May 04, 2021

#08-079: Moby Dick

black-and-white illustration of a whale's tail in the background; a man standing in a boat swinging a harpoon, with two more men trying to handle the swamped boat, in the mid-ground; and another man struggling in the water in the foreground
Ahab and Moby Dick

Note: Melville's epic story of the revenge of mad Captain Ahab on the great white whale that took his leg off below the knee.

Get Ready: What obsesses you? Is there a "quest" that drives you forward--for better or for worse?

A lot of people see Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby Dick as an extended metaphor of human vs nature, or of the search for God. But at its root, it's just a plain old revenge story.

Not knowing the backstory, the book's narrator, who famously opens his story with the words "Call me Ishmael," signs on as a hand on a whaling vessel. The night before he was forced by crowding to share a bed with a Polynesian native, a tattooed "cannibal" harpooner named Queequeg, who is the proud son of a native potentate. After hearing a sermon about Jonah, who was swallowed up be a "great fish," the two take ship together on the Pequod under their captain, an "ungodly, god-like man" named Ahab. They sail on Christmas Day.

Ishmael talks of whales and of life on the ship, under men like the realistic chief mate Starbuck, the happy-go-lucky second mate Stubb, and the third mate Flask, all of whom have harpooners who are people of color (Queequeg, a Native American, and an African).

Ahab appears at last, declaring revenge on the white whale who took off his leg below the knee, forcing him to walk with a prosthesis or "peg-leg" of whale bone. He offers a reward to the man who first spots this "Moby Dick," and later brings out a hand-picked elite crew including his own harpooner, a "Parsee" (Persian) named Fedallah.

They seek information on the great white whale from nine other ships along the way, with varying degrees of success. Some of these ships, too, have had fatal encounters with the beast. For quite some time the Pequod engages in the usual business of whaling, until, after a furious typhoon, their compass fails and they find themselves in uncharted waters.

At last, they are on Moby Dick's trail. Ahab sights him first, and claims his own reward. As they give chase in small whaleboats, the whale bites Ahab's boat in two, dashing Ahab and the entire crew into the water. On the second day, all three of the pursuing boats are smashed into splinters. Ahab is saved, but his ivory leg and Fedallah, his harpooner, are lost. Starbuck begs Ahab to give up, but he is more resolved than ever.

On the third day, Ahab attacks again. When the whale surfaces, they see Fedallah, Ahab's dead harpooner, is still lashed to its body by harpoon lines. Ahab sinks his harpoon into the whale, who attacks the whaleboat and then the Pequod itself. Ishmael, who has been thrown into the sea, will be the only survivor.

Ahab stabs the whale again, but the line wraps around the Captain's neck. The whale swims away, taking Ahab with him.

Ishmael floats on a coffin for a day and a night, before being rescued by another ship. The Epilogue begins with a quote from the Biblical book of Job:

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee."


Read more:

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. backstory
  2. cannibal
  3. dashing
  4. happy-go-lucky
  5. harpoon
  6. ivory
  7. lashed
  8. person of color
  9. prosthesis
  10. splinters

  1. a person who eats people
  2. an artificial body part
  3. cheerful
  4. throwing violently
  5. a non-white person
  6. small pieces of wood
  7. tied
  8. a heavy spear for killing whales
  9. background
  10. material of whale (or elephant) teeth

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 4, 2021

Please leave a comment - I can't WAIT to hear from you!