Moby Dick begins with a short section entitled Summary of Etymology. It contains the word “Whale” in many different languages, bringing out the meaning of the root, “to roll.” The history of words is supplied by a “Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School” who likes to supply these words, like flags from different countries, because it reminds him of his mortality.
The dusty grammarian is able to supply little real information about whales, like the sub-sub librarian below. Both are intellectuals, away from the arena of life. The grammarian does bring out that whale means “to roll” or that it has to do with roundness, a provocative clue that will be unfolded in the story, for there are many circles around Moby Dick, mostly having to do with fate. In any case, the grammarian’s occupation reminds him of his mortality, for even languages come and go, while the whale goes on his immortal way, as is seen in the extracts below.
The narrator says he has received this list of extracts about whales from a “sub-sub librarian,” who has merely found “random allusions to whales” that he, the commentator, must put into perspective for us. He tells us not to take these statements as truthful lore about “cetology,” or serious whale study. It is a bird’s eye view of the subject, as found in books. The dismissal of “sub-subs” is a warning to all those pale people who live second hand lives.
The first quote from Genesis, “And God created great whales,” begins the extensive biblical allusions found in the novel that connect whaling to the beginning of time and the mystery of life. Other quotes are from Classical writers, Renaissance philosophers, Shakespeare, Milton, explorers, histories, and whaling songs. They are not “random” as the narrator has assembled them, but give the reader an expansive feeling that whales have been something to reckon with through the ages. They display the greatness of the whale and set up suspense for the adventure to come.
The lengthy list of extracts testifies to the importance of the whale in both history and myth. Melville, in the epic tradition, places characters in a cosmic context; in this case, Moby Dick himself. Without the constant mythologizing of the whale as an ancient and fierce monster, we could not understand the meaning of Captain Ahab’s maniacal quest to kill Moby Dick. The extracts reinforce the qualities and mystery of the whale, according to lore: it is a crooked serpent, a dragon, a huge monster, dreadful, threatening, wanton, and fierce. As the narrator rightly points out, this is not true cetology, which he will provide for us during the story. Even here, Melville sets up the tension he will unfold in the book: the realistic and factual experience of whaling, against the myth that has hold of the human imagination. Which is the true whale?
In order to tell this story in its depth, Melville has used conventions from many narrative traditions. The form of the book is part epic, part myth, part Shakespearean tragedy, part “anatomy” like Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. An epic tells the story of a nation and its heroes and their interactions with the gods to win a victory for the country. In this vein, Ishmael, an ordinary American sailor, is such a hero for his culture, bringing back the wisdom of his voyage with Ahab. Moby Dick is also a myth, or primordial story of the gods, in the way Melville treats whales, and especially Moby Dick, as agents of fate. They have ancient knowledge of the universe, Ahab thinks, trying to read their sphinx-like brows. Some chapters are set up in the form of a drama, with Ahab as the tragic hero, like Lear or Hamlet. Finally, the book is an “anatomy” or analysis of whaling, connecting the facts of whaling allegorically to human life. Melville masterfully marries all these forms into a novel.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3
Chapter 1, “Loomings”
The story begins, “Call me Ishmael,” the name of a wanderer, an outsider. Ishmael looks back to the time he first went to sea. Any time he is restless and feels depressed (“drizzly November in my soul”), he goes to sea. He believes all men have the same feeling towards the ocean that he does, for there are always people standing on the shore in reverie. All paths end in a body of water: “meditation and water are wedded for ever” (1. 2). What do people see in water? What Narcissus saw: “the ungraspable phantom of life, and this is the key to it all” (1.3).
Ishmael, being a very democratic soul, goes to sea as a simple sailor, not a passenger or captain. This is a step down from his status on land as a schoolteacher, for he is ordered around on the ship, but he says philosophically, “Who ain’t a slave?” (1.4) He humorously tells us that the Fates had charge of him on this voyage, and that it was a small drama packed into the program of Providence, making him believe it was his own choice. The great whale was his main inducement to “sail forbidden seas” (1.6). The image of the whale was imprinted on his soul.
Chapter 2, “The Carpet Bag”
Leaving Manhattan, he goes to New Bedford in December. Having missed the packet to Nantucket Island where the whalers dock, he stays the weekend in town, looking for an inn. The town is dreary with “blocks of blackness” (2.8).
When he sees the sign “Spouter Inn” of Peter Coffin, he likes the ominous sound of it, and enters. Seeing the ruined structure of the building, he philosophizes on the nature of the universe: “it’s too late to make any improvements now. The universe is finished” (2.9). The example he brings up is Lazarus, the biblical poor man who is forced to witness the feast of the rich man, Dives. Not much has changed the injustice of the world.
Chapter 3, “The Spouter-Inn”
The first thing Ishmael sees in the inn is an obscure oil painting. He gives many interpretations of the shapes, concluding it is a ship foundering in a hurricane. The bar at the inn is a replica of a whale head; one enters through an open whale jawbone.
Ishmael is forced to share a room with a harpooner who is out late selling shrunken human heads on the street. Queequeg is a tattooed savage from the South Seas and enters the room when Ishmael is already in bed. He takes out a little black idol to worship, then jumps in bed with a yell of surprise to find a bedmate. The landlord comes in to settle everything, and Ishmael decides Queequeq “is a human being just as I am” (3.24) and that is the beginning of their friendship.
Analysis - Chapters 1, 2, and 3
Ishmael was the name of the first son of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, but he was the son of Hagar, the outsider, the servant who took the place of Sarah, the sterile wife. When Sarah finally bore Isaac, the legitimate son of Abraham, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, who were Egyptians, were evicted and founded a wandering tribe of outsiders. Such a fictitious name chosen by the narrator contains the symbolism of his vantage point as a narrator—he is not a regular sailor. He is the intelligent observer and participant, who is always an outsider, and thus, the one who can more truly tell the story. Ishmael makes much of his democratic position. Ahab is the tragic and elitist leader, but Ishmael is the common man who perseveres and survives.
We are early introduced to the symbol of water and the ocean as the mystery of life. Everyone is attracted to water; it is the way humans meditate on the meaning of life. However, not everyone is brave enough to embark on a voyage into the unknown. Ishmael says he “sails forbidden seas” implying that the knowledge he is going to receive is not the kind you learn from books or in church or town.
What leads him on? Certainly his own curiosity and youth, but as well, he introduces “those stage managers, the Fates” (1.5) who assign him a paltry part in the drama to come. And perhaps it was the magic lure of Moby Dick himself whom he wanted to see firsthand: “two by two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (1.6). Moby Dick is thus for Ishmael as much a mythic being as for Ahab, though they will regard him differently. Ishmael has enough sanity to know that a myth has to be experienced in the imagination, but Ahab tries to confront it in the real world, and that is his tragedy.
Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world from 1800 to 1840. At its peak there were 88 Nantucket whalers sailing around the world. Melville took part of his story from the Essex, a whaler rammed by a whale off South America in 1820. Nantucket means, “far away island” and is an island off Massachusetts, the third largest city in Massachusetts in whaling days. The original Peter Coffin was one of the nine English purchasers of the island from the Native Americans.
In the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, we are immediately introduced to the theme of blackness and obscurity that will give the novel its tone. A corollary is that nothing can be known for certain because interpretation of events is in the eye of the beholder. The obscure oil painting on the wall could be a midnight gale, the break-up of Time, or a whaler going down from a whale attack. The latter of course predicts the story he is about to tell. Finally, this section brings in another important theme: friendship. Ishmael meets his bosom buddy, Queequeg, a strange but endearing friend, who is a protector on the voyage.
Moby Dick: Novel Summary