Moby Dick Book Summary - Moby Dick Book explained in key points
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Moby Dick summary

Herman Melville

One Man’s Obsession With Revenge Turns Into Self-Destruction

4.5 (82 ratings)
19 mins

Brief summary

<i>Moby Dick</i> is a classic novel by Herman Melville that tells the story of Captain Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the great white whale. It explores themes of obsession, revenge, and man's struggle against nature.

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    Moby Dick
    Summary of 3 key ideas

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    Key idea 1 of 3

    Ishmael and Queequeg find a job

    Our story starts with an introduction to Ishmael, our narrator as well as one of the characters in the story. The only hint we have as to the year the tale takes place are the words, “some years ago,” which means sometime in the mid-1800s.

    At this time, Ishmael is, in his words, a “simple sailor.” We’re introduced to him as a young man who’s traveling from New York to Nantucket, Massachusetts, in the hopes of finding a job aboard one of the many ships preparing to leave the island.

    But since Ishmael is also the narrator, who’s telling the story from the perspective of an older man, he’s far from being simple-minded. Looking back on this adventure, Ishmael is now an expert in all things related to the profession of whaling. From history to marine biology, as well as the ins and outs of every crew member on a whaling ship, Ishmael is all-knowing.

    He can get quite philosophical about things but he can also be pretty funny – and perhaps never more so than when he describes his first encounter with an unusual man by the name of Queequeg.

    Before catching a boat to the island of Nantucket, Ishmael had first to arrive in New Bedford, Massachusetts and spend the night at a local inn. The town being filled to the brim with fishermen and off-duty sailors – and not having a lot of money to spend – Ishmael was forced to share not only a room but also a bed with a stranger. The only thing he knew about this man was what he was told by the innkeeper: he’s a harpooner, and he likes his meat served raw.

    Ishmael first encounters this stranger in the dead of night. Half-naked, clutching his covers, he silently observed the man entering his room. His dark skin was covered in tattoos, and his head was shaved nearly bald except for a knot of hair twisting upward. His teeth were filed down into sharp points, bearing the sign of a cannibal. He was also carrying a small, black, carved statue that he proceeded to use in some sort of sacred ritual that Ishmael had never before witnessed.

    Ishmael watched on in fearful silence, which only made the situation worse since the mysterious man had no idea there was someone else in his bed when he finally laid down to rest. Screams and panicked confusion ensued. But the funniest thing is that once Ishmael and the Polynesian Queequeg properly introduced themselves to one another, they immediately became the best of friends. When he awoke the next morning, after one of the best sleeps in his life, Queequeg's tattooed arm was draped over him as though he was his wife.

    The two bosom-buddies traveled to Nantucket together, and after consulting his idol, Queequeg told Ishmael that he should decide which ship they should sign up with. As fate would have it, Ishmael chose the Pequod, a whaling ship helmed by Captain Ahab and bound for the Pacific Ocean in what would be a three-year trip.


    It’s worth pausing the story here so that we can dissect Ishmael a little bit. It takes over 20 chapters before Ishmael and Queequeg leave Nantucket aboard the Pequod. In those early chapters, Ishmael is both our narrator and our protagonist. But once he’s aboard, things change. Ishmael the character fades into the background and other characters, like Captain Ahab, come to the forefront.

    But through it all, Ishmael the narrator is ever present. Every step of the way, it’s not uncommon for Ishmael to stop the narrative and spend one or more chapters describing a certain function of the whaling ship or providing some colorful historical background. Ishmael the narrator is fond of making references to Biblical characters like Jonah, who famously spent time in the belly of a whale. He also likes to quote Roman philosophers, like Pliny the Elder, reference historical characters like Napoleon, and provide detailed descriptions of cultures as diverse as the Egyptians and the Polynesians. He’s also apt to present a meeting between two characters like it was a theater play, complete with stage instructions.

    All of this implies that Ishmael went on to become quite a learned and well-traveled man in the years following his adventure on the Pequod. It’s interesting to consider that “Ishmael” is itself a Biblical name that denotes the character as being a wanderer and an outcast. Given the amount of knowledge he’s sharing with the readers you can imagine that he never stopped wandering.

    It also makes sense then, that Ishmael comes across as a tolerant individual. While he’s initially scared and skeptical of Queequeg, he’s ultimately openhearted toward him. Even before he gets to know him by sharing a bed with him, Ishmael tells us that it’s better to have a sober cannibal as a bedmate than a drunken Christian.

    As we’ll see in the next section, it wouldn’t make much sense for Ishmael to be a close-minded or prejudiced man since the crew of a whaling ship is a diverse one indeed. The hands on these ships need to work in harmony with one another; which is something that can be put to the test when the captain has his own agenda.

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    What is Moby Dick about?

    Moby Dick (1851) is an enduring classic of American literature. From the perspective of a boat hand named Ishmael, it tells the story of an ill-fated voyage aboard the Pequod, a whaling vessel. With humor and attention to the smallest detail, it explains how a crew came under the spell of the obsessed Captain Ahab, who had only one mission in life: to kill the giant white whale known as Moby Dick.

    Moby Dick Review

    Moby Dick (1851) is an epic novel that explores the obsessive pursuit of Captain Ahab for the legendary white whale. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With its rich symbolism and complex characters, the book offers a profound examination of human nature, morality, and the meaning of life.
    • It takes readers on a thrilling adventure through the treacherous seas, immersing them in the dangers and wonders of the whaling industry.
    • The book delves into meticulous details about whales and the art of whaling, providing an educational and fascinating exploration of the subject.

    Who should read Moby Dick?

    • Fans of classic literature
    • Anyone who likes a good tale of adventure
    • Landlubbers and salty sea dogs alike

    About the Author

    Herman Melville, born in 1891, was a writer of novels, short stories, and poems. He spent time aboard merchant ships and a whaler, which allowed him to travel the world and find inspiration for his many adventure stories. His other works include Bartleby, the Scrivener; Reburn: His First Voyage; and Billy Budd, Sailor.

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    Moby Dick FAQs 

    What is the main message of Moby Dick?

    The main message of Moby Dick is the relentless pursuit of an obsession.

    How long does it take to read Moby Dick?

    The reading time for Moby Dick varies. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Moby Dick a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Moby Dick is worth reading for its powerful storytelling and exploration of themes like obsession and the human experience.

    Who is the author of Moby Dick?

    The author of Moby Dick is Herman Melville.

    What to read after Moby Dick?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Moby Dick, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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