An Abstract Into Moby Dicks Tales English Literature Essay

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The epic tale of Moby Dick, although now considered a classic, had a poor reception when it was first published. This lack of enthusiasm for the story of Captain Ahab and, his monomaniacal obsession for vengeance upon the great white whale which had torn off his leg was in part due to Herman Melville's idiosyncratic style but also a natural consequence of the often contradictory themes of the book. By idiosyncratic I am alluding to its originality of thought and to the manner by which thoughts and images are woven into the story and characters in an often discordant manner. With respect to the subject matter, the story is at times unsettling and even terrifying. It is amongst many things a story of Ahab's fanaticism and intolerance. Ahab hated this solitary giant of the deep because it would never conform to his will. Moby Dick was disconcertingly mobile, dangerously autonomous.

  In the tale of Moby Dick, Ahab is not just an ordinary seaman. He is the Captain of the Pequod and as such he has the responsibility for the lives of the crew and for the success and, profitability of the voyage. Yet in his fanatical obsession for vengeance against the whale who would not submit to his mastery, he misuses his power, disregarding the safety of his crew and the productivity of the expedition. He does this, all to avoid a confrontation with himself and his own vulnerabilities. Ahab is possessed by the delusion that he can and must master Moby Dick and to this end nothing else matters. In a Jungian sense Ahab's unconscious has invaded and assumed control of his conscious mind. In Two Essays On Analytical Psychology, Carl Jung writes,

"A collapse of the conscious attitude is no small matter. It always feels like the end of the world, as though everything had tumbled back into original chaos. One feels delivered up, disorientated, like a rudderless ship that is abandoned to the moods of the elements (Jung 1917/1977 par 254)."

This reference to a rudderless ship is very poignant considering the Pequod is under the control of a Captain who, consumed by a murderous hatred for Moby Dick, is left at the mercy of the elements. The Pequod is vulnerable not only to the weather in the form of winds and rain that whip the sea into frenzy but also to the frenzied obsessional state of Ahab. Ahab is a Captain who, misusing his authority and power, would risk the lives and limbs of everyone on board, even to the destruction of the Pequod itself, to enact bloody vengeance on the whale who had ripped his flesh asunder and who had torn off his leg.

In Captain Ahab, Herman Melville has created a character whose motives of vengeance parallel his delusional and monomaniacal pursuit of Moby Dick. This constellation of dysfunction typifies the behaviour of a psychotic person. Furthermore, in the story of Moby Dick, Melville has given us a glimpse not only into the delusional world of a person in the grip of a psychosis but also into the impact of this psychosis on everyone on board the Pequod. Psychotic delusions are not isolated; they are infectious and have an affect on all of those in their domain.

A Summary of the Story

   Ishmael the narrator of this epic tale, with Queequeg his heavily tattooed, cannibal mate, ship aboard the Pequod, a whaler from Nantucket, bound for the Pacific Ocean. Ahab, the captain of the whaler, is a one-legged man with a maniacal obsession to revenge himself on Moby Dick, the solitary great white whale called, who bit off his leg. Ishmael is fascinated by the whale trade, gives a detailed account of the whale operations aboard the Pequod and often digresses from his narrative of Ahab's progressive descent into madness to explore all aspects of whale classification, anatomy, natural history, legends and uses for the blubber, bones and internal organs of the whale.

Ahab is at first reclusive, keeping out of sight of his crew for some days. He finally appears on deck and announces his intention: to pursue and kill Moby Dick. He offers a gold doubloon, nailed to the mast, to the first man who sights the hated whale.  The Pequod searches the whaling grounds of the Atlantic, killing whales as they are sighted. The ship continues around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and finally into the Pacific Ocean without any sightings of Moby Dick. Other whalers are sighted along the way, some with tales of Moby Dick, and they provide a contrast to the Pequod. The solitary white whale is at last sighted in the Japanese Cruising Ground.

Starbuck, the first mate of the Pequod, recognises Ahab's unhealthy obsession with Moby Dick and has tried throughout the voyage to dissuade his captain from following the whale. He even considered shooting Ahab, but faltered. Evidence of Ahab's obsession abounds. Ahab's extraordinary precautions for killing Moby Dick include the demonic creation of an extraordinary harpoon, the barbs tempered with the blood of his three pagan harpooners, a special boat crew, and Fedallah, a Parsee skilled in telling fortunes from signs.

The chase of Moby Dick his heralded by omens; nature seems to tell Ahab to turn away but Ahab will heed no warnings. Ahab will not give up the chase and confronts the whale on three occasions. On the last try, caught in the lines of the harpoons stuck on the whales back, Ahab is dragged to his death. Moby Dick, apparently enraged by the Pequod's unrelenting pursuit batters the ship with his head and sinks it, then departs. The only survivor of the wreck is Ishmael, who is kept afloat by Queequeg's coffin turned-life-buoy and rescued by the Rachel, whose captain is searching for a son last seen pursuing Moby Dick.

The Madness of Ahab

I am going to start this section with a question: does Ahab become progressively mad in the course of Moby Dick or does he begin mad and remain mad throughout? This question poses another; 'what is madness?' I remember as a young teenager climbing inside 'Hanging Rock' through an opening in an otherwise solid rock-face. What I discovered inside was a labyrinth or honey comb of passages. I kept following a pin point of light until I managed to find my way out but I broke my elbow in my escape from this terrifying maze. When I have been back to Hanging Rock I have gone back to the opening and as I peered within I thought that I must have been mad to have gone inside. Whatever had possessed me? Later when the book 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' was published I had wondered if Joan Lindsay had also found the opening. My traversing into the darkness of the rock was a near suicidal experience but through my own analysis this determination to get inside the volcanic edifice has become creative. The teenage experience was symbolic of an internal dynamic for life. So why was Ahab's descent into madness not salvageable; why did it result in suicide and the destruction of all around him? If he had caught and killed his nemesis Moby Dick, there was a very real possibility that this journey would have been seen, both by himself and by others who encountered this journey, as an act of extreme heroism.

In the tale of Moby Dick, the very things that contribute to Ahab's madness, that is, his obsession to seek revenge against all odds; make the story something of a quest; a hero's journey. It is ironic that the very qualities that make him heroic, his intensity, determination, will-power and sense of purpose, also make him flawed. Ahab is presented as a complex character, a personality full of contradictions. The seeds of Ahab's madness are in his essential character. He is maniacal when he first attacks Moby Dick with a knife, (Melville 2008 p.164) and his desperate thrust of the harpoon at the end of the book is like the first attack in its irrationality. Yet Ahab's madness is initially carefully concealed from his crew, from Captains Bildad and Peleg, and the reader is only gradually made aware of Ahab's tormented state of mind. In fact when Peleg is speaking to Ishmael of Ahab he speaks of him being a good man.

I know Captain Ahab well; I've sailed with him as mate years ago; know what he is - a good man - not a pious, good man, like Bildad, but a swearing good man - something like me - only there's a good deal more of him (Melville 2008 p. 72).

The question that comes to mind in the context of the tale; what does being a good man mean to Peleg? Does it mean that Ahab brings back the Pequod in good order with a good haul? If this is the case then Ahab's obsession with Moby Dick would go unnoticed until at sea. Whilst Peleg knows there is more to Ahab than meets the eye, that does not concern him. What concerns him is the success and profitability of the voyage. But we do not know what is precisely meant by good, or by its opposite, bad. Is badness madness? The nature of the question implies a clear demarcation between good and bad, sanity and madness but perhaps the juxtaposition of the polarities is the very essence of the unanswerableness of the question. Even as madness is sometimes imagined as rooted in the eruption of the unconscious and sanity as its opposite pole, rooted in ration and reason, such an imagination again draws polarities in two directions that are unsustainable. Firstly, it is in the balance between the conscious and unconscious that sanity is to be found, not in the dominance of one over the other.  Secondly, in a Jungian context the line of demarcation between the conscious and the unconscious can never be drawn with unambiguous clarity (Jung 1954/1987 par. 384f).

The sense of imbalance that is betrayed in Ahab's actions has two affects. For some of the crew there is a magnetic attraction emanating from his abandonment to his delusions.  For others, there is sense of impending trouble, unnamed and vague, that betrays a perception that all is not right. Ishmael is uneasy about Ahab after he first signs on the Pequod and the assurances of Captain Peleg do not convince him that Ahab has a wife and child and that 'Ahab has his humanities' (Melville 2008 p. 72). In fact, all evidence points to the unusual character of Ahab. When the prophet-like figure of Elijah warns Ishmael about the impending voyage, he compounds Ishmael's anxieties about the man named after the ill-fated Old Testament King, whose blood dogs licked. Ahab's remoteness on board the Pequod, coupled with dockside superstition, adds to the impression that Ahab is an unusual character and that the voyage will be eventful.

Throughout the voyage Ahab's desire to kill the White Whale is underscored. Every passing ship's captain is asked about the whale. The discovery of the remarkable boat crew with Fedallah and the Philipino crew adds a further dimension to the quest to find Moby Dick as does the sleepless watches of Fedallah and Ahab along with the concerns for all omens and signs of good and evil. The special basket for Ahab's final sightings of Moby Dick is indicative of both Ahab's intelligence and cruelty. Finally, this intelligence and cruelty become perceptible as the Pequod approaches the hunting grounds where Ahab expects to find Moby Dick. He has the blacksmith make him a special harpoon of the hardest steel to use against the great white whale. For the final tempering, he asks the three harpooners for some of their blood, and into this he plunges the heated barbs.

"Ego non baptizo te ill nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli! [I baptize you not in the name of the father but in the name of the devil]," deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptismal blood" (Melville 2008 p.435).

This pact with the devil

In the final days of the pursuit Ahab's speeches show him to be suffering not only from lack of sleep but also from mental anguish. He dreams of killing the whale; he dreams of hearses. Ahab becomes more edgy about every sign than he has been before. As he nears the whale his whole being is devoted to the hunt. He associates himself with Pip, the mad cabin boy, and he openly acknowledges his own madness.

Ahab's obsession for bloody retribution is a reaction to the violation of his own boundaries as a man with an intact physical self. Moby Dick has violated Ahab's boundaries so decisively that he has been driven mad. Ahab has endured an experience where the lines dividing humanity and nature, self and world have been dissolved. His madness is derived from the dissolution of the most personal as well as universal of boundaries for not only has his physical integrity been violated but the integrity of his mind and soul. The white scar that some believe runs down his body from Ahab's crown to its sole, marks him as a man ripped in two, clinging fast to a monomaniacal purpose that holds him together (Porter 1991 p.104).

 "His vengeful pursuit of the White Whale is fuelled by a need as desperate as it is doomed, the need to reinstate the boundaries that the whale's dismembering attack has dissolved. But as the case of Pip serves to indicate, once such boundaries have been dissolved they cannot be reconstituted. For the vision of such chaos and the experience of absolute vulnerability to which such a crisis leads render all boundaries suspect, artificial, and finally sinister. All 'visible objects' for Ahab become 'pasteboard masks'" (Porter 1991 p.104).

Vengeance is an insatiable desire to take revenge on those who have inflicted pain and humiliation. It is only sought when there has been a great loss, a loss that is seen to embody an injustice, an inequity which dislodges the sense of the way reality should be, and an injustice imposed by an enemy over whom victory should have been assured. In his mind, Ahab lost his leg to a beast, an inferior creature. At this point, Moby Dick ceased to be simply a huge, solitary whale. He became a symbol of that which denied Ahab's perception that as a man, a Captain, he should have dominance. Moby Dick symbolises his mortality, his limitations in the face of nature's power. Revenge becomes obsession because only with revenge can the world become again that which supports Ahab's adopted perception of order. For Ahab, revenge is the only way to reconstitute boundaries that have been ripped from his body, mind and soul, and thereby restore his lost humanity.

Ironically, in his final hours Ahab draws close to admitting his own humanity. Starbuck notices that Ahab sheds a tear; a sign of his humanity. Yet Starbuck is still powerless to dissuade Ahab from his quest. Magnificent even in torment, master over the elements, a natural leader, Ahab's passion, not his intellect, triumphs in the end. As he himself admits, feelings, not thoughts, are his governing agencies. Ahab's obsession for bloody retribution is, a reaction to the violation of his own boundaries as a man with an intact physical self. Moby Dick has violated Ahab's boundaries so decisively that he has been driven mad. Ahab has endured an experience where the lines dividing humanity and nature, self and world have been dissolved. Ahab's madness is derived from the dissolution of the most personal as well as universal of boundaries for not only has his physical integrity been violated but the integrity of his mind and soul. The white scar that some believe runs down his body from Ahab's crown to its sole marks him as a man ripped in two clinging fast to a monomaniacal purpose that holds him together (Porter 1991 p.104).

"His vengeful pursuit of the White Whale is fuelled by a need as desperate as it is doomed, the need to reinstate the boundaries that the whale's dismembering attack has dissolved. But as the case of Pip serves to indicate, once such boundaries have been dissolved, they cannot be reconstituted. For the vision of such chaos and the experience of absolute vulnerability to which such a crisis leads render all boundaries suspect, artificial, and finally sinister. All 'visible objects' for Ahab become 'pasteboard masks'" (Porter 1991 p.104).

Magnificent even in torment, master over the elements, a natural leader, but in the end it is Ahab's passion that triumphs over his intellect. As he himself admits, feelings, not thoughts, are his governing agencies. His final desperate thrust with his harpoon is a passionate act, born of vengeance not reason. The hempen kink that pulls him to his death is accidental, unexpected, and sudden but it should not have been. He was an experienced whaler. Surrendering to his passionate will, his death is inevitable. It is not being ripped apart by a Leviathan from the deep that makes Ahab mad, it is the obsession that overwhelms his reason and his engagement with the realities around him.

The Monkey-Rope

     In the chapter titled 'The Monkey Rope', in order to 'cut in' a dead whale, Queequeg descends onto its back as it rides partially submerged beside the whaling boat. Ishmael holds Queequeg "down there in the sea by what in the fishery is technically termed 'a monkey-rope'" (Melville 2008 p.287) and both are in great danger. The monkey-rope is fastened around Queequeg and onto the whale, Ishmael precariously balancing him from the boat: "So that for better or worse, we two, for the time were wedded" (Melville 2008 p.287). Ishmael said, "should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake… Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother'(Melville 2008 p. 287).

At this point in the story Queequeg and Ishmael are so burdened with duties and danger that there is little time to consider the bond of love and comradeship between them. Queequeg in the scene of the monkey-rope is to busy to even turn to Ishmael: there is no reason to believe he even thinks of Ishmael except as an abstract support, as he tries to hook the whale, to keep from being eaten by crowded sharks and to keep from being hit by Tashtego and Dagoo as they flourish their whale spades amidst the sharks. Ishmael on board contemplates 'poor Queequeg's' struggle for life and equates it with his own struggle and that of all humanity.  He concludes;

Well, well, my dear comrade and twin-brother, thought I, as I drew in and then slacked off the rope to every swell of the sea - what matters it, after all? That unsounded ocean you gasp in is life; those sharks, your foes; those spades, your friends; and what between sharks and spades you are in a sad pickle and peril, poor lad (Melville 2008 p. 289).

This is not just a graphic picture about a depressive and negative attitude to the struggle of being alive. Queequeg whilst fighting of sharks and dodging whale spades is securely fastened to his friend. He is not alone and for that matter neither is Ishmael. Ishmael has the space to contemplate on the meaning of life and existence because his friend is on the whale's back fighting the sharks and dodging whale spades. Life and living is fraught and precarious if done in isolation but if there are two, although there is the reality of danger there is the possibility of salvation if these dangers are not faced singlehandedly. This deep bond of trust and friendship developed from an unexpected and un-welcome occurrence.

Throughout the saga, there is a juxtaposition of metaphors wherein the connectedness of Ishmael and Queequeg is placed over against the disconnection of Ahab.  Ahab is a closed page, ruled by an obsession. Ishmael and Queequeg are open both to each other and world external to them in a journey of exploration and expansion as opposed to Ahab's inward turning destruction.  They approach the world with curiosity and courage. Ahab closes out the world with no perception save the destruction of the whale.  In contrast to the finale of Ahab's quest where the rope attached to the harpoon, flung in fury and as a result his own hate and lust for vengeance is the vehicle of his own destruction. In contrast to Ahab's madness that unbidden takes Ahab, his crew and the Pequod to its death, the bond between Ishmael and Queequeg is willing fastened. It is a bond of support and has both flexibility and strength; it is symbolic of a fate that has its foundations in a chosen path, offering not the end of destruction, but the possibility of reasoned risk, comradeship and salvation.


  In the beginning of the story Queequeg and Ishmael are thrown together quite by accident, yet they become bound by a friendship that cuts across lines of race, religion and background. Ishmael had travelled to New Bedford and arrived on a Saturday night in December, too late to catch the shuttle boat to Nantucket. Unable to afford good lodgings, Ishmael stays at Spouter-Inn. The old landlord 'Jonah' informed Ishmael that he must sleep in a bed with a dark-complexioned harpooner. Reluctantly Ishmael resolves to go to bed in the harpooner's room, only to be awakened by a huge man entering with an embalmed head in his hand. The man, tattooed all over his body, takes an idol from his bag, worshiped it and sprung into bed with a tomahawk pipe between his teeth. Ishmael's fearful cries brought the landlord Peter Coffin (called Jonah), who introduces Queequeg the cannibal as Ishmael's bed partner. Ishmael resigns himself to his fate and sleeps soundly.

Their friendship is untrammelled by Ishmael's attempts to convert his friend to Christianity; in fact, Ishmael engages in Yojo-worship for the sake of fellowship, just as Queequeg goes to hear Father Mapple. At first Ishmael's prejudices have the upper-hand. Queequeg's habits of dressing, of worship, and of eating amuse Ishmael, but Ishmael finally decides that Queequeg, despite is ferocious appearance is a kind man. Queequeg says that Ishmael and he are married. The two share pipes, stories and a wheelbarrow, and decide to ship aboard the Pequod together. Although they are opposites in some respects; their whaling experience, thought processes, and heroic stature; the two are bound on the Pequod by the monkey-rope, in a whaleboat in the centre of the whale's breeding ground, and through the coffin-turned life-buoy.

Perhaps, the reason for the close bond of Ishmael and Queequeg is their naivety. Queequeg has written on his skin a treatise of the heavens, but he understands no more of this than of the book that he used in the Spouter-Inn where he picked up a book only for the purpose of counting the pages in groups of fifty. This task, whilst done in Ishmael's presence was done in isolation. But after it became known that he and Ishmael would have to share the bed together again it became a joint enterprise. The book is placed between them and Ishmael explains what he can to Queequeg about the book. The activity ends with a social smoke, wherein Queequeg produces the pipe and tomahawk and they sit exchanging puffs from his tomahawk-come-pipe. It was after this shared smoke that Queequeg announced that he and Ishmael were married. That where he came from this meant that they were 'bosom friends' and that he Queequeg would gladly die for him if the need should ever arise (Melville 2008 p.46). This isolated pursuit of Ishmael's to go to sea to because he has no money and is bored by life has now become a shared venture.

And only I am escaped to tell thee

In the epigram to the epilogue, Ishmael likens himself to the messengers of Job, each of whom ends his report with the words "And I only am escaped to tell thee" (Melville 2008 Epilogue). As a messenger there is nothing he can do, no action he can perform but as a witness of the destruction, he is able to give voice not only to the end result of unbridled madness, obsession, death and destruction but also of love, friendship and salvation. As the lone survivor of the wreck of the Pequod Ishmael survives but he appears a lonely figure adrift on the Pacific Ocean. This loneliness is a result of his close encounter with death through the unleashing of forces characterised by brutality, oppression and complete disregard for all others.

As a tale Moby Dick is full of irony. It is ironical that the Pequod is so decorated with whalebone that it is almost like the whales that it must hunt. It is ironical that a lifebuoy, a sign of life, should have been made from a coffin, a sign of death. It is ironical that the colour white should be associated with evil. The white whale, Moby Dick itself is perhaps the most enigmatic symbol in the work. To limit its meaning, to life, to nature, to truth, to evil, or raw intelligence would be limiting. The white whale, Moby Dick, is all of these things and much more but most of all the white whale is itself.

As a book Moby Dick is full of symbolism; objects, persons and actions are powerfully charged with meaning. For Jung, unconscious life could not conceive of without symbols but there meaning is by definition, unknown. For Jung human beings are at their most primitive as living entirely under the rule of their unconscious. Psychic reality becomes indistinguishable from physical or external reality (Jung 1933/1966 p.166) and there is little or nothing to curb the frequently contradictory and conflicting instinctual impulses. These archaic psychic processes are not, however, the exclusive property of the primitive. Modern humans retain this archaic man at the deepest level of his psyche (Jung 1933/1966 p.143).

Ishmaels' first person narration of the epic tale of Moby Dick provides the means by which a relatively simple tale becomes a work of art. Learned, observant and meditative, Ishmael reports all that is necessary for absolute clarity of understanding of events. He introduces the reader to the complex world of whaling gradually. His contemplation of for example the whiteness of the whale is full of curious lore from historical records and from legends from the whaling trade.

And whaling was a bloody and brutal affair. The cry, 'there's fire in the chimney' meant that the whale was spouting blood and dying, there was an inferno on board to help with the processing and transformation of the stricken animal into oil for the lamps, heating and cooking for those on board and for those on the land. In normal circumstance the whalers killed the adults, the pregnant and the calves; none were spared. If there ever was needed evidence of archaic remnants in civilised society than the whaling industry is a telling example.

Jung asserts, that it is the tendency of the developing consciousness to consider itself autonomous and, forgetting that it too has its roots in the primitive and that it is shaped and formed by the total psyche, to regard itself as the sum total of psychic reality. When this dangerous one-sidedness becomes manifest, the primitive and archaic forces of the unconscious may rise in revolt and overwhelm consciousness, replacing the hard won comparative freedom by a new form of the of the old oppressive bondage to the instinctual, the archaic, and the destructively contradictory (Jung par 428f 1931/1991).

Ishmael, the narrator of story of Moby Dick, hadsbeen an insignificant member of the crew, he is a mere chance fugitive from the wreck of the Pequod, owing his survival to fate. "It so chanced that ... I was he whom the fates ordained to take the place of Ahab's bowsman" (Melville 2008 Epilogue). There was no apparent reason for Ishmael's survival, he was no better than anyone else on board, but because the fates decided that the whaling voyage of Ishmael would end in this manner. As Queequeg's coffin come life-buoy and bobs to the surface Ishmael grabs hold of it and miraculously floats to safety passed the sharks and the sea hawks. The coffin come lifebuoy covered in a "mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth" (Melville 2008 p. 429) that Ishmael cannot read or understand even as he holds fast to it, is Queequeg's last gift to him. Queequeg's undecipherable tattoos, transferred from his body to the coffin that becomes the lifebuoy, is a complex symbol for this profoundest of experiences. It is a gift of love although it is transcribed in an unknown language. Through holding onto this strange gift Ishmael survives to witness the cataclysmic end of the Pequod.

'The drama's done. Why then does anyone step forth? - Because one did survive the wreck' (Melville 2008 Epilogue).