After deciding that it's time for him to get back to sea, Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachussets, in search of adventure. At the Spouter Inn, he befriends his bed-mate, the harpooner Queequeg, and they travel to Nantucket. Here, they sign up for the Pequod, and on Christmas Day, set off on a three year voyage hunting whales for their oil. After several days at sea, the captain emerges from his cabin to enlist his crew into joining him in his pursuit of Moby Dick, the white whale that "dismasted" him.

Simmering with rage, Captain Ahab leads his crew across the oceans, with the help of his stoical and ethical quaker First Mate, Starbuck, and the cheerful Second Mate Stubb. The crew encounter other ships at sea, hunt sperm and right whales, and process the blubber for oil as they get closer and closer to the final confrontation between two of the great forces in American literature: the human will of Captain Ahab and the natural power of an untamed whale.


While many of us think that the quest for the Great American Novel ended in 1851 when Melville published Moby-Dick, the novel famously languished in relative obscurity until re-discovered in the twentieth century. Themes of revenge and loyalty, of race and religion, of colonialism and multi-culturalism, of masculinity and courage, permeate a nautical adventure full of digressions, long (frequently comic) meditations on whales and whaling, and an author's willingness to use whatever genre suits him to tell this sprawling American epic. Given the time of the book's publication, the lovingly caricatured harpooners, each representing a racial and colonial area of the world, the 'whiteness' of the whale and, in particular, Pip's role on the ship as a physically small black boy (with Stubb's famous reference to Pip's potential price as a slave), there has been much modern scholarship on the role of race and colonialism in this book.

But a novel this rich and this dense does not easily yield a few select themes. Underlying (or producing?) the strange tensions and sympathies that bring together the themes of race, colonialism, and multi-culturalism into one ship is the mutual quest to hunt down and kill the White Whale. Whether this is a metaphor for American expansionism or, perhaps, for humanity's own hubristic attempts to conquer nature, the book's tragedy is detailed in the personal disintegration of two key figures. Both Ahab and Pip live with the emotional scars that come from trauma - Ahab's mauling by Moby-Dick and Pip's panicked leap into the sea where he is left entirely alone before being rescued. They are symbols of larger concepts - human encounters with the awful vastness of nature, the breaking of a man -but also, they are human beings: idiosyncratic and surprising, capable of great insight one moment, while ignorant and perseverating the next. One of Melville's accomplishments is that even with figures who seem to be mired in stereotypes - such as the savage harpooners or a revenge-hungry monomaniac - they come alive as characters - a characteristically American individualism.


Introduction by Andrew Delbanco and Commentaries by Tom Quirk


Penguin Classics

Place Published

New York



Page Count