The novel begins with a famous line: “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick, seeks “freedom” from his life in New York City, and decides to head north to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to find a job on a whaling ship. In New Bedford, at the Spouter Inn, Ishmael meets Queequeg, a “native” man from Kokovoko, in the Pacific isles, who is trained as a harpooner on whale-ships—a man who actually hunts and catches whales. Although Ishmael is initially scared of Queequeg, the two quickly become friends, and vow to accompany each other on a ship of Ishmael’s choosing, in Nantucket.
There, Ishmael comes across a ship called the Pequod, and when he speaks to two of the boats owners, Peleg and Bildad, he realizes that the captain of the Pequod, called Ahab, is a “strange” man, possibly mad, who does not tend to associate with others. Ishmael later finds out that Ahab lost his leg to a particularly nasty whale, who bit it off; this whale is called Moby Dick, and is famous for its whiteness, its ferocity, and its inability to be caught. Despite fears of Ahab—and the harsh-sounding prophecies of a man named Elijah, who warns Ishmael and Queequeg of the captain—the two men decide to ship out on the Pequod. The ship leaves Nantucket on Christmas Day.
Once at sea, Ishmael introduces the particulars of the boat and of whaling, and often makes asides to the reader regarding the historical, scientific, religious, and philosophical components of whale-fishing. Ishmael also introduces Starbuck, the practical and cautious first mate, Stubb, the wild and talented whale-fisher and second mate, and Flask, the “mediocre” third mate. Ahab finally makes an appearance on the deck of the Pequod, and announces to the crew that, although they are a normal whaling ship, they also have a special mission—to find and kill Moby Dick. Ahab vows to give a one-ounce gold doubloon to the first man to spot the “white whale.”
The Pequod has a series of “gams,” or meetings at sea, with other boats, some of whom have experienced good luck on the high seas, others which have been devastated by accidents, storms, or encounters with Moby Dick. One ship, the Town-Ho, tells a long story of a mutiny interrupted by Moby Dick; another, the Rose-Bud, simply complains of “sick” whales it has tied to its side. During this long intermediate section of the novel, the Pequod sails through the Indian and into the Pacific Oceans, Stubb catches a whale (and Ishmael describes how the whale is skinned, and its oil drained), and Ahab continues to plot for the white whale’s destruction.
Ahab has the ship’s carpenter make him a new ivory leg when his old one splinters, and Queequeg, believing that he is dying of fever, asks the carpenter to make him a casket, which, when Queequeg recovers, becomes the life-buoy for the ship. Ahab also asks the ship’s blacksmith, Perth, to make him a new harpoon, which Ahab then “baptizes” with the blood of Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg, the ship’s three “heathen” harpooners. It is also revealed, in this middle section, that Ahab has snuck five men, one named Fedallah, and all from an unnamed country in Asia, aboard the Pequod, to help him find and kill Moby Dick. Stubb and Flask are convinced that Fedallah is the “devil incarnate,” and that Ahab has sold his soul to the devil to catch the white whale.
Finally, near Japan, Ahab becomes sure that Moby Dick is nearby, after having several other gams with ships that have spotted the whale. Ahab sights Moby Dick first, and the whale chase goes on to last for three days. On the first, Ahab attempts to throw the harpoon at Moby Dick, but misses; his small whale-boat is capsized, but all return safely to the Pequod. On the second, Ahab manages to snag Moby Dick with his harpoon, but Fedallah becomes caught in the harpoon-line and drowns when Moby Dick dives into the deep. On the third, though Starbuck warns Ahab to quit the mission, Ahab again approaches Moby Dick and throws his harpoon—but this time, Ahab is caught in the line, and he is hanged and drowned with his own rope. Moby Dick then turns and smashes into the Pequod, causing that ship to sink, and killing everyone aboard except Ishmael, who escapes “to tell the tale” by floating on Queequeg’s coffin. Ishmael is picked up by the Rachel, a ship with which the Pequod previously had a gam. The novel ends.