CliffsNotes on Melville's Moby-Dick

Overview

The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.

In CliffsNotes on Moby-Dick, you follow along this great American novel; the turbulent and adventurous story of a sea captain's obsession with a white whale.

This study guide shares a story about defiance, friendship, duty, and death — all immersed in symbolism, such as the white whale, itself. You'll ...

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Overview

The original CliffsNotes study guides offer expert commentary on major themes, plots, characters, literary devices, and historical background.

In CliffsNotes on Moby-Dick, you follow along this great American novel; the turbulent and adventurous story of a sea captain's obsession with a white whale.

This study guide shares a story about defiance, friendship, duty, and death — all immersed in symbolism, such as the white whale, itself. You'll gain comfort with the dark and complicated plot as you move through critical commentaries on each of the novel's 135 chapters. Other features that help you figure out this important work include

  • Life and background of the author, Herman Melville
  • Analyses of the characters
  • Introduction to the novel
  • A review section that tests your knowledge and suggests essay topics
  • A selected bibliography that leads you to more great resources

Classic literature or modern-day treasure — you'll understand it all with expert information and insight from CliffsNotes study guides.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The great white resurfaces in this gripping, comic book-style retelling. Comic-strip veterans Schwartz and Giordano condense Melville's leviathan tale into an action-packed, 48-page adventure. Despite forgoing Melville's "Call me Ishmael" first-person narrative and sensory details, this retelling closely adheres to the original plot, including some pivotal scenes absent from Allan Drummond's spare but entertaining 1997 Moby Dick. The dense story clips along, thanks to concise but appealingly hammy storytelling and melodramatic drawings, plus multiple panels that quicken the pace. When Ishmael meets Queequeg, for instance, the author squeezes out every drop of suspense: "There in the dimly lit room looms the forbidding image of Queequeg... harpoon at the ready, poised to sink its sharp head into his shaking body!!" Giordano ratchets up the tension with a series of close-ups of Ishmael's terrified face as he awakens to the "savage" in his rented room. The brooding, dark-toned panels exude imminent danger-an ideal milieu for Captain Ahab's doomed voyage. The book also provides a brief biography of Melville, as well as facts about whaling and New Bedford, Mass., the city that commissioned this retelling in celebration of the 150th anniversary (in 2001) of Moby Dick's original publication. Ages 8-up. (Oct.)
Stuart C. Sherman
A great American addition with features more diverse than those in any previous editions of Melville's classic.
—Stuart C. Sherman, Fine Print
From Barnes & Noble
A rich, complex, highly symbolic narrative that explores the deepest reaches of our moral and metaphysical dilemma through the extraordinary tale of Captain Ahab's insane quest for the great white whale. One of America's greatest novels.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780764586644
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/20/2000
  • Series: Cliffs Notes Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 144
  • Sales rank: 1,300,635
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.34 (d)

Meet the Author

STANLEY P. BALDWIN received his M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky. He is a writer and teacher living in Nebraska.

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Read an Excerpt

Call me Ishmael. This resonant opening of Moby-Dick, the greatest novel in American literature, announces the narrator, Herman Melville, as he with a measure of slyness thought of himself. In the Scriptures Ishmael, a wild man sired by the overwhelming patriarch Abraham, was nevertheless the bastard son of a serving girl Hagar. The author himself was the offspring of two distinguished American families, the Melvilles of Boston and the Gansevoorts of Albany.

Melville's father cast something of a blight on the family escutcheon by his tendency to bankruptcy which passed down to his son. Dollars damn me, the son was to say over and over. When he sat down in the green landscape of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to compose Moby-Dick he was in debt, the father of one son, and another to be born a few days after the publication of the novel in England.

Melville had published five novels previous to Moby-Dick; the first two did well, and then with the capriciousness of the public the subsequent novels failed to please. He was a known literary figure with a fading reputation. How he came upon the courage to undertake the challenging creation of the epical battle between a sea creature, a white whale called Moby Dick, and an old captain from Nantucket by the name of Ahab is one of literature's triumphant mysteries. Add to that, as one reads, that he was only thirty-two years old.

Ten years before, in 1841, he had signed up as a common seaman on the whaling vessel Acushnet bound for the South Seas. Young Ishmael was drawn by the lure of the sea and by the wonder of the whale itself, the Leviathan, the monarch of the deep, "one grand hooded phantom, like asnow hill in the air." Until the discovery of petroleum oil in 1859 and Thomas Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp in 1879, whaling was a major commercial occupation in New England. Fortunes were made, grand houses were built, often with a "widow's walk" on the roof that testified to the great dangers of the enterprise. For the crew, service on a whaler was a drastic life of unremitting labor; foul, crowded quarters; bad food in scanty servings; contractual terms for years at miserable wages; brutalized companions picked up from all the ports of the world; tyrannical captains practicing a "sultanism" which Melville abhorred. A ship afloat is after all a prison. Melville was on three whalers in his four years at sea and from each, as we read in Typee and Omoo, the struggle is to escape, as he did when the boats anchored near exotic islands. He wrote about the misery of the whaling life, but not about whaling itself until he came to Moby-Dick. His imaginary whaler, the Pequod, death bound as it is, would be called, for an ordinary seaman, an agreeable berth. Ahab has no interest left beyond his internal struggle with one whale.

Still, there is whaling, the presumption of it. When a whale is sighted small boats are detached from the main vessel and the men engage in a deadly battle to try to match, with flying harpoons, the whale's immense strength and desperation. If the great thing is captured, the deck of the main ship becomes an abattoir of blood and guts. The thick blubber is to be stripped, the huge head to be drained of its oils for soothing ambergris, for candles; the bones of the carcass make their way into corsets and umbrellas and scrimshaw trinkets. Moby-Dick is a history of cetology, an encylopedic telling of the qualities of the fin-back, the right whale, the hyena whale, the sperm whale, the killer whale, classified by size in mock academic form as folio, octavo, and so on.

Information about a vanished world is one thing, but, above all else, this astonishing book is a human tragedy of almost supernatural suspensiveness, written in a rushing flow of imaginative language, poetical intensity, metaphor and adjective of consuming beauty. It begins on the cobbled streets of New Bedford, where Ishmael is to spend a few days before boarding the Pequod in Nantucket. The opening pages have a boyish charm as he is brought to share a bed with a fellow sailor, the harpooner Queequeg, an outrageously tattoed "primitive" who will be his companion throughout the narrative. Great ships under sail gave the old ports a rich heritage of myth, gossip, exaggeration, and rhetorical flights. Ishmael, on a Sunday, visits a whaleman's chapel to hear the incomparable sermon by Father Mapple on Jonah and the whale, a majestic interlude, one of many in this torrential outburst of fictional genius.

As Ishmael and Queequeg proceed to Nantucket, the shadows of the plot begin to fall upon the pages. The recruits are interviewed by two retired sailors who will struggle to express the complicated nature of Captain Ahab. We learn that he has lost a leg, chewed off by a whale, and thus the fated voyage of the Pequod begins. Ahab has lost his leg to a white whale Moby Dick and is consumed with a passion for retribution. He will hunt the singular whale as a private destiny in the manner of ancient kings in a legendary world. However, Ahab is real and in command. The chief mate, Starbuck, understands the folly of the quest, the danger of it, and, as a thoughtful man longing to return to his wife and children, he will speak again and again the language of reason. "Vengeance on a dumb beast that simply smote thee from the blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

The necessity of Starbuck's human distance from the implacable imperative of Ahab's quest illustrates the brilliant formation of this harrowing tale. But it is Ahab's story, his destiny, and, if on the one hand, he is a shabby, sea-worn sailor long mesmerized by mercurial oceans, he too has a wife at home and a child of his old age. We learn, as the story proceeds, that on a time ashore after his terrible wounding, he had fallen and by way of his whalebone leg been unmanned. He has suffered an incapacity not to be peacefully borne by one who in forty years had spent only three on land. Ahab knows the wild unsuitability of his nature, his remove from the common life.
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Table of Contents

Life and Background of the Author.

Introduction to the Novel.

Critical Commentaries.

Chapters 1-2.

Chapter 3.

Chapters 4-7.

Chapters 8-9.

Chapters 10-12.

Chapters 13-15.

Chapter 16.

Chapters 17-20.

Chapters 21-23.

Chapters 24-25.

Chapters 26-27.

Chapter 28.

Chapters 29-31.

Chapters 32-35.

Chapter 36.

Chapters 37-40.

Chapters 41-42.

Chapters 43-45.

Chapters 46-49.

Chapters 50-51.

Chapters 52-54.

Chapters 55-60.

Chapters 61-66.

Chapters 67-70.

Chapter 71.

Chapters 72-73.

Chapters 74-80.

Chapter 81.

Chapters 82-86.

Chapters 87-90.

Chapters 91-92.

Chapter 93.

Chapters 94-98.

Chapters 99-100.

Chapters 101-105.

Chapters 106-108.

Chapter 109.

Chapter 110.

Chapters 111-114.

Chapter 115.

Chapters 116-119.

Chapters 120-124.

Chapters 125-127.

Chapter 128.

Chapters 129-132.

Chapters 133-135.

Epilogue.

Character Analyses.

Critical Essays.

CliffsNotes Review.

CliffsNotes Resource Center.

Index.

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First Chapter

Chapter I: Loomings

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs -- commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme down-town is the Battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? -- are wedded for ever.

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies -- what is the one charm wanting? -- Water -- there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus , who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick -- grow quarrelsome -- don't sleep of nights -- do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing -- no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever to go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as cook, -- though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board -- yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls -- though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids.

N o, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal masthead. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honor, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tarpot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to, weighed, I mean, in the scale of the New Testament? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who aint a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about -- however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way -- either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid, -- what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way -- he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I t ake it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:

Grand Contested Election for the
Presidency of the United States.

WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL.
BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.

Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces -- though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it -- would they let me -- since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was we lcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Copyright © 1999 by Simon & Schuster Inc.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2012

    Great supplemental book for reading "Moby Dick"

    I bought this to help with a class at Cal. It arrived quickly and has proved very valuable.

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