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American Literature books summary

holding her wedding gown, which she fished out of the attic earlier. She

does not hear anyone, and she moves like a sleepwalker. Edmund suddenly

tells Mary that he has consumption, but she tells him not to touch her

because she wants to be a nun. The three men all pour themselves more

alcohol, but before they can drink, Mary begins to speak. She tells them of

her talk with Mother Elizabeth, who told her that she should experience

life out of the convent before choosing to become a nun. Mary says that she

followed that advice, went home to her parents, met and fell in love with

James Tyrone, "and was so happy for a time." The boys sit motionless and

Tyrone stirs in his chair as the play ends.

Moby Dick


Herman Melville (1819-1891) was a popular writer of sea narratives before

he wrote Moby-Dick (1851). What was to become his best known novel, The

Whale; or Moby-Dick, received good reviews when it appeared in England, but

the first American edition, coming out a month later in New York, received

mixed reviews. It was not a financial success and bafied American critics

until the 20th century, when it began to be considered a classic.

Melville was not recognized as a genius in his time; his most famous works

today{Moby-Dick, short stories like "Benito Cereno," and Billy Budd{were

not widely read or heralded in the 19th century.

Melville's America was a tumultuous place. In the North, rapid

industrialization was changing social patterns and giving rise to new

wealth. In the South, the cotton interest was trying to hold onto the

system of black slavery.

America was stretching westward, and encountering Native American tribes,

as travel by train, road, sea, and canal become easier than before.

Politicians appealed to the masses as the idea of "democracy" (versus

republicanism) took hold. Nationalism was high in the early nineteenth

century, but as national interconnectedness became more feasible, the deep

divisions in society began to grow. Soon, sectionalism, racism, economic

self-interest, and bitter political struggle would culminate in the Civil


Against this backdrop, Melville sailed off on his first whaling voyage in

1841. This experience became the material for his first book, Typee (1846),

a narrative that capitalized on exotic titillation about natives in the

Marquesas Islands. Becoming well known for his earthy, rowdy stories of

faraway places, he quickly followed his initial success with Omoo (1847)

and Mardi (1849).

But after Mardi, Melville's writing career started to level off. Though

Melville had once thought he could be a professional writer, Moby-Dicks

poor reviews meant that Melville would never be able to support himself by

writing alone. Melville was always firmly middle-class, though his personas

in books always seemed working-class. He had a distinguished pedigree: some

of his ancestors were Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York who played

leading roles in the American Revolution and commercial development. But

Melville often felt like the "savage" in the family, which may have

explained why he was not afraid to tackle such risky topics as slave revolt

(in "Benito Cereno") or the life-sucking potential of offce jobs ("Bartleby

the Scrivener").

Throughout his life, Melville was an avid reader. Much of his information

for Moby-Dick comes from printed sources. The number of refer

ences to difierent texts (intertextuality) in Moby-Dick testifies to the

importance of books in Melville's life. In particular, he admired Nathaniel

Hawthorne, whom he befriended in 1850 and to whom Melville dedicated the

novel. Melville admired Hawthorne's willingness to dive to deep

psychological depths and gothic grimness, traits for which he would also be


The works of Shakespeare and stories in the Bible (especially the Old

Testament) also in uenced Moby-Dick. Moreover, Melville's novel was

certainly not the first book on whaling. Whaling narratives were extremely

popular in the 19th century. In particular, Melville relied on the

encyclopedic Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale and the

narrative Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne. He also used

information from a volume by William Scoresby, but mostly to ridicule

Scoresby's pompous inaccuracy. One final note: many editions of Moby-Dick

have been printed. Check your edition before using this guide, because

"abridged" or "edited" versions may be difierent.


Ishmael { Ishmael is the narrator of the story, but not really the center

of it. He has no experience with whaling when he signs on and he is often

comically extravagant in his storytelling. Ishmael bears the same name as a

famous castaway in the Bible.

Ahab { The egomaniacal captain of the whalingship Pequod; his leg was taken

off by Moby Dick, the white whale. He searches frantically for the whale,

seeking revenge, and forces his crew to join him in the pursuit.

Starbuck { This native of Nantucket is the first mate of the Pequod.

Starbuck questions his commander's judgment, first in private and later in


Queequeg { Starbuck's stellar harpooner and Ishmael's best friend, Queequeg

was once a prince from a South Sea island who wanted to have a worldly

adventure. Queequeg is a composite character, with an identity that is part

African, Polynesian, Islamic, Christian, and Native American.

Stubb { This native of Cape Cod is the second mate of the Pequod and always

has a bit of mischievous good humor.

Moby Dick { The great white sperm whale; an infamous and dangerous threat

to seamen like Ahab and his crew.

Tashtego { Stubb's harpooneer, Tashtego is a Gay Head Indian from Martha's


Flask { This native of Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard is the third mate of

the Pequod. Short and stocky, he has a confrontational attitude and no

reverence for anything.

Daggoo { Flask's harpooneer, Daggoo is a very big, dark-skinned, imperial-

looking man from Africa.

Pip { Either from Connecticut or Alabama (there is a discrepancy), Pip used

to play the tambourine and take care of the ship. After being left to oat

on the sea alone for a short period of time, he becomes mystically wise{or

possibly loses his mind.

Fedallah { Most of the crew doesn't know until the first whale chase that

Ahab has brought on board this strange "oriental" old man who is a Parsee

(Persian fire-worshipper). Fedallah has a very striking appearance: around

his head is a turban made from his own hair, and he wears a black Chinese

jacket and pants. Like Queequeg, Fedallah's character is also a composite

of Middle Eastern and East Asian traits.

Peleg { This well-to-do retired whaleman of Nantucket is one of the largest

owners of the Pequod who, with Captain Bildad, takes care of hiring the

crew. When the two are negotiating wages for Ishmael and Queequeg, Peleg

plays the generous one. He is a Quaker.

Bildad { Also a well-to-do Quaker ex-whaleman from Nantucket who owns a

large share of the Pequod, Bildad is (or pretends to be) crustier than

Peleg in negotiations over wages.

Father Mapple { The preacher in the New Bedford Whaleman's Chapel. He

delivers a sermon on Jonah and the whale.

Captain Boomer { Boomer is the jovial captain of the English whalingship

Samuel Enderby; his arm was taken off by Moby Dick



These prefatory sections establish the groundwork for a new book about

whaling. Melville quotes from a variety of sources, revered, famous, and

obscure, that may directly address whaling or only mention a whale in

passing. The quotations include short passages from the Bible, Shakespeare,

John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), other well-known poems,

dictionaries, whaling and travel narratives, histories, and songs. The

Etymology section, looking at the derivations of "whale," is compiled by a

"late consumptive usher to a grammar school," and the Extracts section, a

selection of short quotations describing whales or whaling, by a "sub-sub-


Melville's humor comes through in these sections, both in the way he pokes

fun at the "poor devil of a Sub-Sub" and mentions even the tiniest

reference to a whale in these literary works.

Chapters 1-9


The story begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literary

history: "Call me Ishmael." Whatever Ishmael's "real" name, his adopted

name signals his identification with the Biblical outcast from the Book of


He explains that he went to sea because he was feeling a "damp, drizzly

November in [his] soul" and wanted some worldly adventure. In the mood for

old-fashioned whaling, Ishmael heads to New Bedford, the current center of

whaling, to catch a ferry to Nantucket, the previous center of whaling.

After wandering through the black streets of New Bedford, he finally

stumbles upon The Spouter-Inn, owned by Peter Coffn. First passing by a

large, somewhat inscrutable oil painting and a collection of "monstrous

clubs and spears," Ishmael walks into a room filled with "a wild set of

mariners." Because the inn is nearly full, Ishmael learns that he will have

to share a room with "a dark complexioned" harpooner named Queequeg. At

first, Ishmael decides that he would rather sleep on a bench than share a

bed with some strange, possibly dangerous man. But, discovering the bench

to be too uncomfortable, he decides to put up with the unknown harpooner,

who, Coffn assures him, is perfectly fine because "he pays reg'lar." Still,

Ishmael is worried since Coffn tells him that the harpooner has recently

arrived from the South Sea and peddles shrunken heads. When the Queequeg

finally returns, the frightened Ishmael watches Queequeg from the bed,

noting with a little horror the harpooner's tattoos, tomahawk/pipe, and

dark-colored idol.

When Queequeg finally discovers Ishmael in his bed, he ourishes the

tomahawk as Ishmael shouts for the owner. After Coffn explains the

situation, they settle in for the night and, when they wake up, Queequeg's

arm is affectionately thrown over Ishmael. Ishmael is sorry for his

prejudices against the "cannibal," finding Queequeg quite civilized, and

they become fast, close friends.

The chapters called The Street, The Chapel, The Pulpit, and The Sermon

establish the atmosphere in which Ishmael sets out on his whaling mission.

Because of its maritime industry, New Bedford is a cosmopolitan town, full

of difierent sorts of people (Lascars, Malays, Feegeeans, Tongatabooans,

Yankees, and green Vermonters). In this town is the Whaleman's Chapel,

where the walls are inscribed with memorials to sailors lost at sea and the

pulpit is like a ship's bow. The preacher in this chapel, Father Mapple, is

a favorite among whalemen because of his sincerity and sanctity. Once a

sailor and harpooner, Mapple now delivers sermons. His theme for this

Sunday: Jonah, the story of the prophet swallowed by "a great fish." (Today

we talk about "Jonah and the Whale.") Mapple preaches a story about man's

sin, willful disobedience of the command of God, and ight from Him. But,

says Mapple, the story also speaks to him personally as a command "To

preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood!" with a confidence born from

knowing God's will.

Chapters 10-21


In these chapters we learn more about the relationship between Ishmael and

Queequeg. Upon third consideration, Ishmael develops a great respect for

his new friend. Although still a "savage," Queequeg becomes, in Ishmael's

mind, "George Washington cannibalistically developed." Furthermore, after

having intimate chats with him in bed, Ishmael admires Queequeg's sincerity

and lack of Christian "hollow courtesies." Quick friends, they are

"married" after a social smoke. The chapter called Biographical gives more

information on Queequeg's past, detailing the harpooner's life as a son of

a High Chief or King of Kokovoko. Intent on seeing the world, he paddled

his way to a departing ship and persisted so stubbornly that they finally

allowed him to stow away as a whaleman. Queequeg can never go back because

his interaction with Christianity has made him unfit to ascend his

homeland's "pure and undefiled throne" and so, says Ishmael, "that barbed

iron [a harpoon] was in lieu of a sceptre now."

Together, they set off with a wheelbarrow full of their things for

Nantucket. On the packet over to Nantucket, a bumpkin mimics

Queequeg.Queequeg ips him around to punish him, and is subsequently scolded

by the captain. But when the bumpkin is swept overboard as the ship has

technical dificulties, Queequeg takes charge of the ropes to secure the

boat and then dives into the water to save the man overboard. This action

wins everyone's respect.

Melville then writes a bit about Nantucket's history, about the "red-

men"who first settled there, its ecology, its dependence on the sea for


When the two companions arrive, they have a pot of the best chowder at the

Try Pots. Charged by Yojo (Queequeg's wooden idol) to seek a ship for the

two of them, Ishmael comes upon the Pequod, a ship "with an old fashioned

claw-footed look about her" and "apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian

emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory." But the Pequod is

not just exotic to Ishmael; he also calls it a "cannibal of a craft"

because it is bejeweled with whale parts. On board, he makes a deal with

Peleg and Bildad, the Quaker owners of the ship, characterized as conniving

cheapskates and bitter taskmasters. Evaluating Ishmael for his lay (portion

of the ship's proffts, a whaleman's wage), Peleg finally gives him the

300th lay. (This, Bildad says, is "generous.") At this time, Ishmael also

learns that the ship's captain is Ahab, named after a wicked and punished

Biblical king. Although Ahab has seemed a little moody since he lost his

leg to the white whale Moby Dick, Bildad and Peleg believe in his

competence. Ishmael does not meet the captain in person until much later.

Returning to the inn, Ishmael allows Queequeg a day for his "Ramadan"

ceremonies and then becomes worried when his friend does not answer the

door in the evening. When the panicking Ishmael finally gets the door open,

he finds Queequeg deep in meditation. The next day, they return to the

Pequod to sign Queequeg up. Though the owners object at first to Queequeg's

paganism, the Kokovokan impresses them with his skill by hitting a spot of

tar on a mast with a harpoon. They give him the 90th lay, "more than ever

was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket." Although Bildad still tries

to convert Queequeg, Peleg tells him to give up. "Pious harpooneers never

make good voyagers { it takes the shark out of 'em; no harpooneer is worth

a straw who aint pretty sharkish."

Just after signing the papers, the two run into a man named Elijah (a

prophet, or just some frightening stranger) who hints to them about the

peril of signing aboard Ahab's ship. They disregard him. For several days,

there is preparation for the dangerous voyage. When they are near the ship,

Ishmael thinks that he sees some "shadows" boarding the ship, but then

dismisses the idea. Elijah warns them again just before they board.

Chapters 22-31


At Christmas, the ship finally heaves off from the port and Ishmael gets

his first taste of the rigors of whaling life. As the boat sails away from

civilization, Bulkington, a noble sailor that Ishmael saw at the Coffn inn,

appears on the Pequod's decks, and makes Ishmael wax sentimental about the

heroism in sailing into the deeps.

In the chapter called The Advocate, Ishmael defends the whaling profession

in a series of arguments and responses. Whaling is a heroic business, he

says, that is economically crucial (for the oil) and has resulted in

geographical discovery. He finds the utmost dignity in whaling: a subject

of good genealogy, worthy enough for Biblical writers and also educational.

These, he says, are facts. He can't praise sperm whaling enough and even

suggests that sperm oil has been used to anoint kings because it is the

best, purest, and sweetest.

In the chapter called Knights and Squires, we meet the mates and their

lieutenants. The first mate, Starbuck, is a pragmatic, reliable

Nantucketer. Speaking about Starbuck leads Ishmael to carry on about the

working man and democratic equality. The pipe-smoking second mate Stubb, a

native of Cape Cod, is always cool under pressure and has "impious good


Third mate Flask, a native of Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard, is a short,

stocky fellow with a confrontational attitude and no reverence for the

dignity of the whale. He is nicknamed "King-Post" because he resembles the

short, square timber known by that name in Arctic whalers. Already

introduced, Queequeg is Starbuck's harpooner. Stubb's "squire" is Tashtego,

"an unmixed Indian from Gay Head" (Martha's Vineyard). Flask's harpooner is

Daggoo, "a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage" from Africa with an imperial


The rest of the crew is also mostly international. But, says Ishmael, all

these "Isolatoes" are "federated along one keel" and unified by

accompanying Ahab. Ishmael also makes small mention of Pip, a poor Alabama

boy who beats a tambourine on ship.

Ahab finally appears on deck and Ishmael observes closely. He sees Ahab as

a very strong, willful figure, though his encounter with the whale has

scarred him. Certainly, Ahab seems a bit psychologically troubled. Ahab's

relationship to others on the boat is one of total dictatorship. When Stubb

complains about Ahab's pacing, Ahab calls him a dog and advances on him.

Stubb retreats. The next morning, Stubb wakes up and explains to Flask that

he had a dream that Ahab kicked him with his ivory leg. (The title of this

chapter, Queen Mab, refers to Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet, in

which the character Mercutio talks about weird dreams.)

Chapters 32-40

"Cetology," as Ishmael explains, is "the science of whales." In the

Cetology chapter and subsequent cetology- like chapters in the book,

Ishmael tries to dissect whales scientifically. After including some

quotations from previous writers on the whale, Ishmael says he here

attempts a "draught" (draft) of a whale classification system that others

can revise. He divides the whales into books and chapters (like today's

Linnaean system that includes genus and species). His first subject is the

sperm whale. At the end of the chapter, he pronounces it a "drought of a

draught." The Specksynder is another cetology-like chapter in that it tries

to dissect the whaling industry. Beginning with trivia about the changing

role of the specksynder (literally, "fat-cutter"), who used to be chief

harpooneer and captain, Ishmael moves on to a discussion of leadership

styles, particularly that of royal or imperial leaders.

The chapter called The Cabin-Table returns to the plot, showing the ship's

offcers at dinner. This is a rigid afiair over which Ahab presides. After

the offcers finish, the table is re-laid for the harpooneers. Then Ishmael

discusses his first post on the mast-head watching for whales. He writes a

history of mast-heads and their present role on a whaling ship. Ishmael,

who can rarely stick only to one subject or one level of thinking,

discusses metaphorical meanings of what he sees. Then, in the chapter

called The Quarter-Deck, he returns to narrative plot, dramatizing Ahab's

first offcial appearance before the men. Ahab's call and response tests the

crew, checking whether they know what to do, and unites them under his


Presenting a Spanish gold doubloon, he proclaims. "Whosoever of ye raises

me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever

of ye raises me that while-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his

starboard uke - look ye, whosoever of ye raises that same white whale, he

shall have this gold ounce, my boys!" The men cheer. Ahab then confesses,

in response to Starbuck's query, that it was indeed this white whale Moby

Dick who took off his leg, and announces his quest to hunt him down. The

men shout together that they will hunt with Ahab, though Starbuck protests.

Ahab then begins a ritual that binds the crew together. He fills a cup with

alcohol and everyone on the ship drinks from that agon. Telling the

harpooners to cross their lances before him, Ahab grasps the weapons and

anoints Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo "my three pagan kinsmen there -yon

three most honorable gentlemen and noble men." He then makes them take the

iron off of the harpoons to use as drinking goblets. They all drink

together while Ahab proclaims, "God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby

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