by Herman Melville
Harper & Brothers
This revered American novel is part morality tale, part adventure story set on the turbulent Atlantic and taking place, for the most part, aboard the whaling ship Pequod. It follows the hunt for the titular leviathan by the doomed and mysterious Captain Ahab.
The story is narrated by Ishmael, a good-natured if somewhat naïve soul who joins a whaling mission out of Nantucket for the excitement. He has no desire for riches and only desires to see "the watery world". This is in contrast to his shipmates and, in particular, to Ahab, whose vocation "amounts to a butchering sort of business".
While the crew are spurred on by money and adrenalin, Ahab is driven by a darker agenda: vengeance. The "grand, ungodly, God-like" captain will stop at nothing to destroy the sperm whale, who years past took his leg in a savage attack upon his vessel. In a strange twist, Ahab's prosthetic limb is made from a whale's jawbone.
We first meet Ishmael as he prepares to board the Pequod, which he describes as a floating fort bound for the "unshored harbourless immensities". He spends a night in a tavern frequented by seafarers and to his consternation finds himself sharing a bed with Queequeg, a pagan from the Pacific: Ishmael is a clean-cut Christian - quick to smile and slow to judge - while Queequeg is a "strange-looking savage" who smokes incessantly, and carries a harpoon and a collection of shrunken heads.
This early section is full of humour, with Melville playing on the unlikely friendship between the two. But as the day of the ship's departure draws near and the sense of dread increases, the tone begins to shift. We learn of Ahab and his agenda, and Melville includes long, technical descriptions of the design and construction of the boat, as well as the right sort of rope to use when harpooning a large whale. He also takes time to introduce the sailors on board the Pequod, who are described as "poor devils … they have no good blood in their veins".
But the novel's real drama comes from the thoughts and actions of Ahab as seen through the eyes of Ishmael. His determination to kill the whale, whatever the cost, plants this tale firmly within grand themes of hubris and man's folly. Ahab's quest for revenge in the face of great danger to himself and his men is universal, and as a result Melville produces a timeless story as well as a stark warning.