Places: Moby Dick

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1851

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New Bedford

*New Moby DickBedford. Massachusetts fishing community and seaport about sixty-five miles southeast of Boston, where the novel begins when its narrator, Ishmael, arrives to sign onto a whaling ship. He first stays at the Spouter Inn, where the only accommodation available is a room with one bed that he must share with the forbidding-looking harpooner Queequeg, a “heathen” from an uncharted South Seas island. During a storm, Ishmael seeks shelter in the Whaleman’s Chapel, where he is deeply moved by the sermon of the retired harpooner Father Mapple on the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.


*Nantucket. Massachusetts island, about thirty miles south of Cape Cod, that was the center of the New England whaling industry in the early nineteenth century. There, Ishmael and Queequeg join the crew of the Pequod and begin their voyage.


Pequod. Whaling ship commanded by Captain Ahab on which Ishmael and Queequeg sign. It is one of three well-equipped whaling vessels they find anchored at Nantucket, preparing to undertake three-year expeditions. When the Pequod begins its long voyage on Christmas Day, its mysterious captain remains in his cabin, a small, private world into which he retreats.

The repeated play of light and dark while the ship is at sea reflects the light and dark of the personalities aboard the whaler. Looming high above the ship’s decks, the tops of masts are important lookout stations from which Ishmael and other crew members watch for whales.


*Oceans. The first leg of the Pequod’s voyage takes the ship southeast from Nantucket, across the Atlantic Ocean to the west coast of Africa, which it follows across the equator to the Cape of Good Hope. The ship reaches the Cape of Good Hope, near the southern tip of Africa, before heading east into the Indian Ocean. In that ocean, the ship reaps a rich harvest of sperm whales but continues east into the Pacific Ocean, where it makes its way to the Japanese Sea. The ship eventually confronts Moby Dick in the Pacific, near the equator.

*Japanese Sea (Sea of Japan)

*Japanese Sea (Sea of Japan). Branch of the Pacific Ocean enclosed by Japan, Korea, and Siberia which, during the early nineteenth century, had large numbers of sperm whales. There, the obsessed Captain Ahab hopes to find the great white whale he calls Moby Dick, to which he once lost one of his legs. The captain’s monomaniacal quest to find Moby Dick alarms the ship’s mates, but other members of the crew take his quest as a challenge and encourage him.


Rachel. Whaling ship that the Pequod encounters after it, the Rachel, has recently encountered Moby Dick, to which it has lost an entire boat crew, which includes the captain’s own son. Still obsessed with his personal quest to kill Moby Dick, Ahab declines the other captain’s appeal to help search for the lost boat–a decision that members of his own ship’s crew view as a bad omen.

Ahab’s boat

Ahab’s boat. Whaleboat on which Ahab pursues Moby Dick after the great white whale is finally sighted. His boat is one of three that chase the whale in a struggle that lasts for three days. On the third day, Ahab’s own harpoon inflicts a severe injury on the whale, and Ahab orders the other two boats back to the Pequod, so his own boat alone can make the kill. This boat becomes the crucible in which Captain Ahab plays out the final stages of his quest. Mad with pain, Moby Dick rams the Pequod with its huge head, shattering the ship’s bow. When Ahab launches another harpoon at the whale, its line wraps around his own neck, pulling him to his death. As the Pequod sinks, Moby Dick surfaces and dives, with Ahab’s lifeless body held tightly to its side by the harpoon lines.

BibliographyBrodhead, Richard H., ed. New Essays on “Moby Dick.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Contains essays discussing the complexity of Moby Dick’s first sentence, its Calvinist themes, and the multiplicity of sources used by Melville, among other subjects.James, C. L. R. Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways. New York: Allison & Busby, 1985. A powerful reading of Moby Dick through the context to twentieth century politics, arguing that Ahab’s sway over his crew symbolizes the power of totalitarianism.Matthiessen, F. O. American Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1941. This book gave a title to the period in which Melville lived and wrote and discusses Melville’s work alongside that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others.Miller, Edwin Haviland. Melville. New York: George Braziller, 1975. Psychoanalytic biography of Melville, especially attentive to Melville’s relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne during the time he was composing Moby Dick.Olson, Charles. Call Me Ishmael. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1947. A literary work of art in its own right, written by an influential postmodern American poet, this book is also a piece of first-class literary detective work. Olson tracked down Melville’s library a half-century after the author’s death, upon which he bases his theories of Melville’s compositional process and his use of whaling lore and Shakespeare in Moby Dick.
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