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ClassicsOnline Home » MELVILLE, H.: Moby Dick (Abridged)
The Nantucket whaling ship, the Pequod, spirals the globe in search of Moby Dick, the mythical white whale of the Southern Oceans. Driven on by the obsessive revenge of Captain Ahab, the crew and the outcast Ishmael find themselves caught up in a demonic pursuit which leads inexorably to an apocalyptic climax.
At the age of twenty, dissatisfied with his prospects as a
schoolteacher, Herman Melville joined a whaling ship as a harpooner bound for
the Pacific whaling grounds. He was away for four years and experienced mutiny,
being left ashore on Polynesian islands to live amongst cannibals, as well as
service on other vessels. Many of these real-life perilous experiences became
the material for his masterpiece Moby Dick.
In Moby Dick, the outcast Ishmael, like Melville himself,
enlists on a whaling voyage and finds himself on a ship rapidly dominated by
the brooding presence of Ahab who seeks nothing but the destruction of the
mythical white whale of the Southern fishing grounds. Through Ishmael’s eyes,
we watch the wild and reckless crew gradually subdued and finally almost
hypnotized by Ahab’s towering sense of purpose and implacable revenge.
Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York into a family
of Dutch descent. Debt haunted his parents and as a young man Melville took to
sea. After his return, he wrote a series of successful ‘sea romances’ based on
his experiences in the Pacific. Moby Dick was the most ambitious. It was long,
digressive and crammed with whaling knowledge and whale-fishery lore but it was
not an immediate success.
Moby Dick explored ‘the power of Blackness’, the darker side
of human nature and fate, primarily through the figure of Ahab — a marked man.
In an age of optimism, such vistas proved unsettling for readers. Just as the
novel form was becoming characterized by psychological realism, naturalism and
coherence of plot, Melville produced a book with few concessions to these
It is only in the 20th century that the book has become
acknowledged for its unique qualities. Moby Dick, perhaps, anticipates some of
the concerns of many modern writers: fragmented plot, a malign or indifferent
universe, and experimentation with form.
The two major figures are Ishmael and Ahab. Both are
outcasts — Ishmael is tired of a petty city life, and Ahab is alienated by his
embittered need for vengeance. Both confront the ‘monsters of the deep’ in the
oceans and in themselves: Ishmael watches and speculates; Ahab acts on his
beliefs. These two perspectives provide an ever-shifting focus and an immense
After Moby Dick, which did much to undermine his literary
reputation at the time, Melville once again broached new ground: he published
Pierre, a novel exploring incest which effectively ended his career as a
writer. For the remainder of his life, this man, who had hunted whales through
many of the dangers described in Moby Dick, worked as an inspector for the New
York customs and died largely forgotten in 1891. In 1924, Billy Budd, a
manuscript that was discovered in his desk after his death, was published.
Since then Melville’s reputation has steadily increased so that he is now
widely regarded as one of the giants of American literature.
Notes by Sonia Davenport.
Bill Bailey was born and raised in North Carolina, and moved
to the UK more than 20 years ago. He has appeared many times in London’s West
End and with the National Theatre. Bailey's recent television credits include
such classic English series as Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster, Drop the Dead
Donkey, Yes Prime Minister, and as a regular in the BBC 2 series Tygo Road. His
feature films both in the UK and Hollywood include Superman II, Yanks, The
Omen, Ishtar, Reds and Haunted Honeymoon.
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MELVILLE, H.: Moby Dick (Abridged)