Moby Dick


Herman Melville (1819-1891) was a popular writer of sea narratives before he wrote Moby-Dick (1851). What was to become his best known novel, The Whale; or Moby-Dick, received good reviews when it appeared in England, but the first American edition, coming out a month later in New York, received mixed reviews. It was not a financial success and bafied American critics until the 20th century, when it began to be considered a classic.

Melville was not recognized as a genius in his time; his most famous works today{Moby-Dick, short stories like "Benito Cereno," and Billy Budd{were not widely read or heralded in the 19th century.

Melville's America was a tumultuous place. In the North, rapid industrialization was changing social patterns and giving rise to new wealth. In the South, the cotton interest was trying to hold onto the system of black slavery.

America was stretching westward, and encountering Native American tribes, as travel by train, road, sea, and canal become easier than before. Politicians appealed to the masses as the idea of "democracy" (versus republicanism) took hold. Nationalism was high in the early nineteenth century, but as national interconnectedness became more feasible, the deep divisions in society began to grow. Soon, sectionalism, racism, economic self-interest, and bitter political struggle would culminate in the Civil War.

Against this backdrop, Melville sailed off on his first whaling voyage in 1841. This experience became the material for his first book, Typee (1846), a narrative that capitalized on exotic titillation about natives in the Marquesas Islands. Becoming well known for his earthy, rowdy stories of faraway places, he quickly followed his initial success with Omoo (1847) and Mardi (1849).

But after Mardi, Melville's writing career started to level off. Though Melville had once thought he could be a professional writer, Moby-Dicks poor reviews meant that Melville would never be able to support himself by writing alone. Melville was always firmly middle-class, though his personas in books always seemed working-class. He had a distinguished pedigree: some of his ancestors were Scottish and Dutch settlers of New York who played leading roles in the American Revolution and commercial development. But Melville often felt like the "savage" in the family, which may have explained why he was not afraid to tackle such risky topics as slave revolt (in "Benito Cereno") or the life-sucking potential of offce jobs ("Bartleby the Scrivener").

Throughout his life, Melville was an avid reader. Much of his information for Moby-Dick comes from printed sources. The number of refer

ences to difierent texts (intertextuality) in Moby-Dick testifies to the importance of books in Melville's life. In particular, he admired Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he befriended in 1850 and to whom Melville dedicated the novel. Melville admired Hawthorne's willingness to dive to deep psychological depths and gothic grimness, traits for which he would also be praised.

The works of Shakespeare and stories in the Bible (especially the Old Testament) also in uenced Moby-Dick. Moreover, Melville's novel was certainly not the first book on whaling. Whaling narratives were extremely popular in the 19th century. In particular, Melville relied on the encyclopedic Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale and the narrative Etchings of a Whaling Cruise by J. Ross Browne. He also used information from a volume by William Scoresby, but mostly to ridicule Scoresby's pompous inaccuracy. One final note: many editions of Moby-Dick have been printed. Check your edition before using this guide, because "abridged" or "edited" versions may be difierent.


Ishmael { Ishmael is the narrator of the story, but not really the center of it. He has no experience with whaling when he signs on and he is often comically extravagant in his storytelling. Ishmael bears the same name as a famous castaway in the Bible.

Ahab { The egomaniacal captain of the whalingship Pequod; his leg was taken off by Moby Dick, the white whale. He searches frantically for the whale, seeking revenge, and forces his crew to join him in the pursuit.

Starbuck { This native of Nantucket is the first mate of the Pequod. Starbuck questions his commander's judgment, first in private and later in public.

Queequeg { Starbuck's stellar harpooner and Ishmael's best friend, Queequeg was once a prince from a South Sea island who wanted to have a worldly adventure. Queequeg is a composite character, with an identity that is part African, Polynesian, Islamic, Christian, and Native American.

Stubb { This native of Cape Cod is the second mate of the Pequod and always has a bit of mischievous good humor.

Moby Dick { The great white sperm whale; an infamous and dangerous threat to seamen like Ahab and his crew.

Tashtego { Stubb's harpooneer, Tashtego is a Gay Head Indian from Martha's Vineyard.

Flask { This native of Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard is the third mate of the Pequod. Short and stocky, he has a confrontational attitude and no reverence for anything.

Daggoo { Flask's harpooneer, Daggoo is a very big, dark-skinned, imperial-looking man from Africa.

Pip { Either from Connecticut or Alabama (there is a discrepancy), Pip used to play the tambourine and take care of the ship. After being left to oat on the sea alone for a short period of time, he becomes mystically wise{or possibly loses his mind.

Fedallah { Most of the crew doesn't know until the first whale chase that Ahab has brought on board this strange "oriental" old man who is a Parsee (Persian fire-worshipper). Fedallah has a very striking appearance: around his head is a turban made from his own hair, and he wears a black Chinese jacket and pants. Like Queequeg, Fedallah's character is also a composite of Middle Eastern and East Asian traits.

Peleg { This well-to-do retired whaleman of Nantucket is one of the largest owners of the Pequod who, with Captain Bildad, takes care of hiring the crew. When the two are negotiating wages for Ishmael and Queequeg, Peleg plays the generous one. He is a Quaker.

Bildad { Also a well-to-do Quaker ex-whaleman from Nantucket who owns a large share of the Pequod, Bildad is (or pretends to be) crustier than Peleg in negotiations over wages.

Father Mapple { The preacher in the New Bedford Whaleman's Chapel. He delivers a sermon on Jonah and the whale.

Captain Boomer { Boomer is the jovial captain of the English whalingship Samuel Enderby; his arm was taken off by Moby Dick



These prefatory sections establish the groundwork for a new book about whaling. Melville quotes from a variety of sources, revered, famous, and obscure, that may directly address whaling or only mention a whale in passing. The quotations include short passages from the Bible, Shakespeare, John Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost (1667), other well-known poems, dictionaries, whaling and travel narratives, histories, and songs. The Etymology section, looking at the derivations of "whale," is compiled by a "late consumptive usher to a grammar school," and the Extracts section, a selection of short quotations describing whales or whaling, by a "sub-sub-librarian."

Melville's humor comes through in these sections, both in the way he pokes fun at the "poor devil of a Sub-Sub" and mentions even the tiniest reference to a whale in these literary works.

Chapters 1-9


The story begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literary history: "Call me Ishmael." Whatever Ishmael's "real" name, his adopted name signals his identification with the Biblical outcast from the Book of Genesis.

He explains that he went to sea because he was feeling a "damp, drizzly November in [his] soul" and wanted some worldly adventure. In the mood for old-fashioned whaling, Ishmael heads to New Bedford, the current center of whaling, to catch a ferry to Nantucket, the previous center of whaling.

After wandering through the black streets of New Bedford, he finally stumbles upon The Spouter-Inn, owned by Peter Coffn. First passing by a large, somewhat inscrutable oil painting and a collection of "monstrous clubs and spears," Ishmael walks into a room filled with "a wild set of mariners." Because the inn is nearly full, Ishmael learns that he will have to share a room with "a dark complexioned" harpooner named Queequeg. At first, Ishmael decides that he would rather sleep on a bench than share a bed with some strange, possibly dangerous man. But, discovering the bench to be too uncomfortable, he decides to put up with the unknown harpooner, who, Coffn assures him, is perfectly fine because "he pays reg'lar." Still, Ishmael is worried since Coffn tells him that the harpooner has recently arrived from the South Sea and peddles shrunken heads. When the Queequeg finally returns, the frightened Ishmael watches Queequeg from the bed, noting with a little horror the harpooner's tattoos, tomahawk/pipe, and dark-colored idol.

When Queequeg finally discovers Ishmael in his bed, he ourishes the tomahawk as Ishmael shouts for the owner. After Coffn explains the situation, they settle in for the night and, when they wake up, Queequeg's arm is affectionately thrown over Ishmael. Ishmael is sorry for his prejudices against the "cannibal," finding Queequeg quite civilized, and they become fast, close friends.

The chapters called The Street, The Chapel, The Pulpit, and The Sermon establish the atmosphere in which Ishmael sets out on his whaling mission.

Because of its maritime industry, New Bedford is a cosmopolitan town, full of difierent sorts of people (Lascars, Malays, Feegeeans, Tongatabooans, Yankees, and green Vermonters). In this town is the Whaleman's Chapel, where the walls are inscribed with memorials to sailors lost at sea and the pulpit is like a ship's bow. The preacher in this chapel, Father Mapple, is a favorite among whalemen because of his sincerity and sanctity. Once a sailor and harpooner, Mapple now delivers sermons. His theme for this Sunday: Jonah, the story of the prophet swallowed by "a great fish." (Today we talk about "Jonah and the Whale.") Mapple preaches a story about man's sin, willful disobedience of the command of God, and ight from Him. But, says Mapple, the story also speaks to him personally as a command "To preach the Truth in the face of Falsehood!" with a confidence born from knowing God's will.

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