Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was first published as The Whale by Richard Bentley of London in October 18, 1851.Moby-Dick is now thought by some as the greatest contribution of American letters to world literature. However, after a series of successful seafaring tales, this was the first flop for ex-cabin boy Herman Melville. He stopped writing and spent his last two decades as a custom officer on the New York docks. By the time of Herman Melville’s death on September 28, 1891, Moby-Dick had only sold 3,715 copies and earned him $556.37.
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Moby Dick famously begins with the narratorial invocation “Call me Ishmael.” The narrator, like his biblical counterpart, is an outcast. Ishmael, who turns to the sea for meaning, relays to the audience the final voyage of the Pequod, a whaling vessel. Amid a story of tribulation, beauty, and madness, the reader is introduced to a number of characters, many of whom have names with religious quality. The ship’s captain is Ahab, who Ishmael and his friend Queequeg soon learn is losing his mind. Starbuck, Ahab’s first-mate, understands this problem too, and is the only one throughout the novel to voice his disapproval of Ahab’s increasingly obsessive behavior.
This nature of Ahab’s obsession is first revealed to Ishmael and Queequeg after the Pequod’s owners, Peleg and Bildad, explain to them that Ahab is still recovering from an encounter with a large whale that resulted in the loss of his leg. That whale’s name is Moby Dick. The Pequod sets sail, and the crew is soon told that this journey will be unlike their other whaling missions: this time, despite the reluctance of Starbuck, Ahab intends to hunt and kill the beastly Moby Dick no matter the cost.
Ahab and the crew continue their remarkable journey and encounter a number of obstacles along the way. Queequeg becomes ill, which prompts a coffin to be built in anticipation of his death. After he recovers, the coffin becomes a replacement lifeboat that eventually saves Ishmael’s life. Ahab receives a prophecy from a crew member informing him of his future death, which he ignores. Moby Dick is spotted and, over the course of three days, engages violently with Ahab and the Pequod until the whale destroys the ship, killing everyone except Ishmael. Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin until he is picked up by another ship, the Rachel. The novel consists of 135 chapters, in which narrative and essayistic portions intermingle, as well as an epilogue and front matter.
The whale itself is perhaps the most striking symbol in Moby Dick, and interpretations of its meaning range from the Judeo-Christian God to atheism and everything in between. Between the passages of carefully detailed cetology, the epigraphs, and the shift from a hero’s quest narrative to a tragedy, Melville set the stage for purposeful ambiguity. The novel’s ability to produce numerous interpretations is, perhaps, the main reason it is considered one of the greatest American novels.