Jiffynotes index page

\\ home \ Moby Dick:
Plot Summary

The novel begins with "Ishmael," our narrator, beginning the story of how he came to set sail on the fateful whaling voyage that will concern most of the novel. Ishmael arrives first in the village of New Bedford, Massachusetts: a cosmopolitan town filled with sailors from all over the world, just arrived or about to depart. On the dark and stormy night of his arrival, Ishmael finds a small hotel called the Spouter Inn, filled with a rough bunch of whalemen. The proprietor, Peter Coffin, offers Ishmael a place to sleep, but tells him that he'll have to share a bed with another sailor. To Ishmael's surprise and horror, this turns out to be Queequeg, a Polynesian whale hunter with a harpoon, tattoos, and a bag full of shrunken heads to sell. After his initial fright, Ishmael realizes that this "cannibal" is a man just like himself, and the two fall asleep companionably. After an ice-breaking conversation the next day, the two men go together to the whalers' chapel in New Bedford to hear a sermon by Father Mapple, who preaches about the biblical story of Jonah and the whale in a highly unusual style. It is a fine preliminary for their departure to Nantucket, where they hope to find a whaling ship that will take them both on as sailors.

In Nantucket, Ishmael visits the docks to find a ship; he discovers the Pequod, an old-fashioned ship decorated entirely in ivory and whalebone. Ishmael likes the look of this ship, and goes to speak to the ship's owners. These turn out to be Bildad and Peleg, two surly Quakers who interrogate Ishmael about his motives for whaling and finally offer him a place at a very paltry salary. Ishmael accepts, and brings Queequeg to meet his new bosses. The two Quakers are reluctant to accept a "savage" on board their ship, but they relent after they witness Queequeg's sharpshooting ability, and the two are officially signed up to hunt whales on the Pequod. As Ishmael and Queequeg make their way to board the ship, they meet a haggard looking, wild-eyed man who calls himself "Elijah" after the biblical prophet. He warns them against sailing with the Pequod, and hints that there might be something to fear about their mysterious captain, Ahab. Although Ishmael has not yet met Ahab, he dismisses the Elijah's warning, and the two set sail with the Pequod on Christmas Day.

Ishmael introduces the rest of the ship's crew: the first mate, Starbuck, will have Queequeg as his harpooneer. The second mate, Stubb, and the third mate, Flask, hunt with Tashtego and Daggoo, respectively. Finally, after several days at sea, the men meet their captain, Ahab: a fierce looking Nantucketer with a white streak in his hair leading to a scar down the side of his face, and with one false leg made of ivory.

Ahab paces the deck, and does not talk to the men nearly at all ... until one day he nails a piece of Spanish gold to the main mast of the ship, announcing that whoever first spies a white whale will receive it as a reward. This white whale, called "Moby Dick" by Ahab, seems to cause him considerable anxiety; he reveals that it was Moby Dick who bit off his leg. The sailors seem excited at their potential reward, and vow to hunt Moby Dick to the death. Ahab, meanwhile, speaks to himself in terms that suggest his maniacal obsession with the Whale. "I'm demoniac," he cries, "I'm madness maddened!" Starbuck begins to feel considerable dread when he thinks of the mission that Ahab has proposed; to the noble first mate, the captain's "monomania" (crazed obsession with one thing only) seems unholy.

Much of the book from this point on is dedicated to Ishmael's discussion of whales, white and otherwise, from a bewildering variety of perspectives. He describes whales in myth, in literature, in history, in sport, in politics, and in science, integrating an endless number of sources into a narrative that soon grows encyclopedic in scope. The first hunt for an actual Sperm Whale (not Moby Dick) allows Ishmael to describe, in minute detail, the methods and mechanisms of whale hunting, slaughtering, and processing for valuable Sperm Oil. Seeing the carcass of a Sperm Whale up close, Ishmael describes its physical appearance from all possible angles: its size, its taste, its color and smell, how it feels to the touch.

Interwoven with these descriptive and digressive chapters, the narrative of the hunt for whales, and for Moby Dick in particular, continues. Ahab and his men meet several ships that represent, almost allegorically, different aspects of whaling. The Rose-Bud, dragging the stinking corpse of a whale, demonstrates inexperience in whale fishing. The Virgin is an example of the ship that catches no whale, and the contrasting Bachelor, full of sperm oil, illustrates the luxury and wealth that can come from a successful whaling journey. The Pequod also encounters ships that relate their various interactions with the dangerous White Whale. The Town-Ho's story involves a violent dispute between a first mate and a member of the crew; Moby Dick appears and devours one of these men whole, at which point the other man leads most of the other sailors to desert the ship at Tahiti. The Jeroboam's story involves an insane sailor who declares himself an "archangel," and who interprets Moby Dick's attack on a fellow crew member as a mark of God's wrath when the crew does not heed him. The captain of the Samuel Enderby lost his arm in the same way that Ahab lost his leg, while the Rachel's captain lost his young son when Moby Dick dragged away one of his whaling boats.

As the Pequod continues on her course, Ahab grows more and more obsessed with finding and killing Moby Dick - even holding a kind of black mass in which he uses the blood of his harpooneers to cool the blade of a new, deadly harpoon. In the closing chapters of the novel, Ahab heads the ship into a dangerous storm, allows most of her instruments to break down, and ultimately abandons any pretense of conducting an "ordinary" whaling voyage. Finally, Ahab finds the White Whale, and spends three successive days making attempts on its life. The fiendish whale attacks the fragile whale boats with jaws and tail, eventually sinking the Pequod itself, and strangling Ahab with his own harpoon-line. Only the narrator, who floats safely distant from the scene of carnage, survives and is rescued so that he can eventually tell the tale.

Browse all book notes

Historical Context
Main Characters
Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Plot Summary
Chapters 1 - 5
Chapters 6 - 10
Chapters 11 - 15
Chapters 16 - 20
Chapters 21 - 25
Chapters 26 - 30
Chapters 31 - 35
Chapters 36 - 40
Chapters 41 - 45
Chapters 46 - 50
Chapters 51 - 55
Chapters 56 - 60
Chapters 61 - 65
Chapters 66 - 70
Chapters 71 - 75
Chapters 76 - 80
Chapters 81 - 85
Chapters 86 - 90
Chapters 91 - 95
Chapters 96 - 100
Chapters 101 - 105
Chapters 106 - 110
Chapters 111 - 115
Chapters 116 - 120
Chapters 121 - 125
Chapters 126 - 130
Chapters 131 - 135


Copyright © 1999 - Jiffynotes.com. All Rights Reserved.
To cite information from this page, please cite the date when you
looked at our site and the author as Jiffynotes.com.
Privacy Statement