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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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THE NOVEL

THE PLOT

"Call me Ishmael." With these words the narrator of Moby-Dick begins the tale of how, some years before, he abandoned his stale life in Manhattan for the excitement of a whaling ship.

It's a cold December night when Ishmael arrives in the whaling port of New Bedford. He takes a room at the Spouter-Inn, where he must share a bed with a Polynesian harpooner, Queequeg-a frightening figure with tattoos and a reputation as a cannibal, but, Ishmael soon learns, a man of great dignity and good nature.

The next morning Ishmael visits the Whaleman's Chapel to hear the famed Father Mapple, once a sailor himself, preach a moving sermon on Jonah and the Whale and man's need to obey God. Ishmael and Queequeg, now fast friends, decide to sail together and cross to Nantucket Island to find a suitable ship. At the Nantucket wharf, Ishmael sees the Pequod, small, weather-beaten and wildly decorated with whalebones. Her Quaker owners, Peleg and Bildad, agree to let the inexperienced Ishmael sign on (for low wages) then tell him that the Pequod's captain, Ahab, has lost his leg to an enormous white whale. For that reason Ahab can be moody and grim, though he is still a skilled commander.

On a Nantucket street Queequeg and Ishmael are confronted by the crazed, pock-marked Elijah, who shouts dark warnings about their new captain. Another strange occurrence takes place as the Pequod is being readied to set sail: Ishmael sees shadowy figures board the ship ahead of him, then mysteriously vanish.



The Pequod leaves Nantucket on an icy Christmas Day. Ishmael soon gets to know the ship's mates-cautious Starbuck, easy-going Stubb, hot-tempered Flask-and the rest of the crew, gathered from the four corners of the globe. But Captain Ahab remains isolated in his cabin.

When at last Ahab appears, his ivory leg and the white scar blazing down his face and neck make him look to Ishmael like a man who was burned at the stake and survived. Something is disturbing Ahab deeply, and in a dramatic scene on the quarterdeck, the captain gathers the crew and discloses the true purpose of the voyage-the destruction of Moby-Dick, the enormous white sperm whale that cost him his leg. He nails a gold doubloon to the mainmast, a reward for the first man who spots the great whale. The sensible Starbuck protests that the Pequod is not in business to satisfy Ahab's desire for revenge, but the captain's strong will, and the liquor he supplies, win the rest of the crew to his side.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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