Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick | Chapters 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

As the novel begins, the narrator, Ishmael, introduces himself. He doesn't have much money and is feeling depressed, so he decides to "sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." The sea holds an attraction for him, as it does for many. Yet he will not travel as a passenger. Instead, he will work as a "simple sailor."

In Chapter 2, Ishmael packs his clothes in an old carpet-bag and sets out from Manhattan to New Bedford, where he hopes to catch a boat to Nantucket, a well-known center of the whaling industry. However, he misses the boat he expected and must wait in New Bedford for a few nights. Not having much money, he must seek out an economical inn to stay in while he waits. He finds a run-down place called The Spouter Inn, run by Peter Coffin.

Analysis

The opening line of this novel is one of the most famous in American literature. The wording of this line leaves some doubt as to whether the narrator is named Ishmael or is simply inviting readers to call him this name—one that calls to mind the biblical Ishmael, Abraham's son by Hagar.

These first chapters reveal Ishmael's problem—he's gloomy, wants a change, and his solution is to go to sea. He eloquently describes the beautiful, "ungraspable phantom" of the sea, saying "[t]here is magic in it." He longs to experience the remote, forbidden places in the world.

These chapters also introduce important themes, including destiny. Ishmael describes the Fates as stage managers and believes that "going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago." Appropriate to this theme, Melville introduces the literary technique of foreshadowing, which he will return to often in the course of the novel: The Spouter Inn is run by Peter Coffin. Ishmael considers how ominous that name sounds, but reassures himself that it is a common name. Of course, this name foreshadows the conclusion of the novel.

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