The Great White Whale: A Moby-Dick Summary

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Today we take a look into a great American classic and present a very brief Moby-Dick summary. Skip the “What is Moby-Dick About?” section, though, if you don’t want any spoilers.

Who wrote Moby-Dick?

Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, which was published in late 1850 as a three-part series called The Whale in Britain and as a single volume called Moby-Dick; or, The Whale in the United States.

Born in New York City in 1819, Herman Melville was the third of eight children in a wealthy merchant family. After his father suddenly died, Melville’s family lost its financial stability, and Melville moved around several times, working briefly as a school teacher before signing on with a merchant vessel. Melville’s years at sea informed many of his works, including Moby-Dick.

Though Melville attained some acclaim during the height of his writing career, his writing career faltered and he ended up working as a middle-ranking customs officer in his later years. When he died at the age of 72, all of his works were out of print. In fact, Melville did not become the eminent figure in the American canon that he is today until the late 1910s and 1920s with the so-called “Melville Revival.”

What is Moby-Dick about? 

Moby-Dick is part adventure tale, part ecological study and part philosophical rumination.

The novel is narrated by new sailor Ishmael, who, along with newly-made acquaintance Queequeg, boards a whaling vessel called the Pequod in the early 1800s. After the ship sets sail on Christmas Day, Ishmael meets the mysterious Captain Ahab, who emerges from below deck with with a sperm whale jaw in place of a leg.

Captain Ahab soon announces the Pequod’s real quest: to hunt and kill the legendary, leg-stealing, embodiment-of-evil-itself white whale Moby Dick. The Pequod sails south toward Africa and then up into the Indian Ocean, where all variety of intrigue takes place: crazed prophet Gabriel foretells the doom of all who pursue Moby Dick, a cabin boy falls overboard and goes insane, a typhoon causes an electrical fire on board, and a crew member falls from the mast and drowns. All the while Captain Ahab’s obsession with Moby-Dick grows.

When the Pequod finally spots Moby Dick, an epic battle ensues as Ahab abandons all reason in his attempt to finally kill the white whale. Eventally, Moby Dick rams the Pequod and sinks it. Captain Ahab is ironically caught and killed by a harpoon line, and all remaining crewmembers drown in the sinking ship’s vortex. Our lone survivor and teller of the tale is Ishmael, who tragically survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin.

Why should I read Moby-Dick?

Moby-Dick is one of the most notoriously difficult books to finish, like Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest but without all the contemporary editorial buzz. It’s also famous (or perhaps infamous) for its plethora of supporting characters and chapters-long descriptions of whale anatomy. So why read Moby-Dick?

Here are a few of our reasons:

  1. Moby-Dick has one of the most famous opening lines in English-language literature. Simple and memorable: “Call me Ishmael.” (Okay, so why should I read past the first line, right?)
  2. Moby-Dick is one of the quintessential Great American Novels, and allusions abound in popular culture. Think StarbucksJackson PollockLed Zeppelin and even Futurama.
  3. Moby-Dick is the embodiment of the first major art movement in the United States. Through the haunted obsession of Ahab and his doomed epic quest, Moby-Dick typifies American Romanticism.
  4. Sometimes difficult books are the most profound and rewarding. As David Gilbert explains: “The book is nearly impossible to place, to categorize, to hold without feeling the vertiginous swell of its creation.” There’s a reason that Moby-Dick is the most-named book among hundreds of authors’ top-ten lists.

Have we convinced you to give Moby-Dick a try? If so, you may want to check out these great tips for first-time Moby-Dick readers. Or get a head start on your quest for the white whale with our Moby-Dick book poster.

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