Call Me Irritable

A Moby Dick Chapter Outline, In the Form of an Increasingly Frustrating Conversation Between Me and a Guy Named Ishmael

David Ebenbach
Mar 13, 2015 · 19 min read

Ishmael: Call me Ishmael.

Me: Can do, Ishmael! What’s this I hear about a white whale?

Ishmael: Well, slow down. First let me spend a chapter telling you how crazy I am about the ocean: I’m super-crazy about the ocean. So I decided I wanted to work on a whaling ship, and I went to New Bedford and checked out a bunch of inns.

Me: Fair enough.

Ishmael: I picked the Spouter Inn, which didn’t have any empty beds. Turns out I had to share a bed with a tattooed harpooneer named Queequeg. Which freaked me out at first, mainly because of racism and maybe homophobia.

Me: Right. Lovely. Well, what happened next?

Ishmael: We woke up.

Me: Right. After that?

Ishmael: We ate breakfast with a bunch of sailors.

Me: You did a whole chapter on waking up, and a whole chapter on breakfast?

Ishmael: Well, short ones. And then a short one on going outside and thinking about New Bedford and how it was built on whaling money.

Me: Okay. So we’re like six chapters in. Is there going to be an actual whale in this story?

Ishmael: Hang in there. First I went to church, and I looked around the church. It looked like a boat.

Me: Like a boat.

Ishmael: And the church had a pulpit.

Me: A whole chapter on what the pulpit looked like?

Ishmael: Then a pretty long sermon. Did you know Jonah got eaten by a whale?

Me: I did.

Ishmael: Then I hung out with Queequeg for a long time and we went to bed.

Me: Are you even going to get on a boat at all?

Ishmael: We chatted quite a bit, me and Queequeg.

Me: Sure.

Ishmael: Queequeg grew up on some island, and, in relating his story, I refer to him as a “savage,” a “cannibal,” and an “idolater,” which is not racist because we’re friends.

Me: Um….

Ishmael: Then Queequeg and I got on a boat, but it was just a ferry boat, to go somewhere where we could maybe get on another boat. Like a real ship. But not yet, of course.

Me: Of course. Is Captain Ahab around somewhere? Could I talk to him, maybe?

Ishmael: Hang in there. Meanwhile, Nantucket is awesome.

Me: I bet.

Ishmael: We found a place to stay. Super good chowder.

Me: Are we seriously on Chapter 15?

Ishmael: There are a lot of chapters. So I went looking for a whaling boat and I found the Pequod, which is the ship that Ahab captains. I didn’t meet him, but still. His name came up. And I signed up to be on their next whaling mission.

Me: Whaling mission? Now we’re talking!

Ishmael: Back to Queequeg, who meditated for a while.

Me: Seriously?!? Get on the damn boat!

Ishmael: We did get on the boat — but only to get Queequeg signed up. Then we got back off the boat.

Me: Unbelievable.

Ishmael: Then this dude Elijah warned us that Ahab was crazy, but we ignored him.

Me: Sensible.

Ishmael: After that, there’s a chapter on how it was almost time for the ship to leave.

Me: ….

Ishmael: So we got on the boat!

Me: Yes! Chapter 21 and they’re on the boat!

Ishmael: And the boat set sail!

Me: Fantastic!

Ishmael: There was a guy named Bulkington.

Me: What?

Ishmael: Nevermind. Did you know that there’s dignity in whaling?

Me: Wait — aren’t we sailing now?

Ishmael: ….and here’s another chapter on the dignity of whaling.

Me: I swear to God.

Ishmael: Anyway, the first mate was Starbuck. Awesome guy.

Me: Sounds good.

Ishmael: And the other mates were Stubb and Flask. Plus there were three harpooneers, including Queequeg.

Me: Go Queequeg!

Ishmael: And then…get ready for it…Ahab, who had been hiding in his cabin, came out! And was impressive!

Me: Awesome! Let’s go find some whales!

Ishmael: First Ahab insulted Stubb.

Me: Fine. Now whales!

Ishmael: And then Ahab smoked a pipe.

Me: Whales?

Ishmael: And then Stubb talked to Flask, and was like, “What’s up with Ahab?”

Me: Yes. I’d be interested to know what’s up with him, too.

Ishmael: You know, there are all kinds of whales. So many kinds of whales. Just whale upon whale. It’s the kind of thing I could go on about, and do go on about, for a long time, like the length of the longest imaginable chapter.

Me: Oh, God.

Ishmael: And harpooneers are also very important.

Me: I bet. I’m looking forward to seeing that for myself.

Ishmael: Also, when the captain and the mates eat, it’s quiet and somber. When the harpooneers eat, on the other hand, it’s pretty lively.

Me: That was Chapter 34 there.

Ishmael: Here’s how the mast-head works: You watch whales from up there.

Me: Awesome.

Ishmael: And then Ahab was like, “Let’s kick some white whale ass!”

Me: Hooray! I mean, come to think of it, I actually am pretty sympathetic toward whales! And so the bloodlust is a bit off-putting! But at least something’s happening! Keep it going, Ishmael!

Ishmael: Ahab is madness maddened!

Me: Yee-ha!

Ishmael: Starbuck is conflicted!

Me: Inner conflict is good for a story!

Ishmael: Stubb’s excited!

Me: Classic Stubb!

Ishmael: Sailors sing and dance!

Me: Why not?

Ishmael: But let’s talk about Moby Dick. Lots of rumors surrounded this white whale, and Ahab once encountered him and tried to slaughter him, but Moby bit his leg off instead. As you can imagine, Ahab was steamed about that.

Me: Sure. Absolutely. How steamed was he?

Ishmael: You know, the color white is pretty intense.

Me: I guess…?

Ishmael: Some of the sailors heard some coughing.

Me: Please tell me that wasn’t the subject of Chapter 43.

Ishmael: Anyway, Ahab consulted his maps, which showed him where he could find whales.

Me: Great. Let’s find some whales.

Ishmael: Whales can be pretty dangerous.

Me: Yes. I’d like to see that for myself.

Ishmael: Ahab thought to himself, in case we don’t run into Moby Dick for a while, we should get some regular whales. Keep everybody’s head in the game.

Me: Seems savvy.

Ishmael: Then we saw a whale!

Me: Good chapter break there — I’m in actual suspense!

Ishmael: Well, it seemed that Ahab had snuck another harpoon team onto the ship, which is what all that coughing was about. Anyway, we got into our smaller whale-attacking boats and went out to attack the whales, but the weather was a mess and we didn’t kill any.

Me: Well, that’s probably for the best anyway. And still — kind of exciting!

Ishmael: Because that last bit was pretty scary, I made up a new will.

Me: I hear you.

Ishmael: It was kind of weird having that extra harpoon team of Ahab’s on the ship.

Me: Sure.

Ishmael: The ship sailed some more.

Me: I bet it did.

Ishmael: We passed another ship, and we were like, “Have you seen Moby Dick?” but we couldn’t hear what the other captain said.

Me: Why didn’t you stop and go over to talk?

Ishmael: As the next chapter explains, normally we would do that.

Me: I thought so.

Ishmael: Anyway, I have another rumor-story about Moby Dick attacking a ship, but instead of just telling it to you, I’m going to tell you what it was like when I told that story to some other people in Peru.

Me: Definitely a little weird, but still kind of exciting.

Ishmael: By the way, people don’t even draw good pictures of whales.

Me: What?

Ishmael: I mean, some pictures are not bad.

Me: Are you seriously talking about this for several chapters?

Ishmael: And some people paint pictures of whales on wood, or carve them out of stone.

Me: I’m just going to say it: Ishmael, I love you, but you don’t know how to tell a story.

Ishmael: Next, we did see some Right Whales, but we weren’t interested in them.

Me: Okay.

Ishmael: Then we saw a squid! From a distance!

Me: Okay.

Ishmael: Chapter 60 is about the ropes used in whaling. There are metaphorical implications.

Me: I’m sure there are.

Ishmael: And then we saw a Sperm Whale! And we went out, and Stubb killed it!

Me: Wow! Though, now that we’re here, it’s actually kind of sad.

Ishmael: Well, here’s a chapter on whale-killing darts. Does that help?

Me: Not really.

Ishmael: What about a chapter entitled “The Crotch”?

Me: That did make me giggle a little.

Ishmael: You’re going to love this. Next, Stubb ate a whale steak, and complained about it to the cook, Fleece, who is black and is, in the way I portray him, a bit of a minstrel show.

Me: Now I feel uncomfortable in several ways.

Ishmael: You don’t know what you want. So here’s a whole chapter on eating whales.

Me: Goddammit.

Ishmael: Meanwhile, the dead whale was strapped to the boat, but in the water, so sharks were eating it. But we killed a bunch of them.

Me: Right.

Ishmael: Then we tried to heave the whale up a bit.

Me: ….

Ishmael: Whales have blubber on them. Like a cathedral, but with blubber.

Me: ….

Ishmael: Once we’re done with it, we set what’s left of the whale adrift and let it sink away pathetically.

Me: I mean, this is sad.

Ishmael: Did I mention that we cut the whale’s head off?

Me: Oh, for Christ’s sake.

Ishmael: Anyway, then we met another ship, and it seemed that the whole crew was in thrall to this one crazy oarsman. And we found out that they had run into Moby Dick, who had eaten one of the crew. And the oarsman was all, I told you so. Then they rowed away.

Me: That was actually pretty interesting stuff.

Ishmael: Awesome. Because here’s a flashback chapter about cutting up that whale that we killed!

Me: Fine, fine. Whatever.

Ishmael: Then Stubb and Flask killed a Right Whale, which generally we don’t want to do, but we were kind of thinking, What the hell, so we did it.

Me: The truth is, this is a whaling ship. There’s going to be some killing of whales. I knew what I was getting into.

Ishmael: So, back to the head of the Sperm Whale. Remember how we cut its head off? Well, it had funny eyes and funny ears, like all Sperm Whales.

Me: Seriously?

Ishmael: And then there’s the head of the Right Whale. This one had funny lips.

Me: Yeah, okay.

Ishmael: And Sperm Whales don’t even have noses!

Me: We just did three straight chapters on whale heads.

Ishmael: And here’s a fourth.

Me: I just….

Ishmael: And here’s a chapter about how, when they were dredging all the oil out of the whale, one of the harpooneers fell into the whale. But Queequeg rescued him.

Me: Wow. That is seriously crazy.

Ishmael: Do you ever think about a whale’s forehead?

Me: Uh, no.

Ishmael: How about the brain? Or the spine?

Me: I mean, I guess I could think about that, if I had to.

Ishmael: Anyway, the Pequod came upon this other German ship, and they raced each other to go kill another whale. We won. Huge amounts of blood, I’m telling you. Blood, blood, blood. And then we tried to hoist the body up next to the ship, but it was too heavy, so we had to let it sink away. Kind of a bummer.

Me: Especially for the whale.

Ishmael: Incidentally, people have been hunting whales throughout history.

Me: That’s true.

Ishmael: And then there’s Jonah.

Me: So what it comes down to is, in this book I’m either going to be reading brief stories about whale-slaughtering and hacking whales to pieces, or I’m going to be reading really not-brief lectures about the history of the harpoon and so on.

Ishmael: Speaking of harpoons, have I ever mentioned the pitch-pole?

Me: I really don’t have to be reading this. A person can live a perfectly happy and admirable life without ever having read this.

Ishmael: Whale spouts: water or vapor? You decide!

Me: A person can be a very well-read person without ever reading this.

Ishmael: Plus whales have cool tails.

Me: There so many other books!

Ishmael: So, then we found this huge pod of whales, just whales everywhere, and we started chasing them, all our smaller boats out there, and there were pirates chasing us, and my boat got one whale and we wounded some other ones, and some of the other whales made a huge protective ring, but somehow we were inside that ring, where it was as calm as a lake, so we got to see the female whales and their children, which came right up to the boat, and we even saw nursing baby whales, and then all the whales took off together.

Me: Wow. That was really exciting, and also beautiful. If you could write the whole book like this, it’d be a seriously great book.

Ishmael: And then here are some facts about whale herds.

Me: Oh, god damn you.

Ishmael: And there are laws that come up when different people want to kill the same whale and take the oil out of it.

Me: The fact is, I didn’t really like Billy Budd. And Benito Cereno — I couldn’t wait for that to be over. So I don’t know what I was expecting this time.

Ishmael: Plus there are some other laws, having to do with royalty.

Me: Maybe I’m just not a Melville person. Though Bartleby the Scrivener was kind of good.

Ishmael: But then we found some of the wounded whales, which were now dead, so their oil was useless, but these dumb French guys were trying to get oil out anyway, so we tricked them and they went away, and we grabbed one of the whales; even though there was no oil, there was ambergris.

Me: Ambergris?

Ishmael: Yeah — here’s a whole chapter on ambergris, but it doesn’t really explain what ambergris is.

Me: Right.

Ishmael: By the way, there was this one time that one of our crew named Pippin jumped overboard and was alone for a while until he got rescued and it really messed him up. Luckily, he was black, so it’s a great opportunity for me to get really patronizingly racist.

Me: Um….

Ishmael: Meanwhile, at some point we started squeezing all the oil out of the whale we had — we call it sperm — and so here’s a chapter on how sensual and amazing it is, squeezing and immersing your hands, your strong, grasping hands, in all the wet, oozing, slippery, sticky — oh, yes — yes — yes —

Me: I’m realizing that this reading experience has only three settings: Bored, Uncomfortable, and Deeply Uncomfortable.

Ishmael: Fine. Here’s a more boring chapter about a device that minces whales up.

Me: Glad to be back at simply Uncomfortable.

Ishmael: Well, how about a chapter where the blubber-burning fires evoke for me the most terrifying aspects of life, death, and hell, and I become so morbidly hypnotized by the flames that I almost capsize the boat?

Me: Okay. I’ll add Mildly Excited as a setting.

Ishmael: Great. Now, let me tell you how much whale-hunting guys love whale oil.

Me: Oh, boy.

Ishmael: And then how we pour the oil into casks and then clean up so that it’s really neat on board.

Me: Yeah. Great.

Ishmael: So, Ahab nailed this gold doubloon to a mast as a reward for whoever first spotted Moby Dick, and in this chapter a whole bunch of people went and looked at the doubloon, and their various thoughts revealed a great deal about their personalities.

Me: You know, given that this is a first-person narrative, you really shouldn’t have access to other characters’ thoughts, and shouldn’t be able to provide dialogue from scenes where you’re not present, unless someone else (who is present) reports all the dialogue to you.

Ishmael: Whatever. Next we came across a British ship whose captain had had his arm bitten off by Moby Dick. Ahab went aboard to get the story, which strangely enough offered a period of comic relief. And then Ahab went back to his own boat.

Me: See, that’s another scene that you didn’t personally witness, but somehow you know every detail about it. How is that?

Ishmael: That ship, by the way, was really nice.

Me: ….

Ishmael: I once saw a whale skeleton. And I measured it. But I’m not going to tell you the measurements until the next chapter.

Me: Of course.

Ishmael: It was really big. But not as a big as a whole whale with flesh on it and everything.

Me: Yes. Thanks.

Ishmael: Here’s a chapter on the whale fossil record.

Me: Duly noted.

Ishmael: And in this chapter I speculate about whether the whale has gotten smaller throughout the millennia (no, I decide), and whether all this whale hunting will threaten the whales with extinction (no, I decide).

Me: See — that’s another thing. If this is a book of fiction with a story, the storytelling sucks. If this is a non-fiction book teaching me about whales, it’s mostly teaching me things that are not true. Early on in this book you declared that whales were fish, not mammals.

Ishmael: I don’t know what to tell you about that. But I can tell you that Ahab damaged his prosthetic leg when he got off that British boat. He called for the carpenter to come fix it.

Me: Do you realize that we’ve been through one hundred and six chapters, have only thirty to go, and we still haven’t seen Moby Dick?

Ishmael: Our carpenter, I might add, was a real jack of all trades.

Me: I wonder if Waiting for Godot was based on this book.

Ishmael: Ahab consulted with the carpenter and acted like a bit of a nutcase.

Me: Well, that’s something. A moment where we get to know a character and sense that he’s a tragic figure, racing eagerly toward his own doom. In a revision, I’d advise you to focus more on this kind of thing — character, plot, etc. Like, way, way, way more.

Ishmael: Well, things get good now. The oil casks sprang a leak, and Starbuck told Ahab that they needed to stop the ship and find the leak. Well, as you can imagine, Ahab lost it — he really wanted to go after Moby Dick right away — but good ol’ Starbuck managed to appeal to his saner nature.

Me: Yeah. This is the kind of thing.

Ishmael: Then Queequeg got sick, and almost died, even calling for his coffin to be made — Pippin, that guy who went overboard and nearly died, he got pretty worked up about all this, still being crazy and all from almost drowning — but then Queequeg decided to get better, and so he did.

Me: Well, good ol’ Queequeg.

Ishmael: Then we reached the beautiful Pacific, and Ahab was like, “Now we’re going to kick some whale ass,” but in a pressure-cooker-on-its-way-to-exploding kind of way.

Me: Okay. That felt like a turning point. Ahab is serious now. So, from here on out we’re going to be focused, right? We’re in the Pacific, and we’re going to stick with this crazy guy and watch his monomania lead him to his own destruction, right? Right? I’m betting we’ve got twenty-five intense, on-topic chapters ahead of us — let’s go!

Ishmael: Did I ever tell you that our blacksmith had a pretty interesting life story?

Me: In this experience, you are the Road Runner, and I am Wile E. Coyote.

Ishmael: Dude, this time what I’m telling you is relevant. Because next Ahab talked to the blacksmith, and got him to make a really scary harpoon.

Me: Well, I guess that makes it relevant, sort of.

Ishmael: By my standards it does. Anyway, then we sailed into Japanese fishing waters.

Me: Great. That was chapter 114.

Ishmael: And then we came across a really happy British ship that had gotten a lot of oil and was on its way home. And they were friendly to us, but Ahab was all “Grrrrrr white whale grrrrrrrr.”

Me: I believe that.

Ishmael: Afterward we killed four whales. Ahab even killed one of them, but it just made him think about death and gloom.

Me: Fair enough. Would it be too optimistic for me to think that Ahab’s mood is starting to take over, and that maybe we’re headed for the climax of this quasi-story?

Ishmael: I’ll never tell. Moving on, the harpooneer that Ahab snuck on ship was a Parsee, and therefore has to play the role of the ominous, exoticized mystic in the story; he gave Ahab some prophecies, among which was one that said Ahab could only die by the rope.

Me: Ominous. And xenophobic.

Ishmael: In the morning, Ahab used a quadrant to determine the ship’s location, but got frustrated that it couldn’t tell him where Moby Dick was, so he stomped on it. Starbuck and Stubb watched him and were like, “That dude is toast.”

Me: Pretty much. I’m liking this part of the story, by the way.

Ishmael: Well, dig this: A typhoon hit, coming from the very direction we were traveling on our way to find Moby Dick! And lightning caught our masts on fire! And Starbuck said that it was a sign from God that we should turn back, but Ahab was defiant toward the storm and toward God.

Me: What could possibly go wrong?

Ishmael: That night, Starbuck wanted Ahab to take precautions against the winds, but Ahab said, “Oh, hell no.”

Me: Awesome. You see, this could have been a good book if you had just stayed on topic like this from the beginning!

Ishmael: Stubb and Flask debated about whether they were doomed or not.

Me: Doomed, I’d say.

Ishmael: Tashtego, one of the harpooneers, told the storm to stop.

Me: How’d that go?

Ishmael: Actually, the storm did kind of slow down. And Starbuck went down to the captain’s cabin to tell him so, and just before he opened the door, he thought about whether he should put Ahab in chains to stop this mission, or even murder him, but ultimately he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Me: Starbuck, will your goodness be your doom?

Ishmael: When the captain woke up, he saw that they were sailing in the wrong direction, away from where Moby Dick was supposed to be, and realized that the storm had messed up the compasses. That freaked everyone out, seeming like a pretty obvious omen, but Ahab made a new, functional compass, and people calmed down.

Me: Doomed, I’d say.

Ishmael: While fixing something else on the ship, Ahab became friends with Pippin, because they were both crazy.

Me: Sure.

Ishmael: Well, now we reached the swimming grounds of Moby Dick, and the first guy who went up the mast to look for him, well, that guy fell off and drowned, and they lost the ship’s life-buoy, so they had to make another one, which they did — from Queequeg’s coffin.

Me: I think there may be some subtle symbolism in that chapter.

Ishmael: Then Ahab was gloomy and belligerent.

Me: I do believe you’ve established that.

Ishmael: Next we encountered a ship that had seen Moby Dick the day before, and the captain asked for help, because his son had been lost on the open sea in one of the smaller whale-pursuing boats. Ahab, though, said, “Grrrr white whale grrrrrrr” and didn’t help the other captain.

Me: Yup. You have definitely established that Ahab is monomaniacally pursuing this whale.

Ishmael: Then Ahab told Pippin to go away, because they were both crazy.

Me: Um…wasn’t that the reason they were hanging out in the first place?

Ishmael: Don’t ask so many questions. We sailed on, and a bird stole Ahab’s hat.

Me: The symbolism is getting a little comical, don’t you think?

Ishmael: Then we came across a ship called the Delight, which had been damaged by…wait for it…Moby Dick!

Me: Oh, it’s on, now.

Ishmael: Now that they were getting close to Moby Dick, Ahab opened his soul to Starbuck, admitting that he was pretty much bonkers. And Starbuck tried to get him to abort the mission, but Ahab was, as aforementioned, pretty much bonkers, so on they went.

Me: Yup. We really need to see this whale soon, though.

Ishmael: Well, guess what? They got to a promising area to look for Moby Dick, and then Ahab spotted him — spotted Moby Dick! We’re here! We made it! Now, this was a seriously impressive whale. Really. A whale god, is what I’m telling you. I mean, wow. So we lowered most of our whale-chasing boats into the water, and Moby Dick actually came after us! He took Ahab’s boat in his ginormous jaws and bit that sucker in half. In half! And then he circled the people who were now in the water, coming in for the kill, but the big ol’ Pequod came looming in and chased him off. Once everybody was back on ship, Starbuck was like, “So, that seemed like a bad sign,” and Ahab said, “Whatever.”

Me: Wow. Bit a boat in half? Awesome. I am so rooting for this whale.

Ishmael: The next day we found the whale again, and went after him with our little boats, and he came right at us again. And though we threw our harpoons at him and he got tangled up in all the harpoon lines, still he managed to go back underwater and then burst up right underneath Ahab’s boat, tossing it and everybody in it into the air. Everybody managed to scramble back onto the ship aside from Fedallah, the Parsee guy, who was dragged down by the ropes. And Starbuck said to Ahab, “Seriously. This is completely bananas,” and Ahab said, “Seriously: whatever.”

Me: A bit stubborn, our Ahab. I wonder if it might possibly come back around to bite him. Or if maybe a whale will bite him.

Ishmael: Drum roll….On the third day we couldn’t find the whale, but then we turned around and did find him! Naturally, we lowered the boats into the water, which was full of sharks, just to add a little excitement. As you can imagine, Moby Dick was in a bad mood, and he destroyed all of the little boats except Ahab’s. So everybody got back on the ship except Ahab’s group, and Ahab threw his super-harpoon into the whale. Which made Moby thrash around and everybody got knocked out of the boat, though everybody but one made it back in. And then — you won’t believe what happened next. The whale came after the Pequod itself and smashed a huge hole in it! And then Ahab threw another harpoon, got tangled in the line, and — dig this — was dragged down to a watery grave, while the Pequod sank completely and the little boats were dragged down into the whirlpool made by the whale’s descent, killing everyone!

Me: Killing everyone? Wow. Amazing! I mean, that was a good climax. For real. There’s a lot of crap in this book — like a lot of total crap in this book — but that was a good climax. Biblical-intensity destruction. So that’s — wait — hang on — if everybody died, how are you telling me this story?

Ishmael: Epilogue: I was the guy who fell out of Ahab’s boat and didn’t make it back into Ahab’s boat, and ironically I found the life-buoy, and I survived! The End!

Me: Oh. Okay. Wait — The End? So after delaying the climax with a million nonsense chapters, you don’t have much of anything to say after the climax? Where are the ten chapters on life buoys? Pretty much you just dropped the mic and left. Interesting. Well, I guess, in sum, what all of this means is: I just read Moby Dick. Hooray?

    David Ebenbach

    Written by

    Preoccupied with the human condition since 1972. Writes about it. (

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade