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Main Characters


The Pequod's captain directs his crew out of Nantucket on a tormented, worldwide search for Moby Dick, the white whale that once attacked him and chewed off one of his legs. Ahab's intensity frightens the rest of the men on board; his search seems motivated less by rational concerns than by darker impulses. Despite his darkness, however, Ahab possesses deeper feelings, more "soul," than perhaps anyone else in the novel. He agonizes over the loneliness of the sea even as he celebrates its loveliness, and longs for human companionship even as his obsessions distance him from all others. For Ahab, the White Whale is not simply an enemy, but a symbol of some terrible universal force. The novel's story is that of a whaling voyage but also of a spiritual adventure as Ahab seeks to confront the nameless mysteries he locates in the figure of the Whale. Once Ahab finally tracks down his elusive prey, the stage is set for a fatal confrontation: he leads his crew in three days of bloodthirsty pursuit, resulting in Moby Dick's deadly triumph over ship and captain.


The novel's narrator does not describe himself explicitly or extensively as he recounts his experiences on the Pequod. We do learn that Ishmael is a man who loves the surprise and adventure of sea-voyage and who is open-minded enough to take as his "bosom-friend" a Polynesian cannibal, Queequeg. In a sense, Ishmael is the novel's surrogate for another sailor-turned-novelist: Melville himself. The connection between Ishmael and Melville (we might call the narrator "Ishmaelville") creates a radically innovative narrative style. Occasionally, Ishmael is somehow able to "narrate" events that he cannot possibly have witnessed, making the narrative appear more like a novel or a play than a "memoir." At other times, as part of his rather obsessive efforts to understand the massive creature that he hunts, Ishmael refers to an enormous number of literary, scientific, historical, artistic and religious sources to describe the whale more completely - giving the narrative something of the character of an encyclopedic whaling manual. While Ishmael describes his duties on ship and the sights he sees during the Pequod's journey in great detail, he never seems to participate directly in the novel's main plot: Ahab's tormented search for Moby Dick. Indeed, as far as we know, Ishmael never even speaks to Ahab directly. The closest he gets to Ahab is in the novel's final scene, where he helps to row the captain toward his deadly encounter with the White Whale. Perhaps it is this distance from Ahab that preserves Ishmael's life: after the deadly attack at the end of the novel, he is the only character who survives to tell the tale.


Starbuck, first mate of the Pequod, is a foil for the dark Ahab. He is a Nantucketer, hearty and upright, possessing an effortless nobility and goodness of soul. Starbuck is the first to sense that something is terribly wrong with the ship's captain. It is Starbuck who finally accuses Ahab of being a blasphemer, or possibly even an agent of Satan, and it is Starbuck who intercedes to plead for Ahab to abandon his dangerous quest. Ahab senses that Starbuck's light is as strong as his own darkness, and the two men function as inverse parallels. Late in the novel, the two men even briefly commiserate about their mutual loneliness at sea. In the end, however, Ahab refuses to heed Starbuck's suggestion that they return to Nantucket, and directs the ship forward to its fatal end.

Stubb and Flask

The two mates below Starbuck are less spiritual characters. Flask, from Martha's Vineyard, is a hot-tempered, energetic hunter who pursues whales as if they've offended him personally. Stubb, hailing from Cape Cod, is a more laconic character, given to black humor and irony, and very fond of whale steak. While both of these men often wonder what makes Ahab so strange, neither of them can comprehend his blackness of soul; the two spend most of the novel anxious only to kill as many whales as possible and bring the profits home.


The first harpooneer of the Pequod is Ishmael's first friend in the novel. The two men meet at an inn in New Bedford, Massachusetts, en route to Nantucket and the whale boats there. Queequeg initially scares Ishmael with his facial tattoos, bag of shrunken heads, and nasty-looking harpoon, but he eventually proves to be a gentle and good man, despite having some odd methods of worshipping and eating. Queequeg tells Ishmael of his noble ancestry in Polynesia and his successful quest to become a whale-hunter. His harpooning skill is considerable, and he kills more whales in the novel than any other character. Late in the novel, Queequeg narrowly escapes death after contracting a nasty fever. During this sickness, he commissions a wooden coffin - this object later becomes the life-buoy that saves Ishmael from drowning.

Tashtego and Daggoo

The Pequod's other two harpooneers complete the internationalism of the crew. Tashtego is a Native American from Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard, while Daggoo comes from the aristocracy of an African tribe. The two men are the respective companions of Stubb and Flask in the whale boats.


The small cabin-boy, Pip, usually stays on board the ship when the whale boats head off in pursuit of their prey. On the one occasion that Pip mans an oar, he falls into the ocean and is left for a considerable length of time in the vast ocean before being rescued. This experience permanently damages Pip's sanity; for the rest of the novel, he chatters about being "missing," or chanting "I look, he looks, you look," etc. While this is on some level mere madness, on another it reflects some of the metaphysical truths of the novel: that we are all, occasionally, "missing" - and that all we can do is "look" in our different ways at the meaning of the universe. By the end of the novel, the tormented philosopher-captain Ahab takes Pip under his dark wing as a surrogate child.

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Historical Context
Main Characters
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Did You Know
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