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The chief mate is 30-year-old Starbuck, a Nantucket Quaker with a realist mentality, whose harpooneer is Queequeg; second mate is Stubb, from Cape Cod, happy-go-lucky and cheerful, whose harpooneer is Tashtego, a proud, pure-blooded Indian from Gay Head, and the third mate is Flask, also from Martha's Vineyard, short, stout, whose harpooneer is Daggoo, a tall African, now a resident of Nantucket.
When Ahab finally appears on the quarterdeck, he announces he is out for revenge on the white whale which took one leg from the knee down and left him with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale's jawbone.
Some of the scornful British reviews were either reprinted or quoted in American periodicals, wrong-footing the American readers because they had access to the Epilogue.
About 3,200 copies were sold during the author's life.
Ahab's purpose exercises a mysterious spell on Ishmael: "Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine".
Instead of rounding Cape Horn, Ahab heads for the equatorial Pacific Ocean via southern Africa.
Peleg describes Captain Ahab: "He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man" who nevertheless "has his humanities". A man named Elijah prophesies a dire fate should Ishmael and Queequeg join Ahab.
Sailor Ishmael tells the story of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the white whale that on the previous whaling voyage bit off Ahab's leg at the knee.
In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides.
Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, "in token of my admiration for his genius", the work was first published as The Whale in London in October 1851, and under its definitive title in New York in November.
Their leader, Fedallah, a Parsee, is Ahab's harpooneer. Southeast of the Cape of Good Hope, the Pequod makes the first of nine sea-encounters, or "gams", with other ships: Ahab hails the Goney (Albatross) to ask whether they have seen the White Whale, but the trumpet through which her captain tries to speak falls into the sea before he can answer.
Ishmael explains that because of Ahab's absorption with Moby Dick, he sails on without the customary "gam", which defines as a "social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships", in which the two captains remain on one ship and the chief mates on the other.Ahab will give the first man to sight Moby Dick a doubloon, a gold coin, which he nails to the mast.