It is no wonder that Herman Melville chose whaling as the backdrop of his
literary masterpiece, Moby-Dick. What he was trying to achieve in this
tale was as colossal and daunting a task as Ahab trying to tame the white-whale
itself. In Moby-Dick Melville shaped an American epic, one that bears
some resemblance to its ancient Greek counterparts yet does not focus on the
exploits of Gods or wars, instead telling of the unstoppable urges of man to
explore the unknown and to subdue the most fearsome creations of nature.
The famous opening lines, "Call me Ishmael," acquaints the reader
with the book's narrator, a lonely wanderer who finds the call of the sea
irresistible. On his journey to board a whaling vessel, he meets Queequeg, a
savage whose strange ways at first terrifies and repulses Ishmael. However, his
gentle and noble spirit soon shows through and the two quickly become
After boarding the Peaquod, the two join the strange crew, and it is only after they
set sail for many weeks that the captain, Ahab, finally emerges with only one
thing on his crazed and obsessed mind: to hunt down and kill Moby-Dick, the
white whale that left him maimed and crippled after their last encounter.
Upon their journey half way across the world, they kill and harvest oil from many
sperm whales. Melville includes many dramatic descriptions of the glorious
scenery, and juxtaposes that with Ahab?s gruffness, yet even he is moved by
such beauty. Many strange incidents happen during this stage of their journey, such as the black baptism of Ahab?s harpoon with the blood of his men, Queequeg nearly dying from a mysterious disease and then his miraculous healing simply by using his own will power, add a supernatural element to this tale.
It is only when they near the equator do they hear sightings of the White Whale while Ahab?s obsession intensifies further. Before the chase begins, Fedallah, Ahab?s right-hand
man, gives a horrific prophesy foreshadowing Ahab?s death after his own as well other strange events such as the sighting of two hearses. During the second day of the chase, Moby-Dick is struck with a harpoon but Fedallah falls in and becomes ensnared in the line, and finally dragged to his death. Ignoring all entreaties of retreat from his crew, Ahab knows that he?s already in it too far.
In the last two pages of the book, the momentum builds to a roaring crescendo as the last
battle with Moby-Dick is fought. Chillingly, every single one of Fedallah?s prophesy comes true, and with his corpse lashed onto its body, the White Whale makes a beeline straight for the Peaquod, sinking it in with the tremendous force of its body. Ahab is thrown out of the harpoon boat, dragged by the line to his death, and every member of the crew gets sucked in by the vortex that was created. Only Ishmael survives, clinging onto Queequeg?s coffin, and is finally picked up by another boat, the Rachel, that was searching the seas for its own lost ?children.?
Woven into this epic are a plethora of hidden metaphors and allusions to Imperialism and man's insatiable desire to conquor all. However, the essence of the book is not lost even without further analysis, as the presence of the terrifying White Whale will forevermore live on in the history of literature.