Herman Melville's classic novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is one of the best works of American Literature. Our study guide is designed to help teachers and students better understand the story, its historical context, and explore what makes it an epic tale.
Moby-Dick - The white bull sperm whale who is the object of all of Captain Ahab's wrath, the main antagonist in the novel.
Ishmael - A crew member of the Pequod and narrator of the story. His name is a Biblical allusion to the exiled son of Abraham who became an outstanding Tamudic teacher.
Captain Ahab - The tyrannical captain of the Pequod, obsessed with killing Moby-Dick, at all costs.
Elijah - A character who remains ashore, his name is a Biblical reference to the prophet Elijah. He is surprised that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship and asks a foreboding question about their souls.
Queequeg - The harpooner of the Pequod, a non-Christian from the fictional island of Rokovoko in the South Seas. Melville offers his biography in Chapter 12.
Starbuck - The young chief mate of the Pemquod, a Quaker from Nantucket.
Father Mapple - A preacher in the New Bedford Whaleman's Chapel, and a former whaler.
Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg - Wealthy Quakers and principal owners of the Pequod
Plot Summary: Ishmael, who narrates the story, becomes friends with Queequeg who is a whaler, and then signs up to serve aboard the Pequod, a whaling ship sailing out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It is under the command of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab (though Ishmael doesn't know this at the time). We learn that Ishmael is knowledgeable about a broad variety of whales, but this is no "normal" whaler voyage. Ahab announces to the crew that their sole mission is to pursue one particular great white bull sperm whale who attacked Ahab during an earlier voyage. Whalers are typically out for years, so the story tells of their account going all over the world in pursuit of this one whale. Captain Ahab has complete tunnel vision in pursuit of this one whale, refuses to assist other vessels, their boat sustains damage during a bad storm. When they finally find the great whale, they attempt to harpoon it, but the whale smashes the boat and gets away; they try again, lose a crew member, Ahab injures the whale, but in the end, his own harppon rope kills him and the Pequod sinks. Ishmael is the sole survivor, rescued by another boat, the Rachel.
Moby-Dick is considered in the genre of "dark romanticism" which is literature with horrific themes, creepy symbols, and the psychological effects of guilt and sin. Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps the best known author of this genre, also known as "gothic literature." "Romanticism" in this context isn't about love-- it means belief and emotions are more important than logic or facts; the individual comes first, and can involve the worship of nature (or a whale?).
Major Theme: Melville's obsessive focus is on "man versus whale" or more accurately, "man versus mortal enemy"-- an enduring literary theme through the ages, both in- (the movie "Jaws") and out- ("David and Goliath") of the water. Melville uses numerous allusions throughout the story-- Biblical, mythical, and literary-- to deliver his dramatic tale, impress the reader's understanding and respect for who the whale is and what it represents in relation to humankind.
The Ocean is Both Peaceful and Violent: The ocean is both a calming source of life, and the body which harbors destruction and death. How can it be both at the same time? It's helpful to take in Melville's quote:
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.
Consider all this; and then turn to the green, gentle, and most docile earth; 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!”
Emotion Over Rationality: This story epitomizes "Dark Romanticism" in its portrayal of a blinding, passionate mission to achieve a goal that defies all logic and sanity.
Religion: Almost all the characters act true to their Biblical characters' behavior, and Melville's many allusions center on themes in the Bible such as judgement, redemption, eternal life, guilt, sin, souls, the end of the world, eternity, good versus evil.
We're All Part of the Food Chain: Cannibalism (eat or be eaten? whether by your own kind, like a mutiny at sea by the crew, or a whale whose rage is as blinding as the insane man in wild pursuit). Again, Melville's quote gives you a clue here, prescribing almost a hierarchy of crimes, to be weighed in context, depending on the circumstances:
"Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal? I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Fejee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Fejee, I say, in the day of judgement, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy pate de fois gras.”
Understand how this novel is an exemplar of Dark Romanticism
First, read and discuss the book's opening chapter titled Etymology, which means the origins of words and how their meaning changed through history). First, it explains the origin of the word "whale" which is key to understanding the significance of Melville's many allusions, genre, and themes in the story:
Moby Dick; or, The Whale - Etymology
As you take in Melville's etymology and extracts, it's really helpful to have some background on the history of the American whaling industry, which peaked in the 1850's and practically died-off completely by 1901: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling. The article offers interesting lessons for our modern economies-- with innovative technologies are our declining industries worth saving or not.
Regarding Melville's "Extracts" -- a far-ranging collection of quotes glorifying whales and whaling -- here's an interesting one to help you understand the book because it describes the important impact whaling had on human society, an economic driver that fueled global economies with invaluable resources and employment:
“In the year 1690 some persons were on a high hill observing the whales spouting and sporting with each other, when one observed; there—pointing to the sea—is a green pasture where our children’s grand-children will go for bread” (Obed Macy’s History of Nantucket)."
Melville uses his "Extracts" to show how important whaling is to society, and perhaps, how important this work of fiction is to American literature, with its universal themes of man versus nature, and emotion over rationality.
Here's an interesting article about The Importance of Extracts in Moby-Dick
Explain what the following quotes mean and how they relate to the story:
“Ignorance is the parent of fear.” (chapter 3)
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing.” (chapter 39)
“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.” (chapter 49)
“for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” (chapter 87)
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” (chapter 1)
“Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.” (chapter 114)
“See how elastic our prejudices grow when once love comes to bend them.” (chapter 11)
1. "Call me Ishmael." Explain the affect of Melville's opening line to hook his readers.
2. Provide evidence that Captain Ahab is "monomaniacal" in his fixation to kill Moby-Dick, the whale.
3. An "allusion" is a reference to a well-known person, place, event, or literary work.
Melville's opening line is an allusion to the Bible: Ishmael was a son of Abraham and Hagar, who was his servant. Ishmael was denied in favor of Isaac, who was Abraham's son with Sarah. After which, "Ishmael" became a symbol of a castaway or pariah. Explain how Melville's character Ishmael relates to this allusion.
4. What do the white whale and Captain Ahab symbolize in the novel? What about the ocean (it supports both life and death)?
5. The names of the characters in Moby Dick are similar to the names in the Bible, and their outcome is the same. Pick one character and explain the origin of their name and whether their outcome is the same.
6. What does Elijah mean about souls being "a fifth wheel to a wagon" in this scene:
After Elijah learns that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship, he asks: "Anything down there about your souls?" When Ishmael reacts with surprise, Elijah continues:
"Oh, perhaps you hav'n't got any," he said quickly. "No matter though, I know many chaps that hav'n't got any — good luck to 'em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon." (chapter 19)
7. Explain the significance of Melville's simile: "Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them; the secret of our paternity lies in their grave." (chapter 114)
8. Melville uses numerous Biblical and mythical allusions throughout the novel. Pick one of the following characters, describe their story and how it relates to events in Moby-Dick:
Biblical: Jonah (chapter 3), Ishmael (chapter 1), Gabriel (chapter 71), Lazarus (chapter 2), 1 Kings (King Ahab and his wife Jezebel), Job (chapter 24), Elijah (chapter 19)
Mythical: Jove/Jupiter (chapter 10,32), Narcissus (chapter 1), the Fates (the three goddesses who govern human destiny), Loom of Time (chapter 47)
9. Literary: Melville also uses literary allusions, such as in Chapter 1: "Cato" is a Shakespeare character from Julius Caesar, who committed suicide by falling on his sword. Another literary allusion is Aladdin's Lamp (chapter 97). Explain how one of these relates to the novel, and specifically, to which character(s).
10. Mevlille uses an historical allusion to the United State's seventh president, Andrew Jackson (chapter 26). He was the first poor man to rise to become President, known as the "people's President." How does this relate to the novel?
11. Pequod was an American Indian tribe which was destroyed by the Puritans (chapter 7). What does the whaling ship, "Pequod" represent?
12. Why do you think Ishamel is the sole survivor at the end of Moby-Dick?
13. Explain the parallels of the rise and fall of the U.S. whaling industry and the rise and fall of plot turns in the story.
Find out more about the genre in our Dark Romanticism - Study Guide
How to Read Moby-Dick, a guide for first-time readers
Not only can students get an overview of Melville's countless allusions, there's a search tool to cite references and locate them by chapter & line
Lesson Plan for Moby-Dick: Narrative Voice includes guiding questions and standards alignment
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