The novel focuses on Captain Ahab’s complex quest to find and kill the huge white whale, Moby Dick, that has physically robbed him of his leg and metaphorically deprived him of his manhood, of his sense of individual importance and identity. Set in the mid-19th century during the heyday of American whaling, the story is told by Ishmael. His own quest for “the ungraspable phantom of life” parallels Ahab’s for the white whale. His style of storytelling, which includes action, meditative passages, exposition on whales and whaling, dramatic scenes modeled on Shakespeare, high tragedy and low comedy, is as various and as unstable as Melville’s watery world.
As Ahab becomes increasingly drawn to and obsessed by the whale, Ishmael becomes similarly attracted to the monomaniacal captain, who is at once a tyrant and a tragic hero. Ahab’s greatness arises from his insatiable need to do battle with and to know the most dangerous and the most legendary of all whales, a natural as well as supernatural creature that Ahab comes to view as the embodiment of evil in the world. To accomplish his goal, the wily Ahab first has to seduce his crew into accepting his quest as their own.
Of the Pequod’s crew, only Starbuck, the first mate, withholds his support, attempting unsuccessfully to convince Ahab of the wrongness of his quest (since his antagonist is a mere brute) and of the essential goodness of creation. Failing to heed Starbuck’s appeal, Ahab dies, his neck caught in his own whale line, caught, that is, in the fate he has unwittingly yet inexorably fashioned for himself by defining too narrowly the white whale and the world of which it is a part.
Ishmael, on the other hand, survives because unlike Ahab he achieves a healthy balance of Ahab’s skepticism (even nihilism) and Starbuck’s faith, of the tragic and the comic, of self and society. For Ishmael, as for Melville, life is an unending series of voyages out, whose meaning lies beyond the comprehension of even the noblest of men.
Brodhead, Richard H., ed. New Essays on “Moby Dick.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Contains essays discussing the complexity of Moby Dick’s first sentence, its Calvinist themes, and the multiplicity of sources used by Melville, among other subjects.
James, C. L. R. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. New York: Allison & Busby, 1985. A powerful reading of Moby Dick through the context to twentieth century politics, arguing that Ahab’s sway over his crew symbolizes the power of totalitarianism.
Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. This book gave a title to the period in which Melville lived and wrote and discusses Melville’s work alongside that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others.
Miller, Edwin Haviland. Melville. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Psychoanalytic biography of Melville, especially attentive to Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne during the time he was composing Moby Dick.
Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1947. A literary work of art in its own right, written by an influential postmodern American poet, this book is also a piece of first-class literary detective work. Olson tracked down Melville’s library a half-century after the author’s death, upon which he bases his theories of Melville’s compositional process and his use of whaling lore and Shakespeare in Moby Dick.