The Pequod: The Whaling Ship in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

The Pequod in ''Moby-Dick'' is much more than just a whaling ship or a means of transportation. We'll learn about the parts and description of the Pequod and its role in Herman Melville's novel.

Basic Parts of Whaling Ships Mentioned in Moby-Dick

Most ships have roughly the same essential parts, including the Pequod in Melville's Moby-Dick. The front of the ship contains the forecastle, or upper deck, where the crew's quarters are usually housed. The outer sides of the ship are called its hull. The hull usually curves outward, then tapers inward toward to a pointed seam at the outer bottom, called a keel. Inside the ship, the lower area inside the hull and keel is the hold; cargo is stored there. At the rear of the ship is another upper deck called a quarterdeck. This houses the captain's cabin and is usually reserved for officers and official ceremonies.

A nineteenth-century whaling ship
A nineteenth-century whaling ship (painting by James H. Weldon)

The Pequod: General Description and History

The Pequod is named after an extinct tribe of Native Americans from Massachusetts. It's a whaling ship, designed for the hunt, capture, and butchering of whales. It contains several smaller whaling boats to allow the crew to get close enough to the whales to spear them with harpoons. For the journey in Moby-Dick, the Pequod has been commissioned to hunt sperm whales specifically. However, an exception is made, and the crew also brings in a right whale.

A North Atlantic right whale destroying a whaling boat and crewmen
A North Atlantic right whale destroying a whaling boat and crewmen

For such a rough and messy purpose, our narrator Ishmael notes that it's a remarkably small, ornate, old-fashioned ship. It's fitted with many rare and ornately-decorated materials, most notably ivory. Parts of the ship are made out of sperm whale teeth and bones. Its tiller, the handle attached to the rudder for steering, is made of a sperm whale's lower jawbone.

The Pequod is seasoned and worn, and Captain Bildad tells how it once lost three masts in a typhoon near Japan. It also often faces danger by coming into port during a storm. Ishmael explains that a port in this circumstance is the paradoxical friend of the crew and the enemy of the Pequod, since one brush with the ground could cause severe damage. Still, it's been deemed ready for up to a three-year voyage, and the inexperienced Ishmael thinks it's a good ship.

A nineteenth-century whaling ship and her whaling boats pursuing a whale
A nineteenth-century whaling ship and her whaling boats pursuing a whale

The Pequod as a Vessel of Strange and Mysterious History

The Pequod is steeped in a history of strange tales, or ''vague wonderments and half apprehensions,'' mostly to do with Captain Ahab. In Chapter 19, a mysterious man named Elijah approaches Ishmael and Queequeg and demands to know if they know what they're getting into aboard the ship. In tones of dire warning, Elijah hints at the reputation of ''Old Thunder,'' or Captain Ahab. He vaguely alludes to an incident off Cape Horn that left Ahab incapacitated for three days, and to an altercation with a Spaniard. He doesn't provide any details, however, and Ishmael feels he is just trying to scare them.

The Pequod as an Extension of Captain Ahab

Ahab and the Pequod have a long history together. Both are old and peculiar entities, and we can read the Pequod as an extension of Ahab and his obsession with catching Moby Dick. The Pequod was the ship on which the white whale bit off Ahab's leg, and he's determined that it will also be the ship on which he slays Moby Dick. This likely explains why so much of the ship is fitted with parts of whale skeletons. Further, the Pequod is somewhat customized for Ahab: there are holes in the floor of the quarterdeck to help him anchor his wooden leg when needed.

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