A young American with the Biblical name Ishmael has troubles with job and money and decides to try himself as a sailor on a whaler. In the first half of XIX century - the time when the story’s event take place - the American whaling port of New Bedford is neither biggest nor richest at the coast anymore. However Ishmael is totally fine with it, there are still plenty of job offers for inexperienced whalers.
The port itself is an exotic place. Lots of people of different races and origins can be met at the streets, there is no discrimination - everyone can be hired with everyone else, so it’s not the right time and place for racial and other prejudices. The buffet rack in the inn made of a huge whale jaw is also no surprise, and even the priest in the church is okay with using a rope ladder.
Ishmael stops in the Sprouter-Inn, the place where whalers usually rest, but the inn is full, so he has to share the room (and the bed) with the other man, a harpooner from South Pacific named Queequeg. Despite the initial inconveniences Ishmael and Queequeg befriend each other almost immediately and decide to try to get a job on the same ship. If one is going to go sailing for a year or two, the good company is no less essential than good food or fresh water.
Soon they both are hired by the captain of the Pequod whaling ship. Actually it’s Queequeg who is hired, because a skilled harpooner is always needed. But he refuses to go without Ishmael, so his young friend also gets a job, but just of an average sailor. Everything looks not so bad, the ship is fine, the crew is quite friendly, but the captain Ahab himself looks broken in a way.
Usually he remains secluded in his room, walking to the deck only when it is necessary. Partly it can be explained with his disability - one of Ahab’s legs is just a peg made of a whale bone. There are even holes in the deck, so he can walk safely, putting his fake leg into the holes.
Curious, Ishmael asks the crew - hair-tempered Flask, sincere Starbuck and deadpan Stubb - about the captain and learns that not so long ago Ahab lost a leg in an eerie duel with the white whale who almost drowned him. From that time Ahab changed. He became gloomy and silent, always searching for the white whale he now calls Moby-Dick. He believes that Moby-Dick isn’t just a whale, but a hellish malevolent creature and his personal nemesis, and seeks revenge.
After satisfying his curiosity Ishmael focuses on his job. He doesn’t care about the captain’s mood anymore. Even when the half-mad man in the port screams something about the white whale and inevitable doom waiting for Pequod and her crew, he forgets it almost immediately, taking his words as blubbering of a crazy beggar. Right before the departure Ishmael sees another ominous sign - several human-shaped shadows boarding the ship. But he also outright dismisses the ghost version, thinking that it was just his imagination.
For a long time nothing happens and the short chapters of the book are dedicated to the daily life of the whaler ship. But on their way the captain becomes more and more depressed. He now exits his room more often, looking at the sea. No doubt, he is looking for one particular whale. Hardly keeping his balance, Ahab still harshly refuses any assistance offered by the crew. Now he is even more sharp, demanding unconditional and immediate obedience. He doesn’t care of anything except his goal. He wants all the crew to swear that they will help him hunt and kill Moby-Dick and the men give their oath to do this.
This is the only noticeable change. Otherwise the journey remains ordinary. While they search for Moby-Dick the crew still has job to do. They hunt whales, disassemble them and preserve the meat and fat to sell it later, like any other average whaler ship crew. The narrator returns to description of the ship, sailing, whaling and different species of whales and myths about these gorgeous animals. These “whale” chapters doesn’t distract the readers from the main storyline, but rather complete it, adding another, metaphysical, dimension to the average events. The white whale is now not just an animal but a symbol.
One day Ahab gathers all the crew at the deck. He nails a heavy golden Ecuadorian coin to the mast and says that it is the reward for anyone who notices the white whale first. Now the crew knows much more about Moby-Dick and isn’t so sure they made the right choice deciding to hunt it. The enormous whale, notorious by his cunning and ferocity, carries lots of harpoons in his body, and is rumored to live more than a century. It hunts the whalers itself, luring them and then drowning or letting them live for the rest of their life as mutilated wrecks of men. Ahab lost his leg after he, seeing his boat crushed with the whale’s body, rushed at Moby-Dick with the knife only, blinded with hatred. Now the only thing he wants to see in his life is the last bloody fountain of the white monster - even it it will be the last thing to see before his own death.
Listening to the captain’s story, Starbuck, a devoted Christian, cautiously objects that it is not wise to seek revenge on the mindless animal. But captain sharply replies that under the mask of an animal there lies a devilish mind and he will not be tricked by the whale’s appearance. The captain’s rage infests the rest of the crew, they shout curses to the whale and drink rum for the death of Moby-Dick. And only some, the most reasonable or sensitive members of the crew do not participate in that dark feast, silently praying for salvation for them all.
Later Ishmael and the rest of the crew see that there are people on the deck who weren’t with them from the very beginning. Their leader is a strange Eastern-looking man named Fedallah. Ahab explains to the crew that he secretly called the part of his previous crew to assist him in the hunt. They were with him when Moby-Dick bit off his leg and drowned his boat and they equally hate him. Moreover, Fedallah has the ability to foresee the future, so he will help them not only as a harpooner. The crew is not amused with such a secret and demands explanations. Ahab replies them that the owner of the Pequod, thinking that the handicapped captain won’t participate in the whale hunt himself, didn’t allow him to take rowers for his own boat, so he needed to secretly hire them paying from his own allowance.
Pequod follows the familiar whaler ways. Ahab asks each captain of every ship they meet about the white whale. More and more often they hear stories about it attacking the ship, killing or injuring several members of the crew. The ominous signs start to show: they meet the ship, half-deserted by the epidemy, and one of the mad crew members shouts to them to beware the fate that will punish those who fight with the embodiment of God’s wrath in the body of the white whale. One of the crew members is already dead, he sank because of an impossible sequence of several accidents. Another one - the youngest, Pip, got mad and jumped from the ship after giving some crazy prophecies to the rest of the crew. But the captain doesn’t mind. The whale is the only thing that matters.
Finally, Ahab is lucky. He finds another ship, the captain of which lacks a hand - it was bitten off by Moby-Dick. But, despite the resemblance, he doesn’t want to take revenge on the whale. Nevertheless, he shows Ahab the direction in which the white whale swam away. Starbuck tries to shop his captain for the last time, but Ahab doesn’t listen: he is drunk with the chase. He orders the blacksmith of the crew to make an especially durable harpoon for him and the three harpooners spill their blood on it while it cools down. Pequod is ready for the ultimate hunt.
Meanwhile, Queequeg falls seriously ill and, feeling that his death is near, he asks Ishmael to make him an unsinkable coffin in which he will swim over the horizon right to the sea. Ishmael asks the ship carpenter to do that - but when the coffin is ready, Queequeg gets better, so he, hopefully, won’t need the coffin he ordered very soon. The coffin - to the amusement of all the crew - was remade to the rescue buoy and hanged with the other buoys to shock the crews of other ships passing by.
They hunt another whale - an ordinary one. Near its carcass, Fedallah has a vision and tells the captain that Ahab will die without coffin and hearse, but he will see two hearses before his death: one will be not made by human and other made of American wood. The cause of Ahab’s death will be the rope and he, Fedallah, will go ahead of him. The captain just smirks: he is too old to get hanged, so the rope can’t be the cause of his death.
While they approach the white whale, even the sea itself starts looking nightmarish. A ferocious storm toys with Pequod and the fires of St. Elmo flare on the point of Ahab’s blood-hardened harpoon. That same night Starbuck takes the gun and goes to the door of captain’s cabin - he is sure that better one death than letting the entire doomed crew die. But still, Starbuck leaves without doing anything and lets the God decide.
The thunderstorm broke all the compasses and now they are directing the ship away from the dangerous waters. Starbuck, relieved, sees it as the mercy of God, but Ahab notices that and fixes the compasses. Another sailor falls from the mast and disappears in the dark water. No one, including the captain himself, now believes that they are going to survive.
Pequod meets another ship named Rachel. Rachel is also a whaler ship, her captain saw Moby-Dick just the day before. The Rachel’s captain begs Ahab to help him find a whaleboat that was lost during the whaling - the one of the sailors in that boat was the captain’s own twelve-year-old son. But Ahab has no time for the lost children. Now, despite his peg leg, he stands on the mast himself, looking for his sworn enemy.
The gold coin goes to anyone: Ahab is the first to notice the back of the giant white whale. The chase lasts for three days, but Moby-Dick seems to play with the whalers, letting them come closer and then swimming away again. Finally Pequod approaches it and the captain orders Fedallah to prepare his own whaleboat. But Moby-Dick thrashes his boat immediately. He also came for the captain, deliberately not allowing other boats to come to the rescue - but luckily, Pequod herself manages to sail closer, pushing the whale away from its victim. Ahab and the others are taken aboard and the captain immediately demands to follow the whale - but it’s too dark already and the crew loses its track.
At the dawn they see the whale again - it returned to tease its hunters once more. The boats are ready and the crew members make another attempt to kill Moby-Dick. But the whale tangles the lines attached to the harpoons in his body making the whaleboats crush into each other and again goes to the Ahab’s boat, striking it from under the water. Pequod immediately picks up the whalers in distress, but in the overall mess they don’t see that one man is missing. It is Fedallah. Ahab remembers his prophecy and can’t hide his fear from the rest of the crew. With dark fatalism, the captain says that everything is predetermined and it is his destiny to pursue the white whale.
The hunt continues. The boat now is accompanied by sharks, ready to tear apart any whaler who will be unlucky enough to fall into the water. The crew sees the last, most obvious bad omen - a sea hawk lands to the mast and tears apart the flag on it. A sailor is sent to replace it - and right after he takes the new flag and starts climbing up, Moby Dick, infuriated with the wounds, rushes at the ship, turning over all the whalebots except the captain’s. Ishmael, who is now with Ahab, sees the whale emerging from the water - and the mutilated body of Fedallah, entangled in harpoon lines and tied to the back of Moby-Dick. Ahab understands that he sees the first hearse from the prophecy, that wasn’t made by men.
The whale swims away and the captain follows. The rest of the Pequod crew tries to rescue the rest of the people from the water - but Moby-Dick suddenly turns around and rams the ship. Pequod now has a huge hole in her board and starts sinking incredibly fast. Ahab understands that it is the second hearse and now nothing can save him. In his last attempt he throws a harpoon to Moby-Dick, but the rope attached to it accidentally wraps Ahab himself. The captain falls into the water and the whale takes him to the abyss.
Pequod disappears in the water, taking the last whalebot with her. The last thing Ishmael sees above the water is the hand of the sailor that ties the new flag to the top of the mast. Then it disappears.
Ishmael himself is thrown out of the whaleboat and now is dragged to the deadly whirlpool that emerged where Pequod once was. He tries to swim back but the sea is stronger that a mere human being. He would definitely sink with the rest of the crew if not the coffin-shaped life buoy that suddenly emerges from the water. Ishmael climbs the coffin, thus evading the hungry sharks. He spends three days in the open sea until Rachel, the captain of which is still searching for his lost son and other sailors, takes him aboard.