Story Skeleton: Alice & Ahab
Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning and classic novels.
White Whale, White Rabbit
By David G Brown
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Moby Dick have a surprising amount in common, at least in terms of narrative structure. Of course, both also have protagonists chasing after a symbolic white animal. In Ahab’s case, the whale represents vengeance. For Alice, the rabbit represents the unbridled curiosity of youth.
The structure of both of these novels is exceedingly simple. In fact, the mastery of both is evident in this simplicity. Few authors can pull off a straight-shot trajectory. By this I mean neither novel has a true subplot. Alice moves through a number of episodic encounters, and Ahab’s pursuit of Moby Dick is given complexity through Ishmael, the famously unreliable narrator, and Queequeg to an extent, but in the end, each protagonist chases their quarry from start to finish without significant relationship arcs or secondary narrative goals.
For most authors, a straight-shot trajectory can result in a shrunken story world that does not reflect the complexity and wonderful messiness of life. For more on that topic, check out our article Situation Versus Plot.
But anything can be done well, especially when it’s intentional. The structural complexity that might otherwise seem lacking in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is made up for with rich descriptions, wildly surrealistic landscapes, and childlike poetry. And poetry, of course, plus deeply symbolic parable, are at the heart of Herman Melville’s masterpiece.
But for the purposes of this blog series, let’s take a closer look at the mechanics of these two novels, starting with literary agent Hannah Sheppard’s pitch test:
When A (inciting incident) happens, B (character) must do C (action) otherwise/before D (catastrophe).
- When young Alice follows a rabbit in a waistcoat down into Wonderland, she must brave the dangers and riddles of mystifying creatures and locales, culminating in an encounter with the decapitation-obsessed Queen of Hearts, lest she never find her way home.
- After an initial violent encounter with a massive white whale in which he loses a leg, Captain Ahab sets off to hunt Moby Dick and exact his revenge, even if it costs him his life and his crew.
The protagonist in both novels has a clear narrative goal: something they struggle toward over the course of the novel. For Alice, it is none other than the White Rabbit, and for Ahab, it is Moby Dick.
Alice’s stasis is brief. She is an innocent following the whim of her curiosity. Ahab’s stasis is implied—it’s the time before he lost his leg to Moby Dick, before he sets out on his quest for vengeance.
- Inciting incident
Alice’s story begins when she sees the White Rabbit and follows him into a dark hole. Ahab’s story begins when he first encounters the notorious whale—note, again, that Ahab’s inciting incident happens prior to the beginning of the novel.
Point of no return
Alice’s point of no return immediately follows her inciting incident. After crawling into a dark hole to find out what the White Rabbit is late for, she falls into Wonderland. Arguably, her decision to imbibe a bottle labelled “DRINK ME” is her first active decision after falling into Wonderland, so this counts as well, though it’s clear she has no other means of returning home.
Ahab’s point of no return is interesting because it’s a decision he makes based on his internal conflict—his all-consuming desire for revenge. He puts a crew together and sets out with the stated purpose of hunting Moby Dick.
- Rising action (what stands in the protagonist’s way)
Rising action involves the obstacles a protagonist meets while on the path toward their goal. In every chapter, Alice meets a new obstacle—a puzzle she needs to unravel or characters she must engage with on her way to finding the White Rabbit. Ahab’s rising action isn’t as easy to define. He’s hunting a whale: his obstacles are time and distance. So instead of clear obstacles standing in the protagonist’s way, Melville structures the story around a series of meetings between Pequod and nine other ships, each of which offers their own fodder for symbolic interpretation.
- All is lost—the dark moment
Alice finds herself in a terrible situation when she attends a trial over stolen tarts and grows to a massive size. She can no longer pretend to belong in Wonderland, and this leads to her final confrontation with the Queen of Hearts.
Ahab doesn’t really have a dark moment since he is such an unusually absent protagonist. Ishmael’s narration builds up the legend of the great whale over the course of the entire book, such that merely sighting the whale brings the crew of the Pequod to the moment of their greatest peril. Also, it’s worth noting that Moby Dick and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can both be structurally classified as tragedies, wherein the dark moment and/or resurgence can take the form of a false victory. In sighting the great whale, Captain Ahab believes, falsely, that his vengeance is at hand.
Resurgence—the key to overcoming the dark moment
When the Queen of Hearts orders Alice to leave the trial, she stands up for herself and is then accused of stealing the tarts, for which the queen demands her head. At this point, Alice has fully given up playing along—she is no longer afraid, and she’s sick of the absurdity around her. When the card guards attack her, she fights back. However, this is a false resurgence.
Ahab doesn’t have a resurgence, false or otherwise. He commits his fate and that of his crew to the whale’s destruction, for better or worse. He is in the midst of his false victory.
- Climax—does the protagonist succeed, or do they fail while learning something important?
Here’s another similarity between these two novels—neither protagonist succeeds in their quest. Alice is overwhelmed by the card guards. She loses. She doesn’t find her way home. Fortunately for her, the entire adventure is just a dream. And Ahab goes down with his ship. The great whale wins, and Ishmael is the only survivor.
Alice wakes up from her dream, then leaves her sister on the riverbank to go off and ponder all the wild adventures she had in Wonderland. At the end of Moby Dick, Ahab is dead. His quest for vengeance is complete, if a failure. Ishmael, as the lone survivor, lives to tell the tale of the vengeful captain’s downfall.
Experiences change us. A character at the end of a story is not the same as they were at the beginning.
Alice begins her adventure with childlike curiosity—without fear. Over the course of her adventures, she learns that curiosity can lead to exciting discoveries and encounters, but it can also lead to danger. In a sense, this is a seven-year-old’s revelation that the world isn’t as safe as she might have imagined, even if there is much that awaits her discovery.
Ahab doesn’t have a true arc, but the story isn’t about him, even if he owns the trajectory. Instead, Ishmael bears witness to the destructive consequences of revenge. In other words, Ishmael learns a valuable lesson on Ahab’s behalf. Even more, the reader experiences this arc, since Ishmael’s often slippery narration casts doubt on whether any of his story should be believed in the first place. As such, the story’s conclusion hangs in the air with more questions than answers—a fable to be pondered and learned from. Is this, in fact, a story about the perils of revenge, or is it about the ephemeral nature of narrative itself?
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is random, silly, and fun. What it lacks in narrative complexity it makes up for with rich descriptions and unbridled creativity. Even among children’s literature, this is an unusual approach to storytelling, and the sheer randomness of the plot is often cited as a reason some people don’t connect with the book. Alice’s quest is exceedingly simple: follow the White Rabbit. There’s no causality leading from one scene to the next. In that sense, the story can be described as anecdotal, which runs afoul of much craft advice. Still, the classic persists, and no doubt the fascination with Alice’s encounters can be credited to Lewis Carrol’s vibrant imagination.
Moby Dick is an incredibly complex novel with symbols and themes that scholars still argue over. What’s amazing about this book is that the narrative trajectory is sidelined by its experimental form. Though there is no story without Ahab, it is the narrator Ishmael’s wide-ranging literary devices, soliloquies, footnotes, and breathtaking poetry that beget the novel’s true appeal. It is the telling of the tale that makes the tale worth reading, and not the story itself. That, no doubt, is a mark of true mastery in the art of novel writing.