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,...
(The entire section is 572 words.)
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