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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Everyone will always think of Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick as a story about Captain Ahab's quest to find the great white whale. Actually there is a lot more to the book than that. For one thing, it gives a detailed account of all aspects of whaling in the olden days of sailing ships and oil lanterns. But the captain's mad desire for revenge is what frames the story, gives the story its ongoing thrust, and gives it a beginning, middle and end. In Chapter 36, "The Quarter-deck," the captain meets with the crew because:

  • He wants to impart some of his own fanatical motivation to his men. He does this by showing them a Spanish doubloon with which he will reward the first man who spots Moby Dick on the vast ocean.
  • He is the only man on the ship who has ever seen Moby Dick, so he wants to make sure the men know what they are looking for. There are thousands of whales in the seas, so they have to know how to identify Moby Dick if they see him.

Moby Dick is not actually a white whale. He just has a white head. This must mean that the rest of him is the same color as other whales. It seems as though their chances of finding this one whale in all the vast ocean are miniscule. And the beautiful gold coin nailed to the mast isn't going to make it any easier to find a particular whale. Moby Dick could be virtually anywhere between the Antarctic and the Arctic, and between Asia and the Americas--or perhaps elsewhere. Ahab may be looking for Moby Dick, but Moby Dick certainly isn't looking for Ahab. Here is how Ahab describes the whale:

"Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke--look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"

Apparently a crewman might spot a white-headed whale, but it wouldn't be Moby Dick unless he had three holes punctured in his right fluke. Whales have big triangular tails, and each side is called a fluke. Ahab himself may have been responsible for those three holes.

So an ordinary whaling voyage is transformed into a search for a single whale, with all the officers and crewmen on a continual lookout for Moby Dick. This is excellent writing. It provides a powerful motivation to sustain the whole long yarn, and it also foreshadows a dynamic conclusion when the great white whale finally appears. The reader is thrilled! But finding Moby Dick is only the beginning. Now they have to kill him.