles, too: if you pick up Pride and Prejudice and read the title, you get the idea that somebody’s going to be proud, somebody prejudiced, and those are the themes of the novel.
But if you pick up Moby-Dick without already knowing what it is, though, the title’s not going to help much. It’s inscrutable. It’s nonsensical. It’s all Greek to you.
So that’s something else we’ll have to watch out for in this novel: symbols that we haven’t been given a key to, codes that we can’t decipher (at least not without a lot of effort). But don’t despair: Shmoop is here to help you see the meaning behind the mysticism.
Actor John Moschitta, Jr., in a one-minute, fast-talking summary of Moby-Dick, ends by saying "and everybody dies but the fish and Ish." While that pretty much sums up what happens at the end of the book, we’re left with plenty of questions about why it concludes that way.
It seems unusual for a quest narrative (see our "Booker’s Seven Basic Plots Analysis") to end without fulfilling the quest: usually, Sauron is destroyed, or Odysseus makes it home, or whatever. But in Moby-Dick, Nature’s calm, impersonal strength beats Man’s frenetic desire for revenge. The whale wins. Why?
One possible answer is that, over the course of the novel, we switch plot types, moving from a quest into a tragedy. By the end, the goal of the quest has disappeared entirely and been replaced by the bloody ending a tragedy requires. Ahab is less like Odysseus trying to get home than like Achilles trying to be a hero in spite of that pesky heel of his. Or, to make the comparison a little less Homer and a little more Tolkien, Ahab is less like Aragorn facing up to his destiny and more like Boromir trying to be noble in spite of his character flaws. (And Boromir, because he's played by Sean Bean, bites it.)
Remember, throughout the novel, Melville’s been concerned with establishing not only Ahab’s monomaniac obsession with his quest, but also his tragic grandeur:
But Ahab, my Captain, still moves before me in all his Nantucket grimness and shagginess: and in this episode touching Emperors and Kings, I must not conceal that I have only to do with a poor old whale-hunter like him; and, therefore, all outward majestical trappings and housings are denied me. Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air! (33.7)
Melville, a master of delicate balance, makes Ahab both a tragic hero with a single telling flaw (his obsession with revenge) and a plain Nantucket whaling captain, a rough laborer who can represent the common man and the American spirit for adventure.
Moby-Dick has become famous as a great American novel, and one of the most important things about its American-ness is the way that it demonstrates that a whaling captain from Nantucket can be a grandiose, tragic figure comparable to Homer’s Achilles or Shakespeare’s King Lear. There’s something wonderfully democratic about the fact that the destruction of the Pequod and the death of everyone aboard her except Ishmael, is reminiscent of one of the most famous revenge tragedies ever, Hamlet, in which (spoiler alert!) everyone dies except the bystander, Horatio.
Which brings us to another point: the ending of the novel also moves us out of Ahab’s part of the plot and back into Ishmael’s. For the latter half, or maybe even the latter two-thirds, of Moby-Dick, we kind of forget about Ishmael as we have been getting obsessed with the White Whale in Ahab’s wake.
When Melville uses words from the book of Job to describe Ishmael in the epigraph to the epilogue— "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee"—we remember that Ahab’s quest and Ahab’s tragedy are both (in some sense) stories within Ishmael’s story. Ishmael’s miraculous survival, of course, is the result of Queequeg’s coffin, which acts as his life preserver in the whirlpool caused by the sinking of the ship:
I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. (Epilogue.2)
There’s something not very noble about Ishmael’s survival. He lives by clinging to Queequeg’s coffin, a coffin that Queequeg himself will never inhabit because he’s gone to Davy Jones’s locker, as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s the death of Ishmael’s most faithful, principled, steadfast companion, who just happens to be a South Sea Islander, that enables Ishmael to survive and prosper and tell his story.
During the novel, we’ve enjoyed a fantasy of racial and cultural diversity and (mostly) harmony aboard the Pequod. All of that must literally die so that a single white male representative of "American-ness" can come forward and tell a story that defines what it means to be American. In destroying the Pequod, Melville thrusts in our faces the enormity of what is lost when we reduce a shipful of personalities into one (rather faceless) New Englander.
Yet, in one way, Ishmael’s very facelessness makes him an appropriate vessel for all of these intertwined tales. His salvation takes on profound Biblical connotations: like Job, Ishmael endures a variety of trials from which he is eventually delivered; like Jonah, he is swallowed up by a whale (only in Ishmael’s case, it’s a metaphorical swallowing); and like the Ishmael of Genesis, he is marooned in a featureless landscape and sustained only by Providence.
There’s one other personality present at the end of the novel besides Ishmael or Moby Dick: the reader. If Ishmael is like Job, "escaped alone to tell thee," then that "thee" figure, thee the reader (yes, you!), is an important part of the novel’s conclusion. At the start, "call me Ishmael" creates an instant, if complicated, relationship between the narrator and the reader; at the end, "I... am escaped... to tell thee" reestablishes that same relationship in the midst of the novel’s destruction. This gives the both the beginning and the end of the novel a quiet, personal aspect that bookends the whaling voyage at the center.
(Click the map infographic to download.)
This novel exists on an epic scale. How epic? Oh, epic enough that it takes you literally around the globe.
When Ishmael decides to take a whaling voyage, one of his reasons is that he wants to see the world. You might be under the impression that, as a reader, you’ll get to see the world with him, experiencing a lavish array of sights, sounds, and settings. After all, the Pequod sails most of the way around the world, through three different oceans, and meets ships from all sorts of other countries.
Well, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but, like Captain Peleg, we have to ask what you see when you look over the bow of the Pequod. Here’s what Ishmael saw: "nothing but water; considerable horizon though, and there’s a squall coming up" (16.37).
That’s the only world you’re going to see in this novel, a world of water that you could pretty much see standing in one place on the dock in Nantucket. But this unchanging expanse of ocean gives the novel a convenient everything-and-nothing feel: like the ship, the novel ranges across a wide variety of settings, and yet it seems like it’s always pretty much in the same place.
Our comments on the setting of Moby-Dick wouldn’t be complete without a few words on nineteenth-century American culture. The Pequod may seem pretty separate from any real land or country, but over the course of the novel we gradually learn just how strongly it holds to its American-ness, both in its whaling customs and its attitude toward other ships.
Plus, the complex social makeup of the Pequod makes it feel more like a metaphorical, miniaturized version of a nation than a simple whaling ship. So it’s reasonable to assume that Melville is suggesting the ship can represent all of the United States. If so, we need to consider the ways in which contemporary political and social issues are being subtly represented in the novel—especially issues of race and slavery, since the nation is on the brink of the Civil War.
Moby-Dick never has just one of something when it could collect the whole set. It doesn’t have just one epigraph—it has eighty. Literally: eighty. We counted. We won’t reproduce them all here, but they’re in the preface titled "Extracts," which appears in most editions of the novel. If your edition doesn’t have it, you can read it in Project Gutenberg's free e-text.
Oh, and before that "Extracts" section, there’s another preface titled "Etymology," which discusses the origin of the word "whale" and the different words for "whale" in a variety of languages. You might want to take a look at that one, too.
Melville introduces his collection of eighty epigraphs with two paragraphs describing how they were compiled by a sub-sub-librarian who "appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane" (Extracts.1).
Of course, this is totally made up; Melville himself found all the quotations and put them together. All this means is that, when the author sympathizes with his imaginary sub-librarian, he’s actually saying, "oh, poor me, I had to work really hard to find all this stuff, which you’re probably not even going to care about."
In the opening paragraphs about the sub-sub, Melville also makes a claim about the purpose of the quotations: "these extracts are solely valuable or entertaining, as affording a glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own" (Extracts.1). Like most claims by the author or narrator of Moby-Dick, this one is both helpful and misleading. On the helpful side, Melville is certainly trying for "a glancing bird’s eye view": the quotations begin with the Bible and include everything from accounts of sea voyages and naturalistic facts to uses of the whale as a literary metaphor and an example of "W" from a child’s primer.
On the unhelpful side, usually the point of an epigraph is to make a reference to give a piece of literature a new context, metaphoric resonance, or association, Here, though, the point is to show how many possible associations there are with the word "whale," and, by invoking all of them, to expand, rather than limit, the whale’s symbolic potential. Melville’s quotations show us that the whale means everything and nothing.
Melville is really upfront about this: if we, as readers, expect him to give us a little guidance and direction, we’d better get used to disappointment. Given the choice, Melville will always rather complicate than streamline. Is Moby-Dick best interpreted through religious symbolism? Well, there are Biblical epigraphs here. Is it best read as an adventure story? There are quotations from travel narratives here. Is it best read as a sort of novel version of a nature documentary? There are quotations from field guides here. You get the idea.
By the way, Melville didn’t just transcribe quotations as he found them. In some cases, he edited and revised his selections to make the references to whales more obvious, so you can’t accept this list of extracts as authoritative without checking up on them.
Both the "Extracts" and "Etymology" sections present us with little fake stories of the researchers who supposedly put them together. At the beginning of "Etymology," Melville makes up a character, an usher in a grammar school, who compiles the list of different words for "whale" and what they mean; the usher "loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his own mortality" (Etymology.1). At the beginning of the "Extracts" section, of course, there’s the character of the sub-sub-librarian.
As we hinted at the beginning, these characters become figures for Melville himself as the author-compiler of Moby-Dick. All the information he sews together only works for Melville when he can attribute the research to one of his fictional characters. Every definition in Moby-Dick has someone who wrote it or is reading it, while every quotation belongs to someone who finds it relevant. In Moby-Dick, facts can only be interpreted through character.
We imagine Melville reading something with a traditional epigraph—one quotation alone on an otherwise blank page—and demanding, "Who put that there? Why? Why that one? How did they find it? How did they feel about it? What kind of person decided to use it? If I wrote a novel, I wouldn’t leave these questions unanswered!" He’s nosy that way.
Yo, you're reading Moby-Dick, not Dick and Jane. This is an amazing (and hilarious) novel, but it takes a wee bit of work to get into the swing of Melville's writing.
What do we mean when we say that the style of Moby-Dick is convoluted? Well, just check out the third paragraph of Chapter 42 ("The Whiteness of the Whale"). This paragraph is, you might notice, a 471-word sentence.
But because we're feeling generous today, we’ll look at a (slightly) shorter sentence from the paragraph before that:
Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. (42.2)
If (for some reason) your immediate reaction to that paragraph is not "Whoa, yes, that’s convoluted," think about it this way: the basic gist of this sentence are the words "There was another thought." What could be simpler? What could be more grammatically succinct?
But Melville embroiders this basic structure with lots of other words until we have this elaborate linguistic wedding cake with six different, interrelated clauses.
And don’t get us started on the joke that Ishmael uses this incredibly contorted and complicated sentence to say that... it’s going to be hard for him to phrase his thoughts in a way that’s easy to understand.
Apart from just being complicated and highly wrought (that is, elaborately crafted), Melville’s style in Moby-Dick is ornamented by really complex diction: "He was intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge" (41.23). Even when Melville’s sentence structure is straightforward, Melville uses complex, ornate vocabulary to generate a sense of grandeur and magnitude.
But hey: when you're writing a book about a) revenge b) the vastness of the globe and c) how amazingly awesome whales are, what are you going to do? Write simply? Pshaaaaw.
Humor columnist Dave Barry once gave potential English majors some advice using Moby-Dick as an example:
Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor...will think you are enormously creative.
Now, we here at Shmoop are always seeking creative readings, but we also don’t want to say any old lunatic thing about literature. If you’re read this far, you’re starting to figure out the difference between ambiguity and randomness. Something can be ambiguous, and therefore have several possible interpretations, without being open to just any old reading you decide to pin on it.
There must be at least some textual evidence. So we don’t advise you to argue that Moby Dick represents Ireland. Still, there’s a good reason that Dave Barry chose Moby-Dick when he wanted to give an example of a Big Important Symbol that has many possible interpretations – and which is obviously demanding to be interpreted, possibly in a ludicrous way.
After all, here’s Ahab, who has "piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down" (41.19). He’s making Moby Dick the object of every negative feeling any human being has ever had, ever.
Then there are the superstitious sailors, who start to think that Moby Dick is immortal and omnipresent and invincible, almost like God.
And then there’s Ishmael, analyzing the whale’s whiteness and concluding that it could represent anything from angels to atheism and listing all the different symbolic possibilities of the color white.
So what does the whale represent? God? Nature? Vengeance? Everything and nothing? You’ll be able to find a lot of different clues about what the whale could represent in the text, but many of them seem like red herrings (white herrings? – whatever, you get the idea) to us.
We think the most important clue indicating what the White Whale symbolizes comes at the end of Chapter 79, when Ishmael describes the whale’s forehead as having wrinkles and scars on it that look like hieroglyphics. Ishmael tells the reader,
If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I put that brow before you. Read it if you can (79.6).
If that sounds like a dare, it’s supposed to. Ishmael is admitting how hard it is to read and understand Moby Dick. He's presenting us with the whale’s inscrutability.
To an extent, we can’t really know the nature of the White Whale itself; in fact, if you notice, Moby Dick only shows up personally in three of the 135 chapters of this book. What we can know is what the White Whale symbolizes in the minds of the various characters. We may not be able to interpret the White Whale itself, but we can decide how the characters’ interpretations of Moby Dick reflect who they are.
Captain Ahab’s not in his monomaniacal revenge quest for the money, but he knows how to motivate his crew: he nails a gold doubloon to the mast and promises that whoever sees Moby Dick first can have it. (Although, by the end of the novel, he’ll insist that he won it himself.)
As if that weren’t symbolic enough, Melville contrives a scene in which all the important characters, and a few of the unimportant ones, pass by this gold doubloon and give their interpretations of it aloud in a series of little monologues. You know how it goes, Ahab thinks every detail represents himself, Starbuck sees a dark, demonic valley into which the light of God’s sun doesn’t shine, Stubb makes up something silly about astrology, Flask just sees money, and so on. Hey, maybe it’s a little staged, but it gets the job done. (It’s Chapter 99, by the way, if you want to look back at it, or review the most important points in our "Detailed Summary.")
Just as in our interpretation of the White Whale, we’re more interested in knowing what all these different reactions show us about the characters than in deciding which of them is best or most accurate. However, as opposed to Moby Dick, the reader does learn, objectively, what the gold doubloon looks like; Ishmael (or perhaps a third-person omniscient narrator) describes the South American coin’s origins and the objects depicted on it. So we do actually have a yardstick with which we could measure the strangeness of what everyone sees.
How close is "real" coin to each character’s interpretation? Do they focus on insignificant details in the image? On its monetary value? On the main part of the picture?
Of course, there is one way of looking at the gold doubloon that might be better than all the others: Pip’s. In his madness, Pip describes the doubloon as the "ship’s navel," which all the crazy people on the revenge quest are "on fire to unscrew" (99.22). In this way, the coin comes to symbolize a stable center, and we see how Ahab’s monomania is on track to pull it away, leaving the Pequod with a void at its very heart.
As Ishmael tells us something like ten million times, the Pequod is out to hunt sperm whales, from which it can harvest sperm oil and spermaceti. The spermaceti is what gave the sperm whale its name; this precious white waxy stuff, which actually comes out of the sperm whale’s head, was once mistakenly believed to be the actual sperm of the right whale.
Of course, these straightforward facts about the sperm whale don’t stop Ishmael (or Melville) from making even more bawdy jokes about it. After all, if you’re on board a whaling ship with three dozen other guys, and your main job on some days is to squeeze lumps of white goo called "sperm," you’re bound to start punning sooner or later.
Shmoop encourages you to laugh at the jokes (we certainly are), but we also want to point out that the sperm comes to represent something other than profits for the whaling voyage or an opportunity for a nudge-nudge pun.
In Chapter 94: "A Squeeze of the Hand," Ishmael tells us that squeezing these lumps of spermaceti made him forget about the revenge quest; he says he could "wash [his] hands and heart of it" in "that inexpressible sperm" and that he "felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever" (94.4). The sperm also makes him want to melt together with his fellow sailors, forgetting any petty grievances they might have against one another.
Basically, Ishmael feels like he could love the whole world at this point. Now, there are certainly homoerotic overtones here, but there’s also a sense that this is another of Ishmael’s mystical, pantheistic experiences.
This sort of thing is just what gave the "Transcendentalist" movement its name. Transcendentalism was a political, philosophical, and literary movement that emerged in America in the mid-nineteenth century with advocates like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Proponents felt that spiritual transcendence was a more valuable form of experience than physical or strictly intellectual pursuits, and could be achieved in part through solitary, meditative communion with Nature. You can see echoes of this philosophy in Ishmael’s satisfied squeezing of the spermaceti.
When Queequeg falls deathly ill with a fever and thinks he’s dying, one of the things that’s most important to him is to have his coffin made, so that he can make sure it’s just perfect. When he recovers, though, it’s just a useful chest to put things in.
And then, suddenly, the Pequod needs an extra life-buoy, and Queequeg offers up the coffin as something that can easily be transformed into one.
As clever Shmoop readers, we’re sure you can feel the symbolism and irony fairly sizzling off of this one. Something made for a dead body is going to be turned into something that keeps a man from becoming a dead body. Captain Ahab, no fool himself, is deeply disturbed by the symbolism of having a coffin life-buoy on his ship, but eventually he’s able to convince himself that the coffin helps preserve the immortality of the soul anyway, so it’s OK. And yet, we’re not convinced.
When the life-buoy formally known as coffin is actually the thing that saves Ishmael’s life at the end of the story, we’ve got even more of this life-through-death stuff to deal with.
There’s more to say about this than just that the coffin represents both life and death. For Ishmael, it represents life from death, life out of death. After all, Ishmael survives by clinging onto Queequeg’s coffin in more ways than one. Heck, Queequeg might as well be in the coffin, considering that he dies at the same moment that Ishmael is saved.
Hmm…life out of death…that sounds like resurrection, which definitely has some religious symbolism.
Nothing, but nothing, about Moby-Dick is straightforward. Not even—maybe especially not—the point of view. And you thought the whaling chapters would be the hardest part of this book!
For nearly the first forty chapters of the novel, Moby-Dick is narrated in the first person by Ishmael. For the rest of the book, Ishmael’s personality (and the first person pronouns) fades in and out. In terms of point of view, then, there are four general types of chapter in the novel:
Obviously, this makes talking about point of view in Moby-Dick super-complicated. As a general rule, you can probably assume that the narrator is Ishmael unless there’s something in the chapter that he can’t possibly know.
Still, you should try to notice when the first person seems ambiguous, as though it could be Melville himself talking about his whaling experience instead of his character Ishmael.
This leaves us with a few questions. First, when Ishmael is the first person narrator, is he a central or a peripheral narrator? This is related to the question of who the protagonist of the novel is—Ishmael or Ahab. If you think of the novel as Ishmael’s own story, then clearly he’s the central narrator; if you think of him as simply an observer of the larger story of Ahab’s quest, then he’s a peripheral narrator.
We think of Ishmael as the First Person Central Narrator for the beginning of the book, while he tells his own story of deciding to go whaling and meeting Queequeg, and as the First Person Peripheral Narrator for most of the rest of the novel, when the narrative is more focused on Ahab.
The most important question to ask about all these variations in perspective is, of course, why they have to happen at all. Why can’t every chapter just be from Ishmael’s perspective? Well may you ask— but we do want to point out that there’s a clear progression from Ishmael as the first person narrator at the center of the story to a third-person description of the destruction of the Pequod at the end, which doesn’t even mention Ishmael by name. (We only learn where he was in the Epilogue, where his voice comes back.)
So something about this novel makes it necessary to push Ishmael offstage, or to silence him gradually.
But why? Shucks. Join the scholarly debate on that one, dear Shmooper.
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.
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. (Okay, maybe not.) 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 sequence: When Ishmael is forced to share a room at a crowded inn, he meets Queequeg, a South Sea Islander and harpooneer who becomes his BFF 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 sequence: Once the novel moves onboard 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.
The journey here is looong—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.
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.
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 is determined that weather, coincidence, and divine intervention can all be overcome by pure hatred. As, apparently, they can.
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.)
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…
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 the game is 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.
Ishmael decides to go on a whaling voyage, travels to Nantucket, and finds a BFF, Queequeg, and a ship, the Pequod.
After learning of Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on Moby Dick, Ishmael continues to be a part of the day-to-day whaling activities of the Pequod, explaining many (many, many) of the technical details of whaling to the reader.
The Pequod discovers and pursues Moby Dick, but the ship is destroyed in the process and everyone except Ishmael is killed.