The meaning of the title Moby Dick is in the first instance the name of the whale that’s being hunted by captain Ahab. The story however has some deeper meaning than just a name for a fish.
Born 1 August 1819 in New York City, Herman Melville grew up on Manhattan. After little more than elementary schooling, Herman had to leave the Academy for work as a bank clerk. But he was restless by temperament. In June 1839 he signed on as merchant seaman for a round trip to Liverpool. He was twenty and this was his first taste of life at sea. Sailing on the Hudson, Melville turned writer. In August 1847, launched as a popular author, he married Elizabeth Shaw. Moby Dick became Melville's most popular novel. Its critical reception ranged from indifference to hostility. The story is based on the report of a ship, named the Essex, which was smashed by a aggressive whale in 1820. Melville used his own youthful experiences as a sailor as the basis for his earlier works. Moby Dick was to be an adventure story. But all his knowledge of whaling acquired during his voyages, together with his reading of the bible and the love for Shakespeare (King Lear) and Dante, make this novel an amazing and brilliant work. Other work by the author:
Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), White Jacket (1850), Israel Potter (1855), The piazza tales (1856), The confidence man (1857).
The literary period:
The Victorian Age.
Moby Dick is a story on two levels. You can read it as an adventure story, but it is also an allegory on the search for the meaning of our existence.
In this context the white whale is the symbol of evil, the dark force of evolution. However Ahab and Ishmael, the captain and his sailor represent two opposites: On the one hand Ahab is the good individual fighting to beat the evil whale, but on the other hand he is a tyrant who brutally rules his ship.
Ishmael, a boy who wanted to get a job to earn some money, tells the story. He travels to New Bedford (Massachusetts ). Here he signs up for a voyage on the whale-ship named “Pequod”. In Bedford he has to share a room with Queequeg, a Polynesian prince, and these two become quite good friends. Together they go to hear a symbolic sermon by Father Mapple, well known by whalers. He preaches about Jonah and the Whale. Next both friends visit the island Nantucket, the traditional centre of the whalers. They join a ship named the Pequod. Yojo, the personal god of Queequeg, pointed out this ship to them. An old man called Elijah warns the two friends about the captain, whose name is Ahab. He is a monomaniac whose one purpose is to capture and kill the fierce, cunning white whale Moby Dick. This monster-fish had torn away his leg during their last encounter.
When the Pequod sails out to sea all the crewmembers are introducing themselves. The chief mate Starbuck is a serious Quaker, prudent and fretful. The second mate, Stubb is happy-go-lucky. The third mate, Flask, isn't capable of deep thoughts, killing whales is just an occupation to him. There are three harpooners, Queequeg, an Indian called Tashtego, and an African named Daggoo. The last member of the crew is Pip, a Negro cabin boy. Altogether they symbolise the American population.
Only when the ship sails Ishmael sees Ahab for the first time, the man is nailing a gold Spanish doubloon to the mast. This is the prize for the first man to sight Moby Dick. One day Tashtego sights a school of whales. Five hidden strangers appear from below deck who are hired to help Ahab with the chase. The boats are lowered and Ahab appears to lead a boat of his own, but because of a squall the chase has to be called off. Many whales are captured during their voyage. After a while the ship meets the Jeroboam. This ship carries a contagious epidemic on board. Its captain has been killed in an encounter with Moby Dick. Later on they almost beat another ship, called the Jungfrau, while the Pequod is chasing a whale. They harpoon the fish but it's too heavy, the ship almost capsizes and the whale has to be cast loose. In the Java Sea they come upon a herd of whales but manage to kill only one. Pip is killed after he falls out of one of the whaling boats. The Pequod meets another ship called the Samual Enderby. Her captain has lost an arm to Moby Dick but does not bear the white whale any grudge.
Queequeg suffers from a fever and has his coffin made. Even though he recovers he still carries this coffin around. Circumstances seem to conspire against Ahab; storms, loss of the compass, the drowning of a man, and of course the lost of his favourite Pip. When they meet a passing ship, the Rachel, her captain says that has met Moby Dick. The whale has sunk a ship and his son was on board. Ahab doesn't want to help to look for survivors. Now his whale is close and he has to find him.
Eventually the White Whale is sighted. On the first day's chase he smashes one of the whaleboats. The second day Moby Dick snaps off Ahab’s ivory leg. On the third day Moby Dick sinks the Pequod, and Ahab, holding to a harpoon rope, is dragged overboard in the wake of the enraged animal. The only one who survives the encounter is Ishmael. He floats on Qeequeg's coffin and is picked up by the Rachel.
Second half of the nineteenth century. The story is a flashback.
The story is mainly situated on the Pacific between ‘old Manhatto’ and Cape Horn.
Characters and relationships:
He is the teller of the story, a young man. As a simple sailor he sails out on the Pequod. It is said that Ishmael is the personification of Melville. The book tells nothing about his past.
The captain of the Pequod, who lost one leg in an encounter with Moby Dick. His only goal is to take revenge upon the great white whale. Ahab is a tragic hero but also a villain who takes everyone down with him in his battle against Moby Dick. This whale is the image of evil to Ahab.
The first mate on the Pequod, about thirty years old, tall and thin. Ahab’s idea of revenge against Moby Dick offends Starbuck. According to him the whale acted only out of blind instinct in wounding Ahab. That's why his attitude on whaling is purely businesslike.
The second mate on the Pequod. His main goal in life is having a good time.
The Negro cabin boy. He loves life. At first he is a gentle happy guy. But when he jumps into the water out of fear, he is left alone in the sea. He is rescued but this experience drives him to insanity and he becomes a babbling idiot.
The Parse who becomes Ahab's personal harpooner. He is a tall man, with one tooth evilly protruding from his steel-like lips. He seldom speaks and always follows Ahab's evil purposes.
He forms a friendship with Ishmael. This Polynesian prince is a tattooed savage from the South Seas. At first Ishmael is terrified by his looks. But the man turns out to be a civilised man, and is a harpooner.
The third mate on the Pequod. A humorous man who is not afraid of a good fight. He is not very clever, and is not capable of having deep thoughts. Killing whales is simply an occupation for him.
One of the three harpooners. He is an American Indian.
He is the third Harpooner on the Pequod. He is of African descendent.
The minister who tells the story of Jonah in the Whaleman's Chapel
A very strange man. He prophesies doom for the Peqoud.
When you read the story superficial it’s a story about a hunt lead by a madman. But when you read between the lines there’s a deeper message hidden about the meaning of live and how people handle that question. With a broad view seen it’s a story from which you can learn a lot about people and how hate pays off.
The conflict between man and his fate, or his search for the meaning of life.
Melville's love for Shakespeare has a big influence on the dramatic scenes and monologues, and can make this book difficult to read. Besides Shakespeare, Melville is also influenced by poets such as Dante and Milton. Knowledge of the bible is very important too as Melville uses a lot of names and phrases from the bible e.g. names like Ishmael and Elijah.
In Token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The whole story is told by Ishmael.
The book consists of 135 numbered chapters with titles, a commentary and an appendix.
Own opinion on the book:
It’s a easy readable story at first but when you get to know the deeper story by what is meant by it, it’s more difficult. However what really strikes me is the dreadful hate of Ahab. He drags almost everyone to dead to satisfy his hatred.
Andere boeken van deze auteur:
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