Summary of the Novel
Ishmael, the narrator of the story, explains that he goes to sea whenever he is depressed. In the port of New Bedford, he stays at the Spouter Inn. He is at first frightened by Queequeg, his tattooed, tomahawk-toting bedmate, who has been out selling shrunken heads. Queequeg soon becomes Ishmael’s bosom friend.
Ishmael attends a service at the Whaleman’s Chapel where Father Mapple gives a sermon about Jonah and the whale. The next day, Queequeg and Ishmael set out for Nantucket where they sign onto a whaler. On the ferry ride to the island, a young man mocks Queequeg. Later, this same young man falls overboard and is saved by Queequeg.
While Queequeg performs his rites of Ramadan in the room at the Try Pots, Ishmael signs onto the whaler Pequod owned by the Quaker captains, Bildad and Peleg. The heathen Queequeg must prove his skill as a harpooner before he is accepted.
As the two friends are about to board the Pequod, they are accosted by the crazed Elijah, who utters vague warnings about Ahab and the voyage. In the mist, they see four or five shadowy figures go aboard. The ship sets sail on Christmas day. The chief mate, Starbuck, chooses Queequeg for his harpooneer; the second mate, Stubb, chooses the Indian, Tashtego; and the third mate, Flask, chooses the African, Daggoo.
Several days after the ship sets sail, Ahab finally appears on deck. His appearance sends shivers through Ishmael. A white scar runs from his hairline, over his face, and down his neck beneath his clothing. He stands upon an artificial leg made of whale bone.
Ahab calls all men on deck. He hammers a gold doubloon to the mast and tells the men that the first to spot Moby Dick, the white whale, will win the coin. Ahab admits that it was Moby Dick that took off his leg.
When the first whale is sighted and the boats are lowered, the sailors are surprised to see Ahab in his own boat with a mysterious crew who had been hidden below deck. The exotic Fedallah is his harpooner. A squall comes up during the chase. Ishmael's boat capsizes and is later nearly rammed by the Pequod.
After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship has its first of many gams, or meetings with other ships. Ahab’s sole purpose in communicating with these ships is to get news of Moby Dick. Several of the ships have lost men to the whale. The Rachel has recently chased Moby Dick and is now searching for a lost boat. The young son of the captain is in that boat, but Ahab refuses to join the search. Starbuck confronts Ahab and tries to convince him to abandon his mission to get his revenge on Moby Dick.
Stubb’s boat is the first to kill a whale. While Stubb eats his whale steak, Fleece, the cook, delivers a sermon to the sharks. During the cleaning of another whale, Tashtego falls into the tun, the forehead of the whale containing the spermaceti. When the head breaks loose from the ship and falls into the water, Tashtego is rescued by Queegueg. Pip, the timid black boy, is temporarily abandoned in the sea during another whale chase which drives him to madness. Queequeg, stricken with fever and believing death is near, has the ship’s carpenter build him a coffin.
Ahab has the blacksmith fashion a special harpoon, tempered in the blood of the heathen harpooners. During a storm, Ahab holds the harpoon above his head and it is struck by lightning. Later, Ahab has a dream, which is interpreted by Fedallah. The Parsee predicts that he will die before Ahab, that only hemp can kill Ahab, and that before he dies, Ahab will see two hearses upon the sea.
At last, Moby Dick is sighted by Ahab. The chase lasts three days. Fedallah dies, lashed by tangled lines to the body of the great beast. Ahab thrusts his harpoon into Moby Dick, but his line runs afoul and catches him around the neck; he is pulled down to the depths. Moby Dick smashes into the bow of the Pequod, and Queequeg’s coffin shoots out of the whirlpool created by the sinking ship. The only survivor, Ishmael, clings to this strange life buoy and is later rescued.
Estimated Reading Time
Reading time will improve as the reader becomes accustomed to Melville’s style. In an hour’s sitting, 30 to 35 pages could be covered. The book could be completed in 20 to 25 hours.