By: Herman Melville (1819-1891) Call me Ishmael is one of the most famous opening lines in American literature. With these words, opens one of the strangest and most gripping stories ever written about the sea and sea-faring.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville is today considered one of the greatest novels written in America but paradoxically, it was a miserable failure when it first made its debut in 1851. Entitled Moby Dick or The Whale the book finally got its due after the author’s death and is now regarded as a classic portrayal of mania and fatal obsession.
The narrator, Ishmael, travels to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to find a place on a whaling ship. He lodges at a seedy inn where he is forced to share a room with a strange old character, Queequeg, who was a harpooner. Despite his initial revulsion of Queequeg, Ishmael decides to join him in looking for work together.
They reach Nantucket, the traditional center of whaling, where they find a berth on the Pequod, a bizarre vessel adorned with the skeletons and teeth of whales.
The captain, Ahab, a mysterious figure, does not appear immediately. Later, they come to know that he is on board, recovering from losing a leg on his last voyage having escaped death narrowly following an encounter with a massive sperm whale.
As the ship sails past Africa, Ahab’s sinister motives begin to emerge. His agenda is to hunt and destroy a legendary whale named Moby Dick, whom he has unsuccessfully pursued several times.
He has smuggled his own private harpooners on board and he accosts every whaling ship he meets and demands information about sightings of Moby Dick.
One of the ships has a maniacal passenger called Gabriel, who claims to be a prophet and he predicts doom for anyone who seeks Moby Dick. The peg leg captain finally encounters Moby Dick and a trail of destruction follows. The obsessed Ahab refuses to give up.
The novel then races towards a brilliant and dramatic climax. As an example of the Great American Novel, Moby Dick is unrivaled in its structure, language and style.
Melville amalgamates a fabulous mix of Biblical, Shakespearean and mythical elements along with wonderful seafaring atmosphere sourced from his own nautical experiences on board whaling schooners.
Whaling stories from contemporary sources in Nantucket’s local grapevine was another rich fountainhead of material. Moby Dick has been adapted for stage, radio, screen, television, comics and graphic novels. It remains a strange and unforgettable classic which no reader should miss.