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"Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville is one of the most famous and most intimidating novels ever written. Still frequently assigned reading in school, "Moby-Dick" is a polarizing novel for many reasons: Its huge vocabulary, usually requiring at least a few trips to your dictionary; its obsession with 19th-century whaling life, technology, and jargon; the variety of literary techniques used by Melville; and its thematic complexity. Many people have read (or attempted to read) the novel only to conclude that it's overrated, and for a long time most people agreed - far from an immediate success, the novel failed upon publication and it was decades before Melville's novel was accepted as a classic of American literature.
And yet, even people who have not read the book are familiar with its basic plot, major symbols, and specific lines - just about everyone knows the famous opening line “Call me Ishmael.” The symbol of the white whale and the sense of Captain Ahab as an obsessed authority figure willing to sacrifice everything - including things he has no right to sacrifice - in the pursuit of revenge has become a universal aspect of pop culture, almost independent from the actual novel.
Another reason the book intimidates, of course, is the cast of characters, which includes the dozens of crew members of the Pequod, many of whom have a role in the plot and symbolic significance. Melville actually worked on whaling ships in his youth, and his depictions of life on board the Pequod and the men who worked under Ahab have the ring of complex truth. Here is a guide to the characters you'll meet in this incredible novel and their significance to the story.
Ishmael, the narrator of the tale, actually has very little of an active role in the story. Still, everything we know about the hunt for Moby Dick comes to us through Ishmael, and the success or failure of the book centers on how we relate to his voice. Ishmael is a lush, intelligent narrator; he is observant and curious and wanders into lengthy examinations of subjects that interest him, including the technology and culture of whaling, philosophical and religious questions, and examinations of the people around him.
In many ways, Ishmael is meant as a stand-in for the reader, a man who is initially confused and overwhelmed by his experience but who offers that very curiosity and studious attitude as a guide to survival. Ishmael being the spoiler alert lone survivor at the end of the book is significant not only because otherwise, his narration would be impossible. His survival is due to his restless quest for understanding that mirrors the reader. Upon opening the book, you'll likely find yourself awash in nautical terms, biblical debates, and cultural references that were obscure even at the time and have become almost unknowable today.
The captain of the whaling ship Pequod, Ahab, is a fascinating character. Charismatic and cruel, he lost his leg from the knee down to Moby Dick in a previous encounter and has dedicated his energies to seeking revenge, outfitting the Pequod with a special crew and increasingly ignoring both economic and social norms in favor of his obsession.
Ahab is viewed with awe by his crew, and his authority is unquestioned. He uses violence and rage combined with incentives and respect to get his men to do as he wishes and is able to overcome the objections of the men when he reveals that he is willing to forego profits in pursuit of his enemy. Ahab is capable of kindness, however, and often demonstrates true empathy towards others. Ishmael takes great pains to convey Ahab's intelligence and charm, as well, making Ahab one of the most complicated and interesting characters in literature. In the end, Ahab pursues his revenge to the bitterest possible end, being dragged by his own harpoon line by the giant whale as he refuses to admit defeat.
Based on a real white whale known as Mocha Dick, Moby Dick is presented by Ahab as the personification of evil. A unique white whale that has amassed a mythical level of celebrity in the whaling world as a fierce fighter who cannot be killed, Moby Dick bit off Ahab's leg at the knee in a prior encounter, driving the embittered Ahab to insane levels of hatred.
Modern readers may see Moby Dick as a heroic figure in a way - the whale is hunted, after all, and can be seen as defending itself when it brutally attacks the Pequod and its crew. Moby Dick can also be seen as nature itself, a force that man can fight against and occasionally stave off, but which will ultimately always triumph in any battle. Moby Dick also represents obsession and madness, as Captain Ahab slowly devolves from a figure of wisdom and authority into a raving madman who has cut all ties with his life, including his crew and his own family, in pursuit of a goal that will end in his own destruction.
First mate of the ship, Starbuck is intelligent, outspoken, capable, and deeply religious. He believes his Christian faith offers a guide to the world, and that all questions can be answered through careful examination of his faith and the word of God. However, he is a practical man as well, a man who lives in the real world and who executes his duties with skill and competence.
Starbuck is the main counterpoint to Ahab. He is an authority figure who is respected by the crew and who disdains Ahab's motivations and is increasingly outspoken against him. Starbuck's failure to prevent disaster is, of course, open to interpretation - is it a failure of society, or the inevitable defeat of reason in the face of the brutal power of nature?
Queequeg is the first person Ishmael meets in the book, and the two become very close friends. Queequeg works as Starbuck's harpooner and comes from the royal family of a South Sea island nation who fled his home in search of adventure. Melville wrote "Moby-Dick" at a time in American history when slavery and race were intertwined in every aspect of life, and Ishmael's realization that Queequeg's race is inconsequential to his high moral character is clearly a subtle commentary on the major issue facing America at the time. Queequeg is affable, generous, and brave, and even after his death he is Ishmael's salvation, as his coffin is the only thing to survive the Pequod's sinking, and Ishmael floats on it to safety.
Stubb is the Pequod's second mate. He is a popular member of the crew due to his sense of humor and his generally easygoing persona, but Stubb has few true beliefs and believes that nothing happens for any particular reason, acting as a counterweight to the extremely rigid world views of Ahab and Starbuck.
Tashtego is Stubb's harpooner. He is a pureblood Indian from Martha's Vineyard, from a tribe that is rapidly vanishing. He is also a capable, competent man, like Queequeg, although he lacks Queequeg's sharp intelligence and imagination. He's one of the most important members of the crew, as he possesses several skills specific to whaling that no other crew member could perform.
The third mate is a short, powerfully-built man who is difficult to like due to his aggressive attitude and a purposefully almost disrespectful manner. The crew generally respects him, however, despite the less-than-flattering nickname King Post (a reference to a specific type of timber) that Flask resembles.
Daggoo is Flask's harpooner. He is a huge man with an intimidating manner who fled his home in Africa in search of adventure, much like Queequeg. As the harpooner for the third mate, he is not as important as the other harpooners.
Pip is one of the most important characters in the book. A young black boy, Pip is the lowest-ranking member of the crew, filling the role of cabin boy, performing whatever odd jobs need to be done. At one point in the pursuit of Moby Dick, he is left drifting on the ocean for some time and has a mental breakdown. Returning to the ship he suffers from the realization that as a black person in America, he has less value to the crew than the whales they hunt. Melville undoubtedly intended Pip to be a comment on slavery and race relations at the time, but Pip also serves to humanize Ahab, who even in the throes of his insanity is kind to the young man.
Fedallah is an unspecified foreigner of “oriental” persuasion. Ahab has brought him on as part of the crew without telling anyone else, which is a controversial decision. He is almost unbelievably foreign in appearance, with a turban of his own hair and clothes that are almost a costume of what one might imagine a clichéd Chinese outfit would be. He exhibits near-supernatural powers in terms of hunting and fortune-telling, and his most famous prediction regarding Captain Ahab's fate comes true in an unexpected way at the end of the novel. As a result of his “otherness” and his predictions, the crew stays aloof from Fedallah.
Part-owner of the Pequod, Peleg is unaware that Captain Ahab is less concerned with profit than with revenge. He and Captain Bildad handle hiring the crew and negotiate Ishmael and Queequeg's salaries. Rich and in retirement, Peleg plays the generous benefactor but is in fact extremely cheap.
Peleg's partner and fellow co-owner of the Pequod, Bildad plays the role of the old salt and plays “bad cop” in salary negotiations. It is clear that the two have perfected their performance as part of their sharp, ruthless approach to business. Since both are Quakers, known at the time for being pacifistic and gentle, it's interesting that they are depicted as such tricky negotiators.
Mapple is a minor character who only appears briefly at the beginning of the book, but he is a crucial appearance. Ishmael and Queequeg attend services at the New Bedford Whaleman's Chapel, where Father Mapple offers the story of Jonah and the Whale as a means of connecting the life of whalers to the Bible and the Christian faith. He can be seen as the polar opposite of Ahab. A former whaling captain, Mapple's torments on the sea have led him to serve God instead of seeking revenge.
Another character who stands in opposition to Ahab, Boomer is the captain of the whaling ship the Samuel Enderby. Rather than bitter over the arm he lost while trying to kill Moby Dick, Boomer is cheerful and is constantly making jokes (infuriating Ahab). Boomer sees no point in further pursuit of the white whale, which Ahab cannot understand.
A crew member of the ship Jeroboam, Gabriel is a Shaker and a religious fanatic who believes Moby Dick is a manifestation of the Shaker God. He predicts that any attempt to hunt Moby Dick will result in disaster, and in fact, the Jeroboam has experienced nothing but horror since its failed attempt to hunt the whale.
Dough Boy is a timid, nervous young man serving as the ship's steward. The most interesting thing about him for modern readers is that his name was a variation on the insult “Dough Head,” which at the time was commonly used to imply someone was stupid.
Fleece is the Pequod's cook. He is elderly, with poor hearing and stiff joints, and is a playful figure, serving as entertainment for Stubbs and other crew members and comic relief for readers.
Perth serves as the ship's blacksmith and has a central role in forging the special harpoon he believes will be deadly enough to defeat Moby Dick. Perth has fled to the sea in order to escape his temptations; his former life was ruined by his alcoholism.
The unnamed carpenter on the Pequod is tasked by Ahab with creating a new prosthetic for his leg after Ahab portentously damages the ivory prosthetic in his rage to escape Boomer's jovial commentary on his whale obsession. If you view Ahab's weakened appendage as symbolic of his cracking sanity, the carpenter and blacksmith's service in helping him continue his quest for revenge can be seen as committing the crew to the same fate.
Derick de Deer
Captain of the German whaling ship, de Deer appears to be in the novel solely so Melville can have a little fun at the expense of the German whaling industry, which Melville viewed as poor. De Deer is pathetic; having had no success he must beg Ahab for supplies and is last seen pursuing a whale his ship has neither the speed nor the equipment to effectively hunt.
"Moby-Dick" is largely structured around the nine ship-to-ship meetings or “gams” that the Pequod engages in. These meetings were ceremonial and polite and quite common in the industry, and Ahab's loosening grip on sanity can be traced through his decreasing interest in observing the rules of these meetings, culminating in his disastrous decision to refuse to help the captain of the Rachel to rescue crew members lost at sea in order to chase Moby Dick. The reader thus meets several other whaling captains in addition to Boomer, each of whom has literary significance.
Bachelor is a successful, practical captain whose ship is fully supplied. His significance lies with his assertion that the white whale does not, in fact, exist. Much of Ishmael's internal conflict comes from his efforts to understand what he sees and to perceive what lies beyond his understanding, bringing into question how much of the story he tells can be relied on as the truth, lending Bachelor's comments more weight than they otherwise would carry.
The French captain Rosebud has two sick whales in his possession when he meets the Pequod, and Stubb suspects they are a source of the very valuable substance ambergris and so tricks him into releasing them, but once again Ahab's obsessive behavior ruins this chance at profit. Once again Melville also uses this as an opportunity to poke fun at the whaling industry of another nation.
The captain of the Rachel factors into one of the most significant moments in the novel, as mentioned above. The captain asks Ahab to assist in searching for and rescuing members of his crew, including his son. Ahab, however, upon hearing about the whereabouts of Moby Dick, refuses this basic and fundamental courtesy and sails off to his doom. The Rachel then rescues Ishmael sometime later, as it is still searching for its missing crew.
The Delight is another ship that claims to have tried to hunt Moby Dick, only to fail. The description of the destruction of its whaleboat is a foreshadowing of the precise way the whale destroys the Pequod's ships in the final battle.