Moby-Dick, written in 1851, recounts the adventures of the narrator Ishmael as he sails on the whaling ship Pequod under the command of Captain Ahab.
Ishmael believes he has signed onto a routine commission aboard a normal whaling vessel, but he soon learns that Captain Ahab is not guiding the Pequod in the simple pursuit of commerce but is seeking one specific whale, Moby-Dick, a great while whale infamous for his giant size and his ability to destroy the whalers that seek him. Captain Ahab's wooden leg is the result of his first encounter with the whale, when he lost both leg and ship. After the ship sails it becomes clear that Captain Ahab is bent on revenge and he intends to get Moby-Dick.
Ahab demonstrates erratic behavior from the very beginning and his eccentricities magnify as the voyage progresses. As the novel draws to a conclusion, the Pequod encounters the whaling ship Rachel. The Rachel's captain asks Ahab to help him in a search and rescue effort for his whaling-crew that went missing the day before -- and the captain's son is among the missing. But when Ahab learns that the crew disappeared while tangling with Moby-Dick he refuses the call to aid in the rescue so that he may hunt Moby-Dick instead.
The encounter with Moby-Dick brings a tragic end to the affair. Ishmael alone survives, using his friend Queequeg's coffin as a flotation device until he is ironically rescued by the Rachel which has continued to search for its missing crew.
Readers, teachers and students should also take note of a peculiar historical curiosity. After enjoying some success in the 1840s, the publication of Moby-Dick marked Melville's decline as a popular writer. He was unable to support himself as a writer and accepted a job at the New York Customs House. He continued to write, even as he faded into obscurity, turning to poetry in his later years. He published his poems but they were ignored and went unread. Like his novel about the great white whale, his poems are also esteemed by modern critics and scholars.
It was only in the early 1900s that Moby-Dick gained attention and acclaim. During his lifetime, the novel sold a scant 3,000 copies. In modern times the novel is not only considered a great American classic, it is also heralded as one of greatest novels in the English language.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
Teachers and students looking for further summary and analysis might wish to read D. H. Lawrence's chapter on Moby-Dick from his book Studies in Classic American Literature.
Return to Herman Melville's library.