In Melville's novel, the narrator, Ishmael, arrives in New Bedford, and finds a room at the Spouter Inn. He has to share his room with Queequeg.
Queequeg is a South Sea Islander who is covered with tattoos. Queequeg takes his harpoon everywhere he goes, even using the blade of the harpoon to shave himself.
Ishmael visits the Whalemen's Chapel, where the pastor, Father Mapple, climbs a rope ladder to the pulpit and delivers a sermon about Jonah and the Whale. Father Mapple exhorts his listeners to deny sin and to uphold the truth.
Ishmael and Queequeg become friends, and travel to Nantucket, looking for work on a whaling ship. En route to Nantucket on a schooner, a man who has been making fun of Queequeg falls overboard, and Queequeg dives into the sea and rescues him.
In Nantucket, Ishmael and Queequeg sign on for a ship called the Pequod, whose captain is named Ahab. On the dock, a man named Elijah tells Ishmael and Queequeg that Ahab has only one leg, and that Ahab's other leg was taken off by a whale.
The Pequod sets sail on Christmas Day. The crew includes Starbuck, the first mate; Stubb, the second mate; Flask, the third mate; the harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego (an American Indian), and Daggoo (an African black); Fedallah, who becomes Ahab's personal harpooneer; and Pip, the Negro cabin boy.
Ahab assembles the crew, and tells them that the purpose of the voyage is to hunt the white whale known as Moby Dick. It becomes apparent that Moby Dick is the whale that took off Ahab's leg.
Starbuck rebukes Ahab for trying to take vengeance against a dumb brute that simply attacked him from blind instinct, but Ahab replies that `all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks,' and that behind the mask there is some reasoning power. The inscrutable nature of the malice and power displayed by Moby Dick has enraged Ahab, and he must strike through that mask.
A pewter goblet full of wine is passed around to the crew, and Ahab makes the men swear an oath to destroy Moby Dick.
The Pequod voyages through the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, and on the way kills and extracts oil from sperm whales. The suspense of the chase for Moby Dick steadily increases as the Pequod enters the Japanese Sea, the area in which the white whale is most likely to be found.
The Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean, and sails through a typhoon. The storm subsides, and the Pequod meets the Rachel, a whaling ship that had encountered Moby Dick and had lost a whaleboat bearing a crew including the captain's son. Ahab ignores the Rachel's plea to help search for the lost boat.
The tempo of the chase increases. At long last, Moby Dick is sighted by Ahab. The first day, the whale smashes Ahab's boat. All the whalemen are rescued, but Moby Dick escapes. The second day, the harpoons of all three boats find their mark in Moby Dick, and again Ahab's boat is capsized, but all the members of the crew are rescued except Fedallah. The third day, Ahab drives a harpoon into Moby Dick. Two of the boats, in danger, are ordered back to the Pequod. The angered Moby Dick drives his forehead into the side of the Pequod, splintering its bow. Ahab throws another harpoon into Moby Dick, but the rope catches Ahab around the neck and drags him into the depths of the sea. The Pequod sinks. The only survivor is Ishmael; he is rescued by the Rachel.
The Meaning of Queequeg's Tattoos
In Moby Dick, Melville tells us that Queequeg's tattoos were inscribed on his body by a prophet of his island, who had written out the hieroglyphic markings as a complete theory of the universe and a theory of how to attain truth, but that Queequeg himself could not read or solve the riddle of the markings on his own body (Chapter CX).
What Makes Moby Dick a Great Novel
For me, what makes Melvilles's novel Moby Dick a great novel is that it concerns itself with the ultimate nature of existence. It explores the philosophic question of what is our place in the universe. It was also an important influence on the development in modern fiction in its portrayal of the human individual's sense of alienation in a world which cannot be understood.
One of the themes of Moby Dick is the power that spiritual dread can have on the moral imagination. Captain Ahab is able to use this dread to inspire his crew to take an oath to destroy Moby Dick. The white whale is terrifying because it threatens the crew with its overwhelming power. The white whale is also terrifying because it represents a blankness or an indefiniteness. The white color of the whale is like an absence of color, or a blankness like the absence of God. Melville tells us that the whiteness is like the depths of the Milky Way, the immensity of the non-human universe.
The white whale also represents the inscrutability of the universe. Ahab identifies the white whale as evil, because it has taken off his leg, because it cannot be understood. This is another theme of the novel, that the mystery of the universe cannot be completely understood. In our relation to nature, the non-human universe may be indifferent or incomprehensible to us.