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Who is Moby Dick?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated: May 23, 2024

Moby Dick is the name of the famous "great white whale" in Herman Melville's classic 1851 novel of the same name. The book is widely considered to be one of the classic works of American literary fiction, and deals with overarching themes including solitude and the human attempt to attain salvation.

The book's first line, "Call me Ishmael," is well-known and widely quoted. Ishmael is the book's narrator, and works as one of the crew on the ship, the Pequod, where the story unfolds. The ship's captain, Ahab, has only one leg, and seems to be mentally deranged. He is obsessed with the pursuit of a white whale that is known as Moby Dick, which is revealed to have taken Ahab's leg. Ishmael soon discovers that the purpose of the ship's journey is to capture and kill the giant whale, Moby Dick, even if they the crew members themselves are killed in their pursuit.

At the end of the book, after much searching, the crew members finally come upon Moby Dick. They battle with the whale for three days, and Moby Dick eventually charges into the ship and destroys the Pequod. Captain Ahab and all of the other crew members are killed; only the narrator, Ishmael, survives the disastrous voyage.

Steven Spielberg's classic film, Jaws, features a character called Quint that is strongly based on Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. Like Ahab, Quint is obsessed with hunting and killing the animal that took his leg — in this case, a Great White shark.

In the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the New England Whaling Museum holds an annual Moby Dick Marathon reading, in which volunteer readers each read the novel aloud for ten minutes. It takes approximately 25 hours to complete reading the entire novel aloud. Each year, hundreds of Melville fans and many of Melville's descendants go to the event for a chance to read from the book. The well-known musician, Moby, is Melville's great-great grand nephew. His moniker, Moby, comes from the title of his ancestor's book, Moby Dick.

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Discussion Comments
By JavaGhoul — On Feb 05, 2011

This whale of a tale was actually a microcosm of a man's theodicy. Ahab spends the whole tale raging against God, who is represented by a "white whale." His vast and pure holiness strikes wherever he sees fit, stealing the leg of the bitter old captain. Ahab suffers like Job, but unlike Job, he chooses to rage against God, eventually losing his life in a tortuous battle against the invincible and Almighty forces of nature.

By ShadowGenius — On Feb 03, 2011

Queequeg was a rather ignorant image of what a foreign Polynesian was like in the days of Melville and the booming whaling industry. Back in those days, "white man" made little effort to understand foreign cultures and nations, but seemed to lump them all together into a category of savage idiots who could be exploited for money. The rare white people who saw value in foreign missions became missionaries and were usually killed.

By SilentBlue — On Feb 02, 2011

Herman Melville devotes an entire chapter to the gutting of a whale's penis. Most of it is somewhat based on innuendo and difficult to comprehend, but the detail into which he delves is somewhat disturbing. This man was not afraid to push the line in terms of the literary norms of his day.

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