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The narrator who introduces himself as Ishmael, starts as sailor on a whaling ship to cure his depression. Together with Queequeg, a harpooneer from South Sea Island totally tattooed , he goes on board of the Pequod, which is just about to sail on a three-year expedition to hunt sperm whales .
The commander is Captain Ahab, a solitary man. Ahab misses one leg: Moby Dick, the famous White Whale, took off his leg . Ahab asks his crew to swear that they will help him hunt Moby Dick to take revenge for his injury. The sailors all agree.
Then life on boards starts as usual: mariners work, hunt sperm whales, butcher them, and take the sperm oil. They meet other ships which tell them the latest news about the White Whale.
A year passes, the ship travels across the Atlantic, around Africa, through the Indian Ocean, the Sea of Japan and it reaches the equator in the Pacific Ocean where Moby Dick is.
Finally, Ahab sights the White Whale, and the chase starts. For three days, Ahab pursues Moby Dick, but every whaling boat he sends to capture him sinks. At the end of the third day, the White Whale attacks the ship itself, and the Pequod goes down.
While his ship is sinking, Ahab, succeed in throwing his harpoon at Moby Dick one last time, but he misses: the rope of the harpoon ties Ahab to the whale and the two sink into the ocean. The only survivor is Ishmael, who lives to tell the tale: he grasps the coffin of his mate, the harpooneer Queequeg, who is dying of a fever.
Like in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and MS found in a Bottle by Edgar Allan Poe, Moby Dick by Herman Melville is the tale of a journey, a quest.
The whale has taken on an incredible multiplicity of meanings over the course of the novel. This makes Ishmael understand that human knowledge is always limited and insufficient. Moby Dick itself assumes an allegorical meaning: the ways of Moby Dick, like those of the Christian God, are unknowable to man. Nobody can interpret them and, as Ahab experiences, the quest for them is inevitably futile and often fatal.
Ahab looks for the whale continuously, he perceives its presence. The Sperm Whale is part of his body in the form of Ahab’s ivory leg and the mariner must continue on his quest no matter the cost.
The novel supplies also an analysis about the contrast between Civilized and Pagan Society
Queequeg and Ishmael illustrate the prevalent contrast between civilized, specifically Christian societies and uncivilized, pagan societies. Queequeg’s uncivilized and imposing appearance only obscures his real honour and civilized behaviour. The real pagan, satanic character is Ahab himself. The Sea becomes the place of transition between from uncivilized to civilized society and also between life and death. The coffin in which Queequeg is waiting for his death becomes the object that saves Ishamael’s life.