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Literature / Moby-Dick

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Illustration by Rockwell Kent

"Call me Ishmael."

Widely considered as one of the greatest American novels, 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.

The plot follows a man named Ishmael, that, infatuated with the sea (apparently, it's a periodical thing), decides to sign on for a whaling ship's voyage to try out how whaling feels. He and his newly-met best friend Queequeg choose the Pequod under the command of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, and he eventually finds himself in the middle of Ahab's mad 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 scholars and commentators. Common meanings for the whale, for instance, are: nature, fate, the ocean's fury itself, Satan, and God (as an invincible opponent who is never actually overcome at any point in the novel).


This book is part of the Hollywoodian Small Reference Pools. Ignoring its 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-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, German Doom Metal band Ahab not only take their name from the book, their first album, called "The Call of the Wretched Sea", is also based on Moby-Dick. Also a common source of Homage or Whole Plot Reference stories, which are a trope of their own, Moby Dick itself was partially inspired by a real life account of a whaling vessel, the Essex, that was attacked and sunk by a sperm whale. The eponymous whale was also heavily inspired by a real whale known as Mocha Dick, who lived off the western coast of Chile in the early 19th century, and was greatly feared by whalers of that era.


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Moby-Dick provides examples of:

"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?"
  • Ambiguous Situation: Given the sperm whale's aggressive nature it is left ambiguous whether Moby Dick is attacking ships out of self-preservation or just for no reason at all.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 is particularly memorable.
    Ahab: From hell's heart I stab at thee. For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee!!!
  • Badass Crew: The Pequod's crew, generally.
  • Blade on a Stick: The whalers' weapons are the harpoon and the spear.
  • 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 is used as a spare lifebuoy after the original is lost. It saves Ishmael when the ship sinks.
  • Butt-Monkey: One thing after another starts to go wrong for the Pequod as the voyage proceeds. Queequeg nearly dies of a fever; the lifebuoy fails, leaving the ship unable to save a man gone overboard; the log and line used to measure sailing speed breaks; a thunderstorm causes the compasses to malfunction; and Ahab smashes the quadrant he uses as a navigational aid.
  • Career Revealing Trait: Ismael observes that veteran whalers often have toes missing, or even an outright peg leg. Part of a whaler's job entails cutting the whale into manageable chunks, done with a Blade on a Stick atop the soft, rolling carcass. Errant swipes tend to detach toes and feet.
  • 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?"
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: How every encounter against Moby Dick goes, whether in tales from other ships or for all three attempts by the crew of the Pequod.
  • Despair Speech: Ahab makes such speeches almost constantly.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Stubb is described as being perpetually irreverent even when killing whales.
  • Dominance Through Furniture: Ishmael is surprised when his new companion Queequeg arranges a nearby drunk to serve as a suitable chair to sit on. Queequeg explains that this is common in his tribe, wherein suitably fluffy men and women are actually cultivated to serve as mobile furniture for high ranking members.
  • Doorstopper: It's over 15 chapters before Ishmael even gets on the ship. Takes Chapter 22 for the ship to finally set sail.
  • The Dreaded: Half of chapter 41 is spent establishing Moby Dick (and to a lesser extent, all sperm whales) as this.
  • Dying Declaration of Hate: Captain Ahab says: "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."
  • Either/Or Title: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale
  • Eldritch Abomination: The White Whale is 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.
  • 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!
  • Fingore: Downplayed but still present in Ishmael's description of the blubber room. Due to the motion of the ship, the sailors who chop up the blubber sometimes slip with their blades and cut off a toe.
  • 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.
  • Foil: Captain Boomer to Captain Ahab. Boomer lost his arm to Moby Dick whereas Ahab lost his leg, but has decided that fighting the white whale once was enough, while Ahab is absolutely obsessed with him.
  • Food Porn: Chapter 15 is about eating ... chowder. Will they have clam chowder or cod chowder? Or maybe BOTH?
  • Freudian Trio: Starbuck as Ego; Ahab as Superego; Stubb as Id.
  • Funetik Aksent: Fleece's form of speech.
    Fellow-critters: I'se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin' ob de lips! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!
  • Fun with Foreign Languages: Stubb's conversation with the captain of the Rosebud.
  • 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!"
  • 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 — some members of the crew believe it marks him "from sole to crown", but this is never shown.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • "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.
    • "The Crotch" is about harpoon shafts, not sexual.
  • 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.
  • Hope Spot: Two, in fact:
    • Chapter 123 has Starbuck think about shooting Ahab with a musket before his Revenge Before Reason gets the whole ship killed. Sadly, Starbuck can't bring himself to do it.
    • Chapter 132 has Ahab consider Starbuck's idea to turn back home to Nantucket. He doesn't go through with it.
  • 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.)
    • Captain Ahab apparently has the habit of working out sextant sights on a specially-prepared area on his peg leg
  • Ignored Epiphany: Ahab briefly reconsiders chasing Moby Dick. Briefly.
  • I Have a Family: Ahab and Starbuck both have a wife and son. Chapter 132 has the two discuss it.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Queequeg manages to harpoon an oil slick.
  • It Can Think: Moby Dick has moments where it seems to show genuine tactical thinking.
  • "Join the Army," They Said: An aversion. The narrator tells Captain Peleg that he wants to go whaling "to see the world". Peleg tells him to look out from the ship's side over the open ocean. When he says he sees "nothing but water", Peleg tells him most of the world looks a lot like that.
  • 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."
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Captain Boomer lost his arm to Moby Dick, but unlike Ahab is smart enough to realize going for round two isn't a good idea and just moved on.
  • Light Is Not Good: Discussed, as in the "paradox" of the creepiness of albinos in spite of the positive symbolism of white.
  • 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.
  • 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 Tears: Starbuck gives us a classic example.
    Starbuck: Oh my Captain! My Captain! Noble heart go not— go not, see its brave man that weeps; how great the agony of the persuasion then!
  • Meaningful Name: All of them Biblically-derived.
    • His parents named him Ahab, after the Old Testament king who is prophesied 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.
    • Starbuck's name is not biblical, but it is no less meaningful. As the ship's navigator, he guides the ship by the stars.
  • Medium Blending: Owing to the obvious Shakespearean influence on the novel, some of the chapters are written as a play script.
  • Motive Rant: Ishmael does this sometimes regarding his seeming need to go to sea, and Ahab does this constantly.
  • Multinational Team: The crew of the Pequod consists of sailors from all over the world, including Italians, Africans, Brits, Danes and Americans of all ethnicities.
  • The Mutiny: In Chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story". It's also a theme, as Starbuck is constantly tempted to usurp Ahab but his conscience restrains him from doing so.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Ishmael mentions that he has censored out a lot of Ahab's dialogue because nobody "living under the light of the Evangelical land" needs to hear that.
  • No Man of Woman Born: Fedallah tells Ahab that he can only be killed by hemp; and even then, Fedallah will go before him. Ahab thinks this means he can only die by being hung. Fedallah is killed on the second day of the three-day chase, and Ahab is killed on the last when the harpoon line wraps around his neck.
  • Noodle Incident: "That deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa."
  • Not Hyperbole: borders on a running gag with Queequeg, starting with him literally being off selling shrunken heads as the innkeeper said.
  • 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 is the only one to speak out against Ahab's vendetta.
    Starbuck: I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance.
  • Pet the Dog: Ahab to Pip, in Chapter 125, "The Log and Line", where he sympathizes with him over his madness.
  • 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 him 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.
  • Profane Last Words: Captain Ahab's last words:
    "From hell's heart, I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."
  • 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. Khan even quotes the book itself. And Star Trek: First Contact has Picard become similarly obsessed with stopping the Borg, though he subverts the usual story progression by being able to force himself off the course he's on, which is of course why his fate is different than Khan's.
  • Red Right Hand: Ahab's iconic peg-leg, made of a sperm whale's jawbone.
  • Revenge: The core of the book's narrative.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Ahab is probably the quintessential example of this. His mad bid for vengeance against Moby Dick costs him his ship, nearly all of his crew, and his life.
  • Ripped from the Headlines:
    • The whale was based off of a similarly destructive albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick that plagued the waters off Chile.
    • The events depicted in The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex were another major inspiration.
  • River of Insanity: Despite being set on the high seas, the story gradually becomes this as everything seems to conspire against them, which only makes Ahab more determined to push on.
  • 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.
  • Rule of Three: Lampshaded. On the third day of the chase, Ahab cheers the crew by telling them all drowning beings come up twice before sinking for the final time, vowing to kill Moby Dick. He's forgotten that he himself went overboard both days.
  • Saved by the Coffin: Ishmael survives the sinking of the Pequod by clinging to the coffin intended for Queequeg.
  • Scavenged Punk:
    • Crossed with Creepy Awesome. Ahab asks the ship's blacksmith to build him a harpoon with a shaft forged from a bunch of horse-shoe nails used in races and the cutting edge from straight-razor blades, and he quenches it in the harpooneers' blood.
    • The Pequod itself, to an extent. Large parts of the bulwarks (side railings) are made from the bones of whales.
      "A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies."
  • 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: The novel frequently digresses into the study of whales and the details of whaling - everything from preparing the boats and harpoon lines to cooking the blubber down for its oil. The chapters can be separated into two groups, one forming a mini-encyclopedia of whaling and the other an adventure story (with a little of the encyclopedia still mixed in).
  • 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.
  • Spare a Messenger: Ishmael the mariner ponders being the sole survivor of the doomed whaler Pequod, and concludes that he was spared by the vengeful behemoth precisely to pen the tale as a warning to all others that would think to pursue the Great White Whale.
  • 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:
    • Ahab makes his last attempt to kill the whale once his ship begins to sink and all is lost. The whale reverses things on him when trailing rope catches Ahab around the neck and drags him under.
    • The sinking ship does this to all the crew except Ishmael; one of the doomed crewmen does this to a sea-hawk in his final seconds, causing it to go under as well. The narrative attributes the bird's death to the malice of the ship.
      [And] so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.
  • 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.
  • Thinking Out Loud: Nearly every character with dialogue makes at least one such speech.
  • Title Drop Chapter: When Moby Dick, the legendary whale, finally appears on chapter 41 of the eponymous book after much anticipation, the chapter pays service to this fact by bearing the title "Moby-Dick".
  • 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 the Pequod, quite distant from Stubb, Starbuck and Ahab, certainly not on a 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 Postmodernism.
  • Villainous Vow: Captain Ahab swears that he will kill the eponymous white whale Moby Dick at any cost, and will chase him to hell and back before he gives him up. It doesn't end well.
  • 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".
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Lampshaded. When Ishmael hears the capatain's name for the first time, he asks why anyone would name their kid Ahab. The crewman notes that Ahab's mother was a religious type whose sanity was questionable.
  • 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.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: The White Whale is deliberately portrayed in the narrative as enigmatic, its symbolism is not wasted on Captain Ahab. Ishmael describes the whale's forehead as having wrinkles and scars on it that look like hieroglyphics, implying it's some kind of ancient forgotten deity. He muses on the difficulty of understanding what he saw. The mystical yet ineffable nature of the beast haunts him for the rest of his life.


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