"Call me Ishmael."
Described by many as the greatest American novel
, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
, written by Herman Melville
in 1851, is either a story about the hunt of a dangerous whale by a madman
that shows Melville's work
, or an encyclopedia on whaling and cetology
with a Framing Device
. Or both. You choose.
Either way, the plot follows a man that, infatuated with the sea (apparently, it's a periodical thing), decides to go aboard a whaling ship to try out how whaling feels. He and his newly-met best friend Queequeg
go upon the Pequod
under the command of the monomaniac Captain Ahab
, and eventually get in the middle of his maniac hunt for Moby Dick, the eponymous "White Whale" that ate his leg. Tragedy ensues.Moby-Dick
is full of symbolism
, and much more has been added by later commentators
. Common meanings for the whale, for instance, are: nature, fate, the ocean's fury itself, Ireland
, and God
(as an invincible opponent
who is never actually overcome
at any point in the story).
This book is part of the Hollywoodian Small Reference Pools
. Despite any real-life literary merits, it is convenient shorthand for "huge boring doorstopper
assigned for reading by high-school teachers" in any given kids series. Whether this also implicitly states that execs think that Kids Are Morons
is debatable. Referencing the book is often a shorthand signifier that a character is cultured (and possibly Wicked Cultured
) in Hollywood and other American stories; while it's well enough known elsewhere in the world, it doesn't have the same symbolic weight.Moby-Dick
has been adapted to screen several times, the most famous version being with Gregory Peck
as Ahab. Patrick Stewart
was inspired to play the role following an allegorical comparison to Ahab in one of his movies
. A concept album based on Moby Dick called Leviathan
was also made by prog-metal band Mastodon
. Also a common source of Homage
or Whole Plot Reference
stories, which are a trope of their own
This novel provides examples of:
- Animal Nemesis: It's practically the textbook for this trope. The Whale is responsible for the loss of one of Ahab's legs. Or its subversion, in that Ahab's rage has since become stock metaphor for revenge-seeking rage that defies merely human attempts to control or stop it.
- Animals Not to Scale: Moby-Dick weighs 75 tons, which is a good 20 tons more than any real sperm whale.
- Annoying Arrows: Moby Dick's hide is covered in leftover harpoons from failed attempts to bag him.
- Antiquated Linguistics: Even for the time. There's a lot of "thee" and "thou" in this book, since most of the main characters are Quakers, who talked like that back then.
- An Arm and a Leg: The source of Ahab's angst.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
"He's killed himself," she cried. "It's unfort'nate stiggs done over again - there goes another counterpane - god pity his poor mother! - it will be the ruin of my house. Has the poor lad a sister? Where's that girl? - there, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with - "no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;" - might as well kill both birds at once."
- Author Filibuster: Though he had reservations about killing whales ("So remorseless a havoc"), Melville had high regard for the brave whalers. In his generation, they were equivalent to cowboys and astronauts.
- Badass Boast: Ahab utters quite a bit during the book. His dying speech - see Famous Last Words - is particularly memorable.
- Badass Crew: The Pequod's crew, generally.
- Badass Grandpa: Ahab, although also a Perilous Old Fool.
- Broke Your Arm Punching Out Cthulhu: Ahab's quest to destroy what he sees as the mortal form of an Eldritch Abomination goes poorly for every human character involved. The whale survives, apparently unscathed.
- Chekhov's Gun: Queequeg's coffin.
- Stubb comes across as one at times, to Starbuck's dislike.
- Poor little Pip, who is never quite right again after he is left adrift in the ocean by himself for hours before his rescue.
- Cosmic Horror Story: A simple story of whalers on a mission to hunt a single specific whale in the middle of the ocean gradually takes on aspects of this:
"And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues — every stately or lovely emblazoning — the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge — pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?"
- Crazy Sane: Captain Ahab is a pretty competent captain, and seems perfectly normal until he talks about his Animal Nemesis. Pip goes mad after almost drowning twice and becomes a Talkative Loon. After a chapter tell us about Perth’s tragic life, Ahab himself asks why Perth averts this trope:
"Well, well; no more. Thy shrunk voice sounds too calmly, sanely woeful to me. In no Paradise myself, I am impatient of all misery in others that is not mad. Thou should'st go mad, blacksmith; say, why dost thou not go mad? How can'st thou endure without being mad? Do the heavens yet hate thee, that thou can'st not go mad?"
- Determinator: Captain Ahab. And not in a good way. He's the Trope Codifier of all self-destructive forms. Being accused of being Captain Ahab means that unless a character changes their chosen course, and quickly, they will destroy themselves... and probably take everyone under their command with them.
- Doorstopper: It's over 15 chapters before Ishmael even gets on the ship. Takes Chapter 22 for the ship to finally set sail.
- Dying Declaration Of Hate: Ahab's is the page quote.
- Either/Or Title: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
- Eldritch Abomination: The White Whale is presented as this, a large albino that has resisted several attempts to harpoon it(it is still covered with harpoons from the last people who tried) and when it finally turns up, it destroys and crushes the Pequod leaving only one survivor. The Rule of Symbolism implies that in fighting the Whale, Ahab is essentially fighting life, nature or God.
- Everything's Squishier with Cephalopods / Giant Squid: The crew of the Pequod once gets to spot a giant squid, and find it even scarier than Moby-Dick himself. Of course, they haven't met Moby-Dick by this point.
Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.
As with a low sucking sound it slowly disappeared again, Starbuck still gazing at the agitated waters where it had sunk, with a wild voice exclaimed — "Almost rather had I seen Moby Dick and fought him, than to have seen thee, thou white ghost!"
- Evil Albino: The famous chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale" goes in great deal explaining how the albinism of the whale was strangely upsetting.
"Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows — a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?"
- Famous Last Words: From Ahab himself.
Ahab: From hell's heart I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!!!
- Fatal Flaw: Well, Pride and Wrath for Ahab.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Ishmael tells the story, and at first appears to be the main character, but as the story goes on he becomes more and more peripheral to the story to the point that he almost disappears while Captain Ahab and the eponymous whale take center stage as the main characters.
- Food Porn: Chapter 15 is about eating... chowder. Will they have clam chowder or cod chowder? Or maybe BOTH?
- Foreshadowing: Chapter 40, "The Line".
- Freudian Trio: Ahab as Ego; Starbuck as Superego; Stubb as Id.
- Funetik Aksent: Fleece's form of speech.
- Fun with Foreign Languages: Stubb's conversation with the captain of the Rosebud.
- Gentle Giant: Queequeg. He's a brawny cannibal prince from the South Sea islands who's covered in tribal tattoos, has his teeth filed to look like fangs, and is deadly accurate with his harpoon (which doubles as a razor for shaving). So what's his favorite pastime besides peddling shrunken heads in the street? Snuggling up with his best buddy Ishmael. D'awwwwwwww.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Nearly drowning twice as a result of his own cowardice and stupidity does wonders for Pip's sanity. The poor kid frequently rants and chastises himself. Ahab sees him as a kindred spirit, probably because Pip is the only person on the ship as mad as he is.
- Good Scars, Evil Scars: In addition to his peg-leg, Ahab also has a livid scar extending from his hairline and disappearing into his collar, the extent of which is unclear - although some members of the crew believe it marks him "from sole to crown", this is never made clear.
- Have a Gay Old Time: A book about the hunt of a sperm whale named Moby Dick. Also, "The Town-Ho's Story" has nothing to do with The Oldest Profession. The probably-deliberate homoerotica between Ishmael and Queequeg doesn't help any.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship is either this or Ho Yay. Given the latter's claim that "now we are married" after they bunk together (with Queequeg clutching his harpoon throughout the night), it's probably the latter.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Captain Ahab, while not exactly evil, seeks to kill a whale that (probably?) acted out of instinct.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Ahab is dragged underwater and killed after the rope attached to his harpoon wraps around his neck.
- Human Notepad: In Chapter 102 ("A Bower in the Arsacides"), Ishmael mentions recording the dimensions of a whale skeleton on his arm, "as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics." (He omits the inches, as he was saving room for a poem.)
- Ignored Epiphany: Ahab briefly reconsiders chasing Moby Dick. Briefly.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Queequeg manages to harpoon an oil slick.
- The Insomniac: Ahab is Type B, forgoing sleep for as long as possible to stay focused on his mission.
Ahab: Sleep? That bed is a coffin and those are winding sheets. I do not sleep, I die.
- Karmic Death: Ahab drowns when he is pulled underwater by Moby Dick.
- Kill 'em All: Everyone except Ishmael. And perhaps Moby-Dick.
"Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."
- Light Is Not Good: Discussed, as in the "paradox" of the creepiness of albinos in spite of the positive symbolism of white. It should be noted that the whale is not an albino however; he's merely white because he's covered in scars.
- Lightning Can Do Anything: Ahab certainly believes so, and his scar is likened by the author to a tree split down the grain by /lightning. He uses the "power" imbued in him by the bolt to bless the mates' lances.
- Louis Cypher: Fedallah, possibly. Stubb certainly thinks so. Though that might be prejudice to him being a lascar Parsee sailor.
- Ludicrous Precision: The question of whether the whale's spout is water or vapour has lasted from the beginning of history down to "this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851)"
- Manly Men Can Hunt
- Meaningful Name: All of them Biblically-derived.
- His parents named him Ahab, after the Old Testament king who is prophecised to die in battle.
- When Ishmael is warned about Ahab's madness by a man named Elijah (which was also the name of the guy in the Bible who predicted Ahab's death), the symbolism is not lost on him.
- Assuming that Ishmael is, indeed, the narrator's name, then he's an example of this as well, being eternally cast out and alone.
- The Rachel, a ship encountered late in the book, is searching for the lost son of the captain, and eventually saves Ishmael - also a lost son, after a fashion - when the Pequod is wrecked. In the Old Testament, Rachel is the devoted mother of Joseph, whom she loses when he is sold to slavers.
- Medium Blending: Owing to the obvious Shakespearean influence on the novel, some of the chapters are written as a play script.
- The Mutiny: In Chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story". It's also a theme, Starbuck is constantly tempted to usurp Ahab but his conscience restrains him from doing so.
- No Man of Woman Born: Courtesy of Fedallah.
- No Name Given: An intriguing variation: Ishmael does give a name at the beginning of the book, but only instructs the reader to "Call me Ishmael", as opposed to saying "My name is Ishmael". This is often cited as strong evidence that Ishmael is an unreliable narrator. If you can't even be sure that he told the truth about his name, then you can't be sure that he told the truth about anything. See Meaningful Name for why he'd tell you to call him Ishmael if that isn't his real name.
- Nonindicative Name: Why was the whale given the name "Moby Dick"? Nobody knows.
- Noodle Incident: "That deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa."
- Not What I Signed On For: Starbuck is on the Pequod to hunt whales for business, not assist his captain in his mad obsession for one specific whale that obviously wants to be left alone. He certainly thinks this, and in some adaptations voices this very phrase. Only his sense of duty keeps him from mutinying.
- Only Sane Man: Starbuck.
- Pet the Dog: Ahab and Pip in Chapter 125, "The Log and Line".
- Plague of Good Fortune: A subtle example of type 4: Once Ahab has decided to destroy Moby Dick, a lot of good things (for a superior spirit, of course) happened to him: he discovers the beauty of nature, he appreciates the loyalty of his crew, he rediscovers love and charity again when he befriends Pip, Starbuck reminds him of his wife and son, the captain of the Rachel begs him to save his son... It's like the whole universe conspires to save Ahab from his self imposed doom, to convince to abandon his philosophy of Rage Against the Heavens. He only can blame himself.
- Power Born of Madness: "If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object."—Chapter 33.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Ahab. The author directly states that Ahab has come to project all of the evil in the world onto Moby Dick, as if the white whale is the living personification of evil and bad fortune. Ahab himself acknowledges that he hates the whale that crippled him not so much as a mere whale, but for what it represents: bad luck, fate, the harsh nature of a post-Eden fallen world, whatever you want to call it. Ahab's anger, as the author put it, is the sum total of all of the anger of humanity going back to when Adam was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, anger at an imperfect world in which bad things can happen. Ahab sees the white whale as the living personification of all of this, and thus, something in the flesh which he can actually fight and kill.
- Recycled In Space: A French comic book reuses the story in, well, space. The whalers are Asteroid Miners, the harpoons are nuclear warheads, the kraken is a dwarf star, and Moby Dick is a (possibly) sentient comet. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan also uses Ahab's obsession with the white whale as a metaphor for Khan's self-destructive appetite for revenge.
- Red Right Hand: Ahab's iconic peg-leg, made of a white whale tooth.
- Revenge: Again, practically the textbook example.
- Revenge Before Reason: Quoth Starbuck — "Vengeance on a dumb brute! That simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."
- Ripped from the Headlines:
- The whale was based off of a similarly destructive albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick that plagued Bermuda.
- The events depicted in The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex were another major inspiration.
- Rousing Speech: Several, but the most notable and dramatic happens with the St. Elmo's Fire scene, where the crew swears loyalty to their captain after seeing how fearless he is.
- Scavenged Punk:
- School Study Media
- Shout-Out: To The Tempest, when the sailors are discussing whether they will drown sooner or later, or live long enough to get hanged.
- Shown Their Work: Cetology and all aspects of whale fishing; All, I say. But they're interesting. Remove the even-numbered chapters, and you've got an encyclopedia of whaling. Remove the odd-numbered chapters, and you've got an adventure story. And that story still has a bit of the encyclopedia.
- Shrunken Head: The innkeeper tells Ishmael that Queequeg is off selling his shrunken heads, but Ishmael doesn't get it and freaks out when Queequeg shows up in the shared bedroom with one.
- Sole Survivor: Ishmael is the only survivor of the sinking of the Pequod.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Incredibly pedantic example, but for whatever reason the whale's name is hyphenated only in the book's title, while in the actual text it's always spaced out as "Moby Dick".
- Suddenly Ethnicity: Toyed with. Ishmael is shocked to discover that "the harpooner" is a South Seas native, but accepts it just as easily.
- Super-Persistent Predator: Captain Ahab. A human version.
- Taking You with Me: In most film versions, the whale takes Ahab with him. Or is that the other way round? (In the book, the critical consensus is that Moby Dick survives. The actual act if killing a whale with a harpoon in described in considerable detail earlier in the book, and the events of the final chase make it clear that Ahab doesn't reach the point of striking the fatal blow)
- Talk Like a Pirate: Justified. "Avast" is an actual period nautical command, and it (and a few others) are used correctly in the story. There is no "Arr", though, because that's a Bristol accent and these guys are mostly American.
- Tragic Hero: Ahab really doesn't seem to be a bad captain, certainly better than the captain in the story within the story who could have ended a mutiny merely by promising to not abuse his men any more but refuses out of pride. He simply suffers from a Fatal Flaw of becoming obsessed with vengeance. Ahab even has a wife and son at home, though he mentions them only once, so everyone else who's ever read the book (except Sena Naslund, author of the novel Ahab's Wife) might be forgiven for forgetting that.
- Truth in Television: Believe it or not, this book was based very heavily on a true story. Although, the story of Moby-Dick is quite a "softened" version of the actual events — the real tale is far more gruesome and chilling. Read for yourself. Also, it should be noted the angry ship-sinking cetacean was actually a sperm whale. Chapter XLV of the novel itself cites the real-life story as evidence that a sperm whale can indeed sink a ship.
- Undying Loyalty:
- The entire crew to Ahab.
- Starbuck, who at one point considers killing Ahab once he realizes he's gone completely insane, refrains out of loyalty to the post he has been entrusted with.
- Unreliable Narrator: A particular problem for critics is that Ishmael is a mere sailor on Pequod, quite distant from Stubb, Starbuck and Ahab, certainly not on First Name Basis with them, but somehow he relates actions and incidents where he could not possibly have been present and gone acknowledged. The shift in style is also part of it. This blending of narration is one reason why the book is a perennial favorite especially for people interested in Deconstruction and Post Modernism.
- Viewers Are Morons: Why Ishmael goes into all the technical aspects of whaling and ships; it's assumed (rightly or wrongly) that most readers don't know about that stuff. Though it might also be because Ishmael finds that information of interest in itself since it was part of his daily work and life experience.
- What Did You Expect When You Named It ____?: The Pequod is named after the Pequot indians, who at the time of the story were "now extinct as the ancient Medes".
- What You Are in the Dark: Starbuck, the lone dissenting voice, has a moment where he's looking at the loaded muskets outside Ahab's cabin. He very seriously considers shooting Ahab in order to put an end to what he sees as a fool's quest. However, his loyalty to his captain (and presumably his Quaker faith as well) stops him.
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Starbuck wrestles with this. See above.
- Wild Samoan: Largely subverted with Queequeg.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Complete with cries of "Avast!"
- Working Class Hero: The crew of the Pequod are placed in an epic tradition that goes back to The Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts but all of them are simply whalers and fishermen, as the endless technical description of whaling bring forth. Captain Ahab is often described as the first working-class Tragic Hero in the epic tradition of Achilles, Hamlet and Milton's Satan.
"Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commoners; bear me out in it, O God!"
- You Can't Fight Fate: Played with in all sorts of ways. Ahab's quest to Moby-Dick could have been forgone several times, and Ahab himself could have been mutinied or stopped anytime, but despite these temptations and brief moments of reason, they press on to the doomed quest against the Whale.