A Synopsis of Moby-Dick, Focusing on Ten Basic Elements in the Story
1) Moby-Dick is a novel about the monomaniacal hunt of an enraged captain of an American whaling ship for an albino sperm whale, one believed to have been hunted many times over for its bounteous stores of sperm oil. The whale turns out, at the end of the story, to be indestructible, unattainable, and immortal. The captain's name is Ahab, and he is so named after the Biblical King of Israel that the One God hated more than any other. The White Whale has its prototype in the Old Testament image of Leviathan-Rahab-Tiamat, the Babylonian sea-dragon. Isaiah, the great Hebrew prophet, wrote: "In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea" (Isaiah 27:1),[i] and again: Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon? Was it not thou that didst dry up the sea, the waters of the great deep; that didst make the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? (Isaiah 51: 9-10)[ii] It is important to point out, as we look for contemporary parallels, that whales were the most lucrative source of oil in the nineteenth century, and that the biblical Babylon was located in what is now the southern tip of Iraq.
2) The action of the drama takes place through the eyes of a fictional character who calls himself "Ishmael," which is the name of one of the legendary sons of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible; he is the spiritual father of monotheism and the main ancestor of the nation of Islam. In Chapter 1, Ishmael gives his reasons for going to sea. He writes: "Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States. "WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. "BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN."[iii] What might this statement about a bloody battle in Afghanistan have meant to Melville? We do know that on January 3, 1841, Melville sailed on the whaleship Auschnet out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, from New Bedford harbor, for the South Pacific. We have no idea if he was moved to do so by any externalconflict, such as a battle in Afghanistan, but he was under great internal stress.
3) Ishmael meets a Polynesian whale hunter named Queequeg before the adventure takes place. The two men sleep together like "husband and wife" in the same bed and in a short while they become "bosom friends." Queequeg worships a black ebony idol from Africa, has Polynesian tattoos inscribed all over his body, smokes from a Native American "tomahawk pipe," and observes the highest Muslim religious rite of Ramadan. Thus, Queequeg is a polytheist, a pantheist, and monotheist, who leads Ishmael to develop respect for "anybody's religious observations."
4) Before the ship sets sail an old man and an old woman appear to warn Ishmael about the dangers ahead. Their names are "Elijah," after the Biblical servant of God, who was sent to warn Ishmael of God's wrathful side, and "Tistig," a Native American seeress who predicts that the adventure will "prove prophetic," which in point of fact it does. The name of the ship is "Pequod," so-named after the Pequot Indians of the Eastern seaboard, who were ruthlessly and violently exterminated by Puritan settlers.
5) On board the Pequod, Ishmael and the ship's crew meet up with captain Ahab. Ahab's leg, we soon learn, was ripped off by the devouring jaws of the White Whale, in a previous battle at sea. Ahab has an elongated scar running down his face to the full length of his body, where lightning hit him during that battle. He walks on an ivory stump, made of whale bone. His dismemberment by the whale occurred off the coast of Japan.
6) Ahab offers a golden doubloon as a reward to anyone who sights the White Whale. Ishmael and the ship's crew make a pact with Ahab to hunt Moby Dick to his death. Ahab expresses his deep rage, violence, and hatred towards the White Whale. After the pact to hunt the White Whale has been made we learn that it was only after Ahab's "torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing," made "him mad," on the homeward voyage, that the "final monomania" hit him.
7) On board the ship, five mysterious phantoms make themselves present prior to the hunt. The central figure is named "Fedallah," an Arabic word which means God's "assassin," "ransom," or "sacrifice." The men on board the Pequod begin to suspect that Fedallah is an agent of Satan. He is referred to as the "Parsee," which means "Persian." Before the hunt for the White Whale begins in earnest, Ahab remembers his previous incarnation as a Zoroastrian fire worshiper. Fedallah becomes the primary instigator of Ahab's fate as a tragic hero.
8) Ishmael refers to Fedallah as "Ahab's shadow." The Parsee prophecies that Ahab will not be buried in the usual manner and that only "hemp" can kill him; he prophesizes, furthermore, that Ahab's "hearse" will be immortal.
9) The hunt for the White Whale begins after the mystical sighting of a herd of whales is spotted heading east¾toward the sun. The ship arrives at a pod of whale mothers, swimming in concentric circles, with their whale-children nursing delightedly at their breasts.
10) The White Whale is sighted. Ahab and his crew attempt to kill Moby Dick. Ahab is caught in a tangle of his own ropes, attached by his harpoon to the back of the White Whale. Ahab is dragged, against his will, to his death. The enraged White Whale turns its head like a "battering ram" against the Pequod, and the ship is sunk. Only Ishmael escapes, on the "life-buoy" of Queequeg's coffin, left like a modern Job, to tell his story. It is said in the "Epilogue" that Ishmael was ordained by the Fates to take the place of the Parsee¾as Ahab's bowsman¾after the Parsee's death. In the final scene, Ishmael is picked up like just another "orphan" by the cruising ship "Rachael."
What do these ten elements of the story suggest about the meaning of Moby-Dick, a nineteenth century novel, for our own post-modern times? In the context of a fuller semi-sequential presentation of Melville's story, I look at each of these elements in turn in my essay “Melville’s Vision of Evil,” interpreting them psychologically, to help us understand through Melville's images and symbols how the U.S. government got to where it is currently, where that may be leading, and what the hidden dangers might be that are lurking in the shadows of the collective American psyche.
[i] King James, The Holy Bible Containing the Old and new Testaments, New York, The World Publishing Company, 1611/1964.
[ii] King James.
[iii] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, New York, Penguin, 1851/1988, 7. I have preserved the formatting and quotation marks from the original text.
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