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Call me Ishmael.
Described by many as the greatest American novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville, is either a story about the hunt of a wicked whale by a madman that shows Melville's work, or an encyclopedia on whaling and cetology with a Framing Device. You choose.
Either way, the plot follows a man that, infatuated with the sea (apparently, it's a periodical thing), decides to go aboard a whaling ship to try out how whaling feels. He and his newly-met best friend Queequeg go upon the Pequod under the command of the monomaniac Captain Ahab, and eventually get in the middle of his maniac hunt for Moby Dick, the eponymous "White Whale" that ate his leg. Tragedy ensues.
Moby-Dick is full of symbolism, and much more has been added by later commentators. Common meanings for the whale, for instance, are: nature, fate, the ocean's fury itself, Ireland and God (as an invincible opponent who is never actually overcome at any point in the story).
This book is part of the Hollywoodian Small Reference Pools. Despite any real-life literary merits, it is convenient shorthand for "huge boring Doorstopper assigned for reading by high-school teachers" in any given kids series. Whether this also implicitly states that execs think that Kids Are Morons is debatable.
Moby Dick has been adapted to screen several times, the most famous version being with Gregory Peck as Ahab. Patrick Stewart was inspired to play the role following an allegorical comparison to Ahab in one of his movies.
Moby-Dick provides examples of:
- Achey Scars: Captain Ahab's lost leg, arguably.
- An Arm and a Leg: The source of Ahab's angst.
- Animal Nemesis: It's practically the textbook for this trope.
- Or its subversion, in that Ahab's rage has since become stock metaphor for revenge-seeking rage that defies merely human attempts to control or stop it.
- Annoying Arrows: Moby Dick's hide is covered in leftover harpoons from failed attempts to bag him.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
"He's killed himself," she cried. "It's unfort'nate stiggs done over again - there goes another counterpane - god pity his poor mother! - it will be the ruin of my house. Has the poor lad a sister? Where's that girl? - there, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with - "no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor;" - might as well kill both birds at once."
- Author Filibuster: Melville looooooves whaling. They're the frontiersmen of the generation; the equivalent of cowboys and astronauts.
- Chekhov's Gun: Queequeg's coffin.
- Determinator: Captain Ahab
- The Trope Codifier of all self-destructive forms. Being accused of being Captain Ahab means that unless a character changes their chosen course, and quickly, they are going to destroy themselves... and everyone under his command.
- Everything's Squishier with Cephalopods: The crew of the Pequod once gets to spot a giant squid, and find it even scarier than Moby Dick himself.
- First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Ishmael tells the story, and at first appears to be the main character, but as the story goes on he becomes more and more peripheral to the story to the point that he almost disappears while Captain Ahab and the titular whale take center stage as the main characters.
- Food Porn: Chapter 15 is about eating... chowder.
- But will they have clam chowder, or cod chowder? or maybe BOTH?
- Foreshadowing: Chapter 40, "The Line".
- Freudian Trio: Ahab as Ego; Starbuck as Superego; Stubb as Id.
- Funetik Aksent: Fleece's form of speech.
- Fun with Foreign Languages: Stubb's conversation with the captain of the Rosebud.
- Gentle Giant: Queequeg. He's a brawny cannibal prince from the South Sea islands who's covered in tribal tattoos, has his teeth filed to look like fangs, and is deadly accurate with his harpoon (which doubles as a razor for shaving). So what's his favorite pastime besides peddling shrunken heads in the street? Snuggling up with his best buddy Ishmael. D'awwwwwwww.
- Giant Squid: They encountered one:
Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.
- Have a Gay Old Time: A book about the hunt of a sperm whale name Moby Dick. Also, "The Town-Ho's Story" has nothing to do with The Oldest Profession.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Captain Ahab seeks to kill a whale that acted out of instinct.
- Heterosexual Life Partners: Ishmael and Queequeg's relationship is either this or Ho Yay.
- Ignored Epiphany: Ahab briefly reconsiders killing Moby Dick. Briefly.
- Improbable Aiming Skills: Queequeg manages to harpoon an oil slick.
- Karmic Death: Ahab drowns when he is pulled underwater by Moby Dick.
- Kill'Em All: Everyone except Ishmael. Well, except Ishmael and his sled...
- Light Is Not Good: Discussed, as in the "paradox" of the creepiness of albinos in spite of the positive symbolism of white.
- Louis Cypher: Fedallah, possibly.
- Ludicrous Precision: The question of whether the whale's spout is water or vapour has lasted from the beginning of history down to "this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o'clock P.M. of this sixteenth day of December, A.D. 1851)"
- Manly Men Can Hunt
- Medium Blending: Owing to the obvious Shakespearean influence on the novel, some of the chapters are written as a play script.
- The Mutiny: In Chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story".
- No Man of Woman Born: Courtesy of Fedallah.
- Noodle Incident: "That deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa."
- Only Sane Man: Starbuck.
- Pet the Dog: Ahab and Pip in Chapter 125, "The Log and Line".
- Power Born of Madness: "If such a furious trope may stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon any one reasonable object."--Chapter 33.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Ahab. The author directly states that Ahab has come to project all of the evil in the world onto Moby Dick, as if the white wale is the living personification of evil and bad fortune. Ahab himself acknowledges that he hates the whale that crippled him not so much as a mere whale, but for what it represents: bad luck, fate, the harsh nature of a post-Eden fallen world, whatever you want to call it. Ahab's anger, as the author put it, is the sum total of all of the anger of humanity going back to when Adam was kicked out of the Garden of Eden, anger at an imperfect world in which bad things can happen. Ahab sees the white whale as the living personification of all of this, and thus, something in the flesh which he can actually fight and kill.
- Revenge: Again, practically the textbook example.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The whale was based off of a similarly destructive whale named Mocha Dick that plagued Bermuda.
- The events depicted in The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex were another major inspiration.
- School Study Media
- Science Marches On: While the author was very knowledgeable about cetology, some "facts" he used have since been proven to be inaccurate.
"Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish."
- More of a case of definitions march on. "Fish" originally just meant "animal that lives exclusively in water". Melville recognises that whales are warm-blooded, breath air, and bear live young, but just doesn't think that a sufficient reason to redefine what "fish" means. As made clear by several other lines in the same chaptern, Melville is very much a Lumper, not a Spliter.
- He also mentions phrenology and physiognomy, both now considered pseudosciences.
- Shown Their Work: Cetology and all aspects of whale fishing; All, I say. But they're interesting.
- Remove the even-numbered chapters, and you've got an encyclopedia of whaling. Remove the odd-numbered chapters, and you've got an adventure story. And that story still has a bit of the encyclopedia.
- Sleep Cute: Queequeg and Ishmael. Damn, do they look cute together or what?
- Spell My Name with an "S": The book is Moby-Dick. The whale, in-story, is only ever referred to as Moby Dick.
- Suddenly Ethnicity: Toyed with. Ishmael is shocked to discover that "the harpooner" is a South Seas native, but accepts it just as easily.
- Taking You with Me: The whale takes Ahab with him. Or is that the other way round?
- Talk Like a Pirate: "Avast!"
- Justified. "Avast" is an actual period nautical command, and it (and a few others) are used correctly in the story.
- The Man With No Name: Ishmael, if one interprets "Call me Ishmael" to imply that this is not his true name.
- Truth in Television: Believe it or not, this book was based very heavily on a true story. Although, the story of Moby-Dick is quite a "softened" version of the actual events -- the real tale is far more gruesome and chilling. Read for yourself. Also, it should be noted the angry ship-sinking cetacean was actually a sperm whale.
- Chapter XLV of the novel itself cites the real-life story as evidence that a sperm whale can indeed sink a ship.
- Super-Persistent Predator: Captain Ahab. A human version.
- Tragic Hero: Ahab really doesn't seem to be a bad captain, certainly better than the captain in the story within the story whom could have ended a mutiny merely by promising to not abuse his men any more but refuses out of pride. He simply suffers from a Fatal Flaw of becoming obsessed with vengeance.
- Ahab even has a wife and son at home, though he mentions them only once, so everyone else who's ever read the book (except Sena Naslund, author of the novel Ahab's Wife) might be forgiven for forgetting that.
- Viewers are Morons: Why Ishmael goes into all the technical aspects of whaling and ships; it's assumed (rightly or wrongly) that most readers don't know about that stuff.
- What Do You Mean Its Not Symbolic
- Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Starbuck wrestles with this.
- Wild Samoan: Largely averted with Queequeg.
- You Can't Fight Fate