Ishmael, a philosophical young schoolmaster and sometime sailor who seeks the sea when he becomes restless, gloomy, and soured on the world. With a newfound friend, Queequeg, a harpooner from the South Seas, he signs aboard the whaler Pequod as a seaman. Queequeg is the only person on the ship to whom he is emotionally and spiritually close, and this closeness is, after the initial establishment of their friendship, implied rather than detailed. Otherwise, Ishmael does a seaman’s work, observes and listens to his shipmates, and keeps his own counsel. Having been reared a Presbyterian (as was Melville), he reflects in much of his thinking the Calvinism out of which Presbyterianism grew; but his thought is also influenced by his knowledge of literature and philosophy. He is a student of cetology. Regarding Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick, the legendary white whale, and the parts played by himself and others involved, Ishmael dwells on such subjects as free will, predestination, necessity, and damnation. After the destruction of the Pequod by Moby Dick, Ishmael, the lone survivor, clings to Queenqueg’s floating coffin for almost a day and a night before being rescued by the crew of another whaling vessel, the Rachel.
Queequeg, Starbuck’s veteran harpooner, a tattooed cannibal from Kokovoko, an uncharted South Seas island. Formerly zealous of learning about Christianity, he has become disillusioned after living among so-called Christians and, having reverted to paganism, he worships a little black idol, Yojo, that he keeps with him. Although he appears at ease among his Christian shipmates, he keeps himself at the same time apart from them, his only close friend being Ishmael. In pursuit of whales, he is skilled and fearless. When he nearly dies of a fever, he has the ship’s carpenter build him a canoe-shaped coffin, which he tries out for size and comfort; then, recovering, he saves it for future use. It is this coffin on which Ishmael floats after the sinking of the Pequod and the drowning of Queequeg.
Captain Ahab, the proud, defiant, megalomaniacal captain of the Pequod. He is a grim, bitter, brooding, vengeful madman who has only one goal in life: the killing of the white whale that had deprived him of a leg in an earlier encounter. His most prominent physical peculiarity is a livid scar that begins under the hair of his head and, according to one crewman, extends the entire length of his body. The scar symbolizes the spiritual flaw in the man himself. His missing leg has been replaced by one of whalebone. When he stands erect looking out to sea, his face shows the unconquerable willfulness of his spirit—and, to Ishmael, a crucifixion also, a “regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.” Ahab is in complete, strict command of his ship, though he permits Starbuck occasionally to disagree with him. Ahab dies caught in a fouled harpoon line that loops about his neck and pulls him from a whaleboat.
Starbuck, the first mate, tall, thin, weathered, staid, steadfast, conscientious, and superstitious, a symbol of “mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness.” He dares to criticize Ahab’s desire for vengeance, but he is as ineffectual as a seaman trying to halt a storm. Ahab once takes his advice about repairing some leaking oil casks; but when Starbuck, during a typhoon off Japan, suggests turning home, Ahab scorns him. Starbuck even thinks of killing or imprisoning Ahab while the captain is asleep, but he cannot. Having failed to dissuade Ahab from the pursuit of Moby Dick, Starbuck submits on the third day to Ahab’s will, though feeling that in obeying Ahab he is disobeying God. When he makes one final effort to stop the doomed Ahab, the captain shouts to his boatmen, “Lower away!”
Stubb, the second mate, happy-go-lucky, indifferent to danger, good-humored, easy; he is a constant pipe-smoker and a fatalist.
Flask (King-Post), the young third mate, short, stout, and ruddy. He relishes whaling and kills the whales for the fun of it, as one might get rid of giant rats. In his shipboard actions, Flask is sometimes playful out of Ahab’s sight but always abjectly respectful in his presence.
Fedallah, Ahab’s tall, diabolical, white-turbaned Parsee servant. He is like a shadow of Ahab, or the two are like opposite sides of a single character; Ahab seems finally to become Fedallah, though retaining his own appearance. The Parsee prophesies that Ahab will have neither hearse nor coffin when he dies. Fedallah too dies caught in a fouled harpoon line that is wrapped around Moby Dick.
Moby Dick, a giant albino sperm whale that has become a legend among whalers. He has often been attacked, and he has crippled or destroyed many men and boats. He is both a real whale and a symbol with many possible meanings. He may represent the universal spirit of evil, God the indestructible, or indifferent Nature; or perhaps he may encompass an ambiguity of meaning adaptable to the individual reader. Whatever his meaning, he is one of the most memorable nonhuman characters in all fiction.
Pip, the bright, jolly, genial black cabin boy who, after falling from a boat during a whale chase, is abandoned in midocean by Stubb, who supposes that a following boat will pick him up. When finally taken aboard the Pequod, he has become demented from fright.
Tashtego, an American Indian, Stubb’s harpooner. As the Pequod sinks, he nails the flag still higher on the mast and drags a giant seabird, caught between the hammer and the mast, to a watery grave.
Daggoo, a giant African, Flask’s harpooner.
Father Mapple, a former whaler, now the minister at the Whaleman’s Chapel in New Bedford. He preaches a Calvinistic sermon filled with seafaring terms.
Captain Peleg and
Captain Bildad, fighting, materialistic Quakers who are the principal owners of the Pequod.
Elijah, a madman who warns Ishmael and Queequeg against shipping with Captain Ahab.
Dough-Boy, the pale, bread-faced, dull-witted steward who, deathly afraid of Queenqueg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, does his best to satisfy their enormous appetites.
Fleece, the old black ship’s cook. At Stubb’s request, he preaches a sermon to the voracious sharks and ends with a hope that their greed will kill them. He is disgusted also by Stubb’s craving for whale meat.
Bulkington, the powerfully built, deeply tanned, sober-minded helmsman of the Pequod.
Perth, the ship’s elderly blacksmith, who took up whaling after losing his home and family. He makes for Ahab the harpoon intended to be Moby Dick’s death dart, which the captain baptizes in the devil’s name.
Captain Gardiner, the skipper of Rachel, for whose lost son Captain Ahab refuses to search.