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Free Study Guide-Moby Dick by Herman Melville-Free Booknotes Summary
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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Moby Dick is told by Ishmael, a young man who wants to go to sea as a sailor to seek adventure and excitement. He signs on the whaling ship, Pequod, along with his newfound Indian friend, Queequeg, whom he has met one night at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford. Queequeg is a native of the Fiji islands and an expert harpooner.

The captain of the ship, the dark brooding Ahab, is obsessed with hunting a giant white sperm whale, Moby Dick. Some years ago during an encounter at sea, Moby Dick had bitten off Ahabís leg. Thirsting for revenge, the one-legged Ahab decides to hunt the whale down. Thus, Ishmael, along with the ship's crew, is caught under the spell of Ahabís obsession for Moby Dick.

The Pequod leaves Nantucket on Christmas Day for the Pacific, and along its journey, the narrator introduces the reader to quite a few of the shipís members. Starbuck is the chief mate, Stubb, the second mate, and Flask, the third. There are also three harpooners: Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo. The narrator not only describes the crew but also provides a lot of information about sperm whales and how they are spotted and hunted.

One night Ahab gathers the crew around him and tells them of his quest: to catch the great white whale. The crew excitedly backs up his challenge to kill this deadly creature; the rest of the night is spent in revelry. Ishmael discovers that Moby Dick is a temperamental and wicked beast who is capable of sinking a whaling ship.


While Moby Dick is being hunted, the crew catches several sperm whales. On the first sighting of a whale, Ishamael ends up falling into the ocean after his boat is capsized; the crew enjoys his misadventure. Another time Pip, the cabin boy, is thrown overboard and left for dead. Later he is rescued and declared mentally insane from the experience of being in the sea. Along the way, the Pequod meets several other ships; Ahab has only one question for each of them: "Hast seen the white whale, Moby Dick?" Some ships give Ahab news about the elusive white whale, but they report that all their attempts to catch him have ended in disaster. One of the captains has lost an arm to the whale. Ahab, excited by this news, goes back to the ship to make a new harpoon; in his excitement, he splinters his ivory leg.

The Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean much to the dismay of Starbuck and Stubb, who now realize the danger they are in and would prefer to abandon their mission.

Eventually, the Pequod enters the Japanese sea, where the white whale is often sighted. Then a typhoon hits the ship, battering it with heavy seas. Ahab then spies the Rachel, whose crew explains that the white whale has destroyed a whole boat of crewmen, including the captainís son.

Soon after meeting the Rachel, the Pequod sights the white whale. Two attempts on two consecutive days go in vain as Moby Dick escapes. On the third day, Ahab drives a harpoon into Moby Dickís side. Furious, the wounded whale drives its massive head into the Pequodís side, smashing its bow. Ahab still refuses to give up the chase. He throws another harpoon at the whale, as his entire ship is sinking. As he throws the second harpoon, the rope gets entwined around Ahabís neck and drags him down into the water. The captain drowns, along with his crew. Only Ishmael survives, rescued by the Rachel. In this tragic story, the writer paints a brilliant portrait of life at sea and the American whaling industry during the 1800s.

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