Novels for Students


Herman Melville

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Now admired as a masterpiece of American literature and considered one of the greatest novels of all time, Moby-Dick was published to unfavorable reviews, and its author, Herman Melville, was subsequently unable to make a living as a writer. He wrote just three more novels after Moby-Dick and then retired from literary life, working as a customs officer, writing poems, a novella, and a few short stories. Not until the 1920s were the multi-layered qualities of his epic novel fully appreciated.

Ostensibly the story of a whaling voyage as seen through the eyes of Ishmael, the book's narrator, and the account of the pursuit of a white whale, the novel is concerned with many of the issues which dominated nineteenth-century thought in America. The relationship between the land and the sea echoes the conflict between adventure and domesticity, between frontiersman and city-dweller. Captain Ahab's tragic monomania, as expressed in his obsessive pursuit of the whale, is an indirect commentary on the feelings of disillusionment in mid-nineteenth-century America and on the idea that the single-minded pursuit of an ideal is both vain and self-destructive.

Highly symbolic, tightly packed with philosophical musings, and interspersed with goading questions, the novel put off many of its early readers with what was seen as a rejection of basic storytelling principles. Each time some form of narrative tension is established, the author appears to launch off into obscure ramblings. They are only arcane, of course, when the reader does not per-ceive the hidden meanings within these passages; modern audiences have the advantage of being more receptive to disjointed narrative techniques. As for the novel's subtexts, only a few of these require sophisticated knowledge of nineteenth-century thought; the majority concern the big and immutable questions of life.

Author Biography

Melville was born in New York City on August 1, 1819. He was the third of eight children born to Allan and Maria Melville. His father, an importer, died in 1832, having struggled in vain to establish a sense of financial security for his family. Although only thirteen years old, Herman immediately went to work as a bank clerk to help support his family. His older brother, Gansevoort, was always considered the most promising son, and for several years the family depended upon his business endeavors. But by 1837 Gansevoort was bankrupt and the Melvilles had to rely on wealthy relatives for financial assistance.

After a brief spell as a schoolteacher, Melville signed up to serve as a cabin boy on the St. Lawrence. Afterwards, he returned to teaching, but this early adventure had whetted his appetite for the sea. On January 3, 1841, he set sail aboard the Acushnet, a whaling vessel, sailing out of Buzzard Bay. At the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific, he left his ship to live with a native tribe reputed to be cannibals. Melville later said that when he discovered their taste for human flesh (it was never proved they were cannibals), he escaped the island, finding passage on the Lucy Ann, a whaling ship from Australia. Melville then enlisted in the navy, spending a year on the frigate United States. He did not return to American soil until October of 1844, and then he almost immediately began writing about his adventures.

Melville's first novel, Typee, published in 1846, described his adventure and captivity in the South Seas. Melville began courting Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of a Bostonian judge, and he wrote a second novel, Omoo, again based on his South Seas adventures. It was published in 1847 and, on the strength of its sales, Herman and Elizabeth decided to marry.

The writing of Moby-Dick coincided with Melville's move to the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and the establishment of his friendship with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. During the period of Moby-Dick's composition, Melville held Hawthorne in very high regard, both personally and professionally, and in his correspondence he spoke of their role together as being the forefront of American letters.

Moby-Dick was written by Melville with an eye to establishing himself as a leading literary figure, which made its failure all the more difficult for him to bear. His next book, Pierre (1852), was written in a mood of depression. Israel Potter, a strange biographical novel published in 1854, did nothing to reestablish Melville's name, and an attack of sciatica heralded an insidious decline in his physical and mental health. The Confidence Man (1857) is now considered to be one of Melville's best books, a funny and sardonic look at human nature. Commercially, however, it was another flop, and Melville was forced to consider alternative employment. He sold his home, Arrowhead, to his brother Allan and moved to New York City, where, in 1866, he took up duties as an Inspector of Customs.

Melville's literary output from then on consisted mainly of poetry. Several of his Civil War poems are among the best poems of their period. His huge epic poem, Clarel, about religious doubt, which preoccupied him for nearly a decade, had to be published using private funds. Toward the end of his life he wrote a prose novel, Billy Budd, completed in the year of his death, 1891.

Plot Summary

Call Me Ishmael

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale chronicles the strange journey of an ordinary seaman named Ishmael who signs on for a whaling voyage in 1840s Massachusetts. A thoughtful but gloomy young man, Ishmael begins his odyssey in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a prosperous whaling town and crossing point to the island of Nantucket. Arriving on a dark Saturday night in December, he finds cheap lodgings in a waterfront dive called The Spouter Inn. There he is forced to share a bed with a South Sea islander and "cannibal" named Queequeg, a fierce-looking harpooner covered with tattoos and carrying a tomahawk and a shrunken head. After some initial uncertainty, the two become close friends and decide to seek a berth together on a whaling ship. Before leaving for Nantucket, however, Ishmael decides to visit the local whaleman's chapel, where he sees memorial plaques to lost sailors and hears a disturbing sermon about the prophet Jonah and the terrors of the whale.

On Nantucket, the two sailors set out to find the best ship for their voyage. After consulting Queequeg's "black little god," a tiny totem named Yojo, they settle on the Pequod, a whaling vessel run by the notorious Captain Ahab. They sign the ship's papers, but on their way back to the inn to get their belongings, they meet Elijah, a shabbily dressed old man who haunts the docks. Elijah hints at the dangers to come and warns the two not to get involved with the vengeful captain.

The Quest

The Pequod leaves Nantucket on Christmas day headed for the whaling grounds in the Pacific. Captain Ahab remains in his cabin for several days, while the crew accustoms itself to life at sea. When Ahab does emerge, his appearance startles Ishmael. A long, white scar runs down Ahab's face, and he walks on an artificial leg made of whale bone. Soon he calls the entire crew together and informs them that their voyage will be no ordinary whaling cruise. Ahab has returned to sea with the sole purpose of finding and killing the whale that took his leg on the previous voyage. He offers a sixteen-dollar gold piece to the first man who spots the white whale, Moby-Dick, and then conducts a demonic ceremony in which the three "pagan" harpooners cross their lances and drink to the death of the whale.

When not under the influence of Ahab's obsessive search, Ishmael gathers information and meditates upon the business of whaling and the strange attractive power of the white whale. Among other possible explanations, he suggests that Ahab both fears and hates the whiteness of Moby-Dick because this blankness recalls the "colorless, all-color of atheism," a nothingness that lies behind all nature. He also describes the ship's first whale hunt and the subsequent butchering of the sperm whale. He discusses the whale as it is depicted in paintings and compares the images to his own experiences; and he observes the whale itself, pondering the meaning of its huge and mysterious body, its equally peaceful and violent behavior, and its often contradictory significance to the men who hunt it.

Despite several successful hunts, including one encounter with a herd of sperm whales near the coast of Java, they continue to search for Moby-Dick. Having revealed the presence of his "infidel" boat crew led by Fedallah, the Parsee (a member of the Zoroastrian religious sect from India), Ahab can no longer hide the true extent of his obsession. He orders the blacksmith to forge a special harpoon from the nail stubs of racing horses. He then tempers the barb in the blood of the three harpooners, baptizing the weapon "in nomine diaboli!" (in the name of the devil). Soon after, he throws his navigational quadrant overboard and, in a moment of defiance of nature and God, cries out at the corposants, a strange blue fire of static electricity (sometimes called "Saint Elmo's Fire") that covers the ship's masts. Not even Starbuck, the respected first mate, can convince the captain of his madness.

At this stage in the story, Ishmael becomes less prominent as a character. He reappears occasionally to offer his thoughts on the mythological history of whaling and the symbolic meanings of the story of Jonah from the Bible. While Ahab rages at the world, Ishmael describes the sensual pleasures of squeezing lumps of whale oil or spermaceti. He tells how he once measured a whale's skeleton on the (fictional) island of Tranque in the Arsacides and describes the illness of Queequeg, who is so near death at one point that he orders a coffin from the carpenter. Queequeg survives, however, and turns the coffin into a bed, carving its ex-terior with the same "hieroglyphic marks" that are tattooed on his body. When the ship later loses its standard life-buoy, the carpenter nails the lid on the coffin, caulks it, and hangs it from the back of the ship as a replacement.

The Chase

Torn between the good and evil influences of Starbuck and Fedallah, Ahab instinctively guides the ship back to the "very latitude and longitude" of his first encounter with Moby-Dick. Starbuck makes a final appeal to his captain to "fly these deadly waters!" and return to his wife and child, but Ahab rejects his pleas and turns to Fedallah. In his role as demonic advisor, Fedallah has prophesied that Ahab will know "neither hearse nor coffin" and that before he can die on this voyage he must first see two hearses on the sea, one "not made by mortal hands" and the other made of American wood. He also declares that only hemp or rope can kill the captain, which Ahab understands as a reference to hanging. Since he is unlikely to be hung on his own ship and even less likely to see two hearses in the middle of the Pacific, Ahab declares himself "immortal on land and sea!"

With any chance of relinquishing his obsession now lost, Ahab finally spots the white whale and the chase begins. For three days the crew of the Pequod fights Moby-Dick but fails to kill him. On the third day, with Ahab's harpoon in his hump, the white whale turns toward the ship itself and, with a powerful blow of his forehead, sinks the Pequod with all the crew still on board. Combined with the death of Fedallah, seen wrapped in the ropes that now encircle Moby-Dick, the ship's sinking fulfills the first prophecy. Soon after, the third prediction also comes true when Ahab, trying to clear a kink in the rope attached to Moby-Dick, gets caught in a loop and disappears, dragged under by the whale. Caught in the whirlpool created by the sinking ship, all remaining members of the crew except Ishmael go down with the ship.

Pitched overboard by the violent struggles of Moby-Dick, Ishmael floats on the edge of the action, witnessing the final moments of Ahab and his crew. As the ship sinks, the whirlpool draws him closer to the site of the wreck, but because of his distance from the ship, he is not pulled under. Instead, out of the center of the whirlpool, Queequeg's coffin rises to save him. Aided by the strange "life preserver," Ishmael floats for "almost one whole day and night" before the Rachel, a whaling ship searching for part of its crew, picks him up.


Captain Ahab

Introduced by Captain Peleg as "a grand, ungodly, godlike man," the reader learns two things about Ahab, captain of the Pequod in Moby-Dick: Ahab was orphaned when he was twelve months old, and one of his legs was lost as a result of his most recent whaling voyage. The wound is so fresh that the stump is still bleeding. However, it is some time before Ishmael is able to verify this. Ahab does not make a proper appearance in the book until Chapter 28. The reader finds him standing upon his quarter-deck, looking "like a man cut away from the stake," with his white bone leg (carved from a sperm whale's jaw) jammed into a specially drilled hole on deck. The reader is told that Ahab has gray hair and has a white scar or disfigurement down the side of his face. There are some aboard the ship who suspect the mark travels the entire length of Ahab's body, from head to toe. But Melville is more anxious to communicate an atmosphere, in sentences such as, "There was an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of that glance." The long delay in Ahab's involvement in the action of the novel helps to build him up as a grand figure, the major tragic character Melville wants his readers to see.

Although Ahab is awe-inspiring, Melville is at pains to establish the captain's dignity. In Chapter 34, "The Cabin Table," he is presented as a sultan dining with his emirs. "Over its ivory-laid table, Ahab presided like a mute, maned sea-lion on the white coral beach, surrounded by his warlike but still deferential cubs."

Goaded by Starbuck for wanting his revenge upon the dumb beast which struck out at him from "blindest instinct," Ahab sets out in Chapter 36 his belief that, on the contrary, the whale acted out of inscrutable malice and that every action has a motive or reason. …