The Pequod's Journey

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson follows the epic journey of the Pequod's crew, from Herman Melville's novel ''Moby-Dick.'' We will travel with them to each of their sea ports. Then, we will explore the correspondence between character and locale.

Analogies of Sea and Land

Since most of the novel takes place on the open ocean aboard the Pequod (captained by the notorious Ahab), every land sighting becomes all the more significant. You might want to read Moby-Dick with a globe handy. The Pequod circumnavigates the globe: The crew reaches sea ports on every continent.

Voyage of the Pequod
Voyage of the Pequod

In Moby-Dick, the land and sea are analogous to his characters in many ways. In Chapter 58 Melville writes:

'...consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!'

Ambiguity Embraced

The clearest example of the correlation between character and place can be found in Queequeg, a tattooed Polynesian native from the imaginary island of Rokovoko. Of Rokovoko, Ishmael muses: 'It is not down in any map; true places never are.'

Melville exaggerates Queequeg's 'savage' characteristics by representing him as a heathen. Ishmael describes Queequeg's 'wild desire to visit Christendom.' By extension, his Polynesian island represents savagery in contrast with the civilized west. The analogy (a literary device that links two different things) associates person and place while contrasting West versus East, Christian versus non-Western religions, and civilization versus the savage.

Disclaimer: it's important to note, however, that a 1:1 correspondence between person and place in Moby-Dick is rare because of Melville's frustratingly ambiguous style. The author goes out of his way to indicate a connection but ultimately leaves it up to the reader to determine its significance.

Nantucket

Ishmael makes the arduous journey to the coast: 'Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it.' Find Nantucket on the map.

Map of Cape Cod and Nantucket
Cape Cod and Nantucket

Ishmael observes: '...there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.' For Ishmael, Nantucket, and by association all of New England, all of North America, is at once a civilized and natural place. In line with Melville's unusual mixture of ironic qualities and inexplicable meaning, all locales henceforth have multiple meanings and many resonances.

In this same passage, Melville connects the character of Nantucket with its resident islanders. 'The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea.' Here, the author offers an early indication of the association he will later elaborate as to the association between character and geography.

On the Open Sea

From Nantucket (an island and major whaling port off the coast of Massachusetts) the Pequod zigzags across the Atlantic, ducks under Africa, traverses the Indian Ocean, island-hops through Oceania, and finally makes its way home through North America's Great Lakes. Moby-Dick is acknowledged as an epic and an odyssey for its globetrotting expedition.

The Atlantic

Ishmael nonchalantly refers to the first leg of the route as a cruise: weeks of 'easy sail.' After leaving Nantucket, their first port is the Azores, an archipelago (chain of islands) off the coast of Portugal. Then on to Cape Verde (an island in the Atlantic west of Senegal). The Pequod zigzags across the Atlantic to the Rio del la Plata (bay at Buenos Aires, Brazil), then back to the African coast. They pass the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena on their way to the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost tip of South Africa). Ishmael attributes the Cape of Good Hope with almost-mythical status:

'Cape of Good Hope, do they call ye? Rather Cape Tormentoto, as called of yore; for long allured by the perfidious silences that before had attended us, we found ourselves launched into this tormented sea, where guilty beings transformed into those fowls and these fish, seemed condemned to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat that black air without any horizon.'

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