Moby-Dick: or, The Whale

Overview

Over a century and a half after its publication, Moby-Dick still stands as an indisputable literary classic. It is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with several of the most unforgettable and enduring characters in literature. ...

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Overview

Over a century and a half after its publication, Moby-Dick still stands as an indisputable literary classic. It is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopedia of whaling lore and legend, Moby-Dick is a haunting, mesmerizing, and important social commentary populated with several of the most unforgettable and enduring characters in literature. Written with wonderfully redemptive humor, Moby-Dick is a profound and timeless inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

@greatwhitetale Call me Ishmael. You could call me something else if you want, but since that’s my name, it would make sense to call me Ishmael.

Captain obsessed with finding a whale called Moby Dick. Sounds like the meanest VD ever, if you ask me. Sorry. Old joke. Couldn’t resist.

From Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less

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Editorial Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780142437247
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/17/2002
  • Series: Penguin Classics Series
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 720
  • Sales rank: 231,011
  • Product dimensions: 7.76 (w) x 7.14 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York City, the son of a merchant. Only twelve when his father died bankrupt, young Herman tried work as a bank clerk, as a cabin boy on a trip to Liverpool, and as an elementary schoolteacher, before shipping in January 1841 on the whaler Acushnet, bound for the Pacific. Deserting ship the following year in the Marquesas, he made his way to Tahiti and Honolulu, returning as an ordinary seaman on the frigate United States to Boston, where he was discharged in October 1844. Books based on these adventures won him immediate success. By 1850 he was married, had acquired a farm near Pittsfield, Massachussetts (where he was the impetuous friend and neighbor of Nathaniel Hawthorne), and was hard at work on his masterpiece Moby-Dick. Literary success soon faded; his complexity increasingly alienated readers. After a visit to the Holy Land in January 1857, he turned from writing prose fiction to poetry. In 1863, during the Civil War, he moved back to New York City, where from 1866 to1885 he was a deputy inspector in the Custom House, and where, on September 28, 1891, he died. A draft of a final prose work, Billy Budd, Sailor, was left unfinished and uncollated; packed tidily away by his widow, it was not rediscovered and published until 1924.

Andrew Delbanco was born in 1952. Educated at Harvard, he has lectured extensively throughout the United States and abroad. In 2001, Time named him “America's Best Social Critic” and in 2011 he was awarded a National Humanities Medal. Two of his previous works, The Puritan Ordeal and Melville: His World and Work  received the Lionel Trilling Book Award at Columbia University, where he is Director of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

Tom Quirk is Catherine Paine Middlebush Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the editor of the Penguin Classics editions of Mark Twain’s Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches (1994) and Ambrose Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Other Stories (2000) and co-editor of The Portable American Realism Reader (1997). His recent books include Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination (2001) and Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007).

Coralie Bickford-Smith is an award-winning designer at Penguin Books (U.K.), where she has created several highly acclaimed series designs. She studied typography at Reading University and lives in London.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      August 1, 1819
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Death:
      September 28, 1891
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Attended the Albany Academy in Albany, New York, until age 15

Read an Excerpt

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.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text

Etymology
Extracts

Moby Dick

Loomings
The Carpet Bag
The Spouter-Inn
The Counterpane
Breakfast
The Street
The Chapel
The Pulpit
The Sermon
A Bosom Friend
Nightgown
Biographical
Wheelbarrow
Nantucket
Chowder
The Ship
The Ramadan
His Mark
The Prophet
All Astir
Going Aboard
Merry Christmas
The Lee Shore
The Advocate
Postscript
Knights and Squires
Knights and Squires
Ahab
Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb
The Pipe
Queen Mab
Cetology
The Specksynder
The Cabin Table
The Mast-Head
The Quarter-Deck • Ahab and all
Sunset
Dusk
First Night-Watch
Forecastle—-Midnight
Moby Dick
The Whiteness of the Whale
Hark!
The Chart
The Affidavit
Surmises
The Mat-Maker
The First Lowering
The Hyena
Ahab's Boat and Crew—-Fedallah
The Spirit-Spout
The Pequod meets the Albatross
The Gam
The Town Ho's Story
Monstrous Pictures of Whales
Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales
Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, &c.
Brit
Squid
The Line
Stubb kills a Whale
The Dart
The Crotch
Stubb's Supper
The Whale as a Dish
The Shark Massacre
Cutting In
The Blanket
The Funeral
The Sphynx
The Pequod meets the Jeroboam • Her Story
The Monkey-rope
Stubb & Flask kill a Right Whale
The Sperm Whale's Head
The Right Whale's Head
The Battering-Ram
The Great Heidelburgh Tun
Cistern and Buckets
The Prairie
The Nut
The Pequod meets the Virgin
The Honor and Glory of Whaling
Jonah Historically Regarded
Pitchpoling
The Fountain
The Tail
The Grand Armada
Schools & Schoolmasters
Fast Fish and Loose Fish
Heads or Tails
The Pequod meets the Rose Bud
Ambergris
The Castaway
A Squeeze of the Hand
The Cassock
The Try-Works
The Lamp
Stowing Down & Clearing Up
The Doubloon
The Pequod meets the Samuel Enderby of London
The Decanter
A Bower in the Arsacides
Measurement of the Whale's Skeleton
The Fossil Whale
Does the Whale Diminish?
Ahab's Leg
The Carpenter
The Deck • Ahab and the Carpenter
The Cabin • Ahab and Starbuck
Queequeg in his Coffin
The Pacific
The Blacksmith
The Forge
The Gilder
The Pequod meets the Bachelor
The Dying Whale
The Whale-Watch
The Quadrant
The Candles
The Deck
Midnight, on the Forecastle
Midnight, Aloft
The Musket
The Needle
The Log and Line
The Life-Buoy
Ahab and the Carpenter
The Pequod meets the Rachel
The Cabin •Ahab and Pip
The Hat
The Pequod meets the Delight
The Symphony
The Chase • First Day
The Chase • Second Day
The Chase • Third Day
Epilogue

List of Textual Emendations
Explanatory Notes
Glossary of Nautical Terms
Maps and Illustrations

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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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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Its reputation invariably preceding it, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is a novel like no other. Whether readers expect a subtle work of art, a rollicking adventure story, or a ponderous, inaccessible book, they come to this novel with a sense that the experience of reading it will be memorable. The story Melville tells is powerful and tragic—a whaling ship captain, obsessed with the animal that maimed him, pursues it to the point of destroying himself and his crew, except for Ishmael, the novel's narrator. But the plot of Moby-Dick is little more than a variation on those used by countless authors both before and after Melville. It is the way Melville tells the story that makes the novel incomparable. In fact, how a story is told and, more generally, how we interpret our experiences become as much the subject of the novel as Ahab's hunt for the white whale. As relentlessly as Ahab chases Moby Dick, so Melville questions the nature of the interaction between the mind and the external world.

Although their dramatic roles in the novel are very different, both Ishmael and Ahab are central to Melville's elaboration of this theme. As the novel unfolds, Ishmael's asides, which together form an investigation into the origins of meaning, share the stage with the story of the hunt for the whale. Is meaning inherent in the world, or is it imposed? Ishmael would like to believe that the world speaks to us, however incapable we may be of understanding it—"some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher" (p. 470). But he cannot extinguish his doubts, and he is even less sure of his or anyone's capacity to adequately represent the world and one's experience of it to others. When Ishmael meditates on the connotations of whiteness in "The Whiteness of the Whale," he is not merely probing the depths of a particular subject; he is also engaging in a philosophical exercise. Whiteness becomes one among an infinite number of things to interpret. As with other subjects into which the narrative digresses, the whale's whiteness intrigues Ishmael because it simultaneously suggests contradictory meanings as well as the possibility of meaning nothing at all.

Ishmael concludes "The Whiteness of the Whale" by telling us that "of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol" (p. 212). But what do "these things" amount to? It would seem that, for Ishmael, whiteness represents above all his own inescapable uncertainties. How are we then to read the question that follows, ending the chapter: "Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?" (p. 212) Does Ishmael believe that, with this analysis of whiteness and its potential meanings, he has explained the allure of Moby Dick? Is it not, after all, Ahab's more active, antagonistic obsession with the meaning of things, rather than Ishmael's, that is manifested in the hunt? Ishmael asserts that Ahab "piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down" (p. 200). An important difference between Ishmael's and Ahab's searches for meaning is that, for Ahab, its elusiveness is not simply troubling but a source of torment; bottomless mystery is simply unacceptable. The loss of his leg can be considered merely a physical instance of the malevolence Ahab senses in the world's inscrutability. In one of the novel's most resonant metaphors, Ahab compares the visible world to "pasteboard masks," beneath which lies, perhaps, an ultimate truth—"If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough" (p. 178). Ahab believes that knowledge of Moby Dick, only achievable through literal confrontation, would give him access to a reality beyond human comprehension. Yet he may find nothing there but a void.

Ishmael approaches the possibilities for knowledge more contemplatively. In lamenting the failure of visual artists to accurately represent the whale, Ishmael concludes that, because of its features and habitat, "there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like" (p. 289). To get close enough to the whale, "you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him" (p. 289). Is Ishmael suggesting that Ahab's desire for some kind of ultimate truth carries with it the risk of death? The novel's conclusion seems to support this idea. Perhaps Ishmael survives because, although he is just as attuned as Ahab to the elusiveness of truth, his inability to grasp it has not turned into self-consuming madness. At the same time, the novel complicates any simple distinction between Ahab and Ishmael (and, by implication, Ahab and the reader). Late in the novel, the carpenter attaches a vise to Ahab's leg in the process of repairing his broken peg leg, prompting Ahab to say, "I like to feel something in this slippery world that can hold, man" (p. 512). In his need to apprehend truth in some form that is independent of the ever shifting perspective of the individual, how different is Ahab from Ishmael?

The novel poses the same problem for the reader that the white whale does for Ishmael and Ahab: both resist all-encompassing, conclusive characterizations. Moby-Dick is so capacious and multifaceted that broad statements about its meaning seem at best tentative, at worst absurdly reductive. At the conclusion of "Cetology," Ishmael reminds us that his effort to relate everything known about whales remains unfinished; he then goes so far as to say that the "whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught" (p. 157). Melville's readers are well served by thinking the same of their own interpretations.

ABOUT HERMAN MELVILLE

Herman Melville is now considered one of America's greatest writers, but his life contained only a few short years of literary fame and fortune, preceded and followed by struggle and despair. He was born in 1819 in New York City to a family whose ancestors included Dutch and Scottish settlers of New York and leaders of the American Revolution. But the collapse of the family import business in 1830 and the death of Melville's father in 1832 left the family in financial ruin. Melville held various jobs before sailing on a whaler to the South Seas in 1841, a voyage that became the subject of his first novel, Typee (1846). With the exception of Mardi(1849), a more experimental work, Melville's next three novels—Omoo (1847), Redburn (1849), and White-Jacket (1850)—solidified his reputation as a bankable writer of entertaining sea adventures.

Melville married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847. In 1850, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was then living near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Melville bought a nearby farm, and Hawthorne became a close friend as well as a strong influence. Deeply affected by Hawthorne and his reading of William Shakespeare, Melville wrote Moby-Dick, his greatest novel, in a blaze of creative energy, publishing it in late 1851. It was a commercial and critical failure. Wounded but undeterred, Melville immediately began writing Pierre, a more personal and obscure novel whose reception was even more dismal when it appeared in 1852. Though he continued to write and publish fiction for five more years, including his best short stories ("Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Benito Cereno") and The Confidence-Man (1857)—an intricate satire about commerce and corruption—his reputation diminished steadily until his work was revived by scholars in the 1920s.

He turned to writing verse in the late 1850s and privately published his first book of poems in 1866, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, which was largely concerned with the Civil War. A few months later, he became a customs inspector on the docks of New York City, which gave him a measure of financial security for the next nineteen years. He continued to write, producing two more volumes of poetry and Billy Budd, Sailor, an unfinished novella posthumously published in 1924. He also endured immense family strife and tragedy, including the deaths of two sons. His death on September 28, 1891, prompted little notice.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Why does the novel's narrator begin his story with "Call me Ishmael"? (p. 3)
     
  • How does Ishmael's relationship to Queequeg change from the time they meet to the sailing of the Pequod?
     
  • Why does Melville include stage directions in some chapters (e.g., "The Quarter-Deck")?
     
  • Why does Ahab pursue Moby Dick so single-mindedly?
     
  • Why does Melville have Fedallah offer a prophesy that Ahab interprets in his favor, but which turns out otherwise? (p. 541-542)
     
  • Why does Starbuck decide against killing Ahab, despite believing that it is the only way to "survive to hug his wife and child again"? (p. 559) Why does Starbuck fail to convince Ahab to give up his pursuit of Moby Dick ("The Symphony")?
     
  • Why does Ahab offer the doubloon to the first member of the crew to spot Moby Dick?
     
  • Why does Ishmael digress from his story to meditate on the meaning of whiteness ("The Whiteness of the Whale")?
     
  • Why does Melville begin the novel by adhering to the conventions and limitations of a first-person narrator, but violate them later?
     
  • Why is Ishmael so concerned with past efforts to represent whales, in writing as well as other media, and the extent to which these efforts have succeeded or failed?
     
  • Why does Ishmael include in his story so many details about life and work aboard a whaling ship?
     
  • Does the novel support or undermine Ishmael's contention that "some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth"? (p. 470)
     
  • Why does the coffin prepared for Queequeg become Ishmael's life buoy once the Pequod sinks?
     
  • Who or what is primarily responsible for the destruction of the Pequod and, except for Ishmael, her crew?
     
  • Why does the Rachel rescue Ishmael?
     
  • How has his experience aboard the Pequod affected Ishmael?
  • For Further Reflection
  1. On what basis should we determine the point at which ambition turns into obsession?
     
  2. Is knowledge always at least partly harmful, either in its application or the cost of acquiring it?
     

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature" (in Nature and Selected Essays) (1836)
This essay on the relationship between the individual consciousness and the material world deeply influenced the group of American writers who came to be known as the transcendentalists.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust Part I (1808)
The tension between driving ambition and the terrible costs it can exact is given extraordinary expression in this epic poem.

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
In this dense, intricate, encyclopedic novel, the fate of a young American soldier during World War II seems to be entwined with Germany's development of a ballistic missile.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 38 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2000

    A whale of a bore!

    'Call me Tomás. Some days ago -never mind how long precisely- having little or no schoolwork to do, and nothing particular to interest me on TV, I thought I would read a little and see the literary part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.' The novel I am currently reviewing starts in quite a similar fashion as this, and while this may be the only interesting part of my review, in the same manner the start of Moby-Dick is the only part of the book that enjoys the very desirable of characteristic of not putting you to sleep. Granted. Melville writes well. The elaborate construction of his sentences and the use of figurative language are excellent. No question about that. Admitted. Moby-Dick has to be the most detailed account ever, and the situations in it are narrated quite vividly. I do not argue it. But, oh, fair reader, for crying out loud! This has to be the most dreadfully boring book ever written. Honestly, do you care THAT MUCH about whales and whaling, so as to read hundreds of pages on every single aspect of them. For, it is quite necessary to make that clear, only a small portion of Moby-Dick is a real novel, that is, a fictional narration. The rest is a bunch of essays on everything that you always wanted to know about whaling. Well written, yes, but absolutely painful! What kind of a person has the patience to endure all that! I mean, the book does start in quite an interesting fashion, but after a while... 'the length of that particular bone of a whale ranges between' 'the best way of tying the knot on such and such part of a whaling boat' 'so-and-so's picture of a whale was inaccurate because'...And he went on and on and on, forever! OK, whales are big, whales are formidable. I don't care! Get on with the story, please. How I managed to get to the end of it, I don't know. Of course, Moby-Dick has to be one of the most anti-ecological books ever written and Melville commits the huge biological blunder of considering whales to be fish, but I will not make any complaints in that sense, considering the time at which the book was written. But, seriously, I don't remember ever reading a book as boring as this one, and am quite astonished at the fact that there are people who honestly say they like it. Well, the fact that the book is so techically well written is the only reason I am not giving it just one star.

    8 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2004

    Terribly overrated

    This is literally the most boring book I have read in my life. The writer goes on for entire chapters describing things like the colour green, and spewing similar drivel. Do not read this book unless you are some academic madman bent on sadism.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2002

    Requiem for Great Works of American Lit

    As a fine purveyor of Victorian and neo-classical texts of American literature over the last four years of high school and some semesters of college, it is evidence from Melville's philosophical commentary and theological references for which makes his characters existential nothingness and Solopism much more facscinating. As a matter of fact, I did not read Moby Dick just because some educator told me it was a requesitional reading for all Seniors; alternatively, I did by subjective choice and infatuation with the principles of existentialism and psychology. Moby Dick is a commensurate text for those who are wanting to become heard core insomniacs or for those people who just cannot resist the temptation of introspective reading. I myself periodically, have stayed up reading it until the early hours of the morning(with no puns intended). However, for those of you who don't like have to spend multitudes of hours reading, I would recommend not reading it.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2014

    When Will B&N Learn?

    At Amazon, you have to have purchased a product before you can review it. Look at these 'reviews' and you can see that that's a good idea.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 22, 2014

    ߔ

    Dun dun dun dn dun DUN...

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2014

    Kenya

    Back for a couple minutes.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    There are quite a few editions of Moby Dick being published, and I've seen most of them, but this edition is one of the best: the illustrations are simple yet beautifully arty; the typeset is kool; and it has a neat cover! Well, I dont know about most book collectors, but I judge books by their covers!

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    Excellent reading

    Should have read this years ago. The book itself was not in as good condition as stated, but still an excellent book to read.

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    One of the best American novels ever written

    Moby Dick is one of those rare novels that captures a particular historical moment while, at the same time, remaining timeless. Gripping drama, tense action, compelling characters and a setting so rarely glimpsed in history - the period in America between the Revolutionary and the Civil Wars. It was a time when America was discovering itself as the characters are discovering themselves. And it was the height of an industry of which, like slavery, we are all still a little ashamed. Whaling was a profitable, dangerous, and engaging occupation for a young man in those days. But when the Captain of your ship is obsessed with taking vengeance on his tormentor it would be an experience you could never forget. Assuming, of course, that you survived. Complicated, compelling, beautifully written, and always a classic, Moby-Dick is a must-read for any American lover of literature.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2005

    ohmygosh

    Who am I to criticize Melville? But after reading, and chuckling, over some of my peer reader's reviews, I'm compelled to balance stars. I'm neither a critic nor literary scholar. I'm just someone who loves good literature, classic or not. Granted, Moby is long and detailed, but I contend it's all necessary and part of the story's framework. The themes are skillfully packaged in abstruse metaphors. And I agree that I had to use lexical aids to get through some of the dated vernacular. I even put down my cheap paperback for a Norton critical edition, but it was worth it. The language is beautiful and artistic. Read a benign chapter to a child and watch their expressions change as their imagination takes over their visage. Moby provides insight into today's archetypes found in pop-culture's 'Spongebob' or 'Pirates of the Caribbean'. Perhaps Moby isn't for everyone. Those who aren't interested in ages long past, historically accurate depictions of bloody exploitation, or ocular criticism of social hypocrisy, should probably stick to the bestseller lists. Entertain your brain. Every chapter is a piece of Melville's puzzle. When taken holistically, it all fits. Slow your monkey mind. Mindfully read. Open your eyes. Moby is still relevant today, especially to you good folks who think you live on that fabled 'City on the Hill'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2003

    Well written but...

    The story Moby Dick was well written and I would suggest to anyone who likes long and very detailed books. If thats you then read it. You may very well enjoy it! As for myself it was too long of a book and too much detail. I was not impressed with the general idea of the story. It pretty much bored me. But don't take my word on it. If you're thinking about reading it then I encourage you to because you may like it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2003

    The Anatomy Of A Whale

    WAY to long in descriptions. If Ol Herm was alive today he'd own a whale watching business out Provincetown. Otherwise a great book. Took a long time to get through.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2003

    The Famous White Whale

    Moey Dick is a fasinating story about the famous White Whale who took the leg of a revengous captian Ahab. The captian is certain that he willl hunt down the whale and kill him as revenge. This stroy tells the tale of alife frok the eyes of school teacher who decides to go off on this adventure for fun but little does he know this fun vaction will turn into a dangerous fight over a whale.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2003

    As the first great American novel, it falls below expectations

    Okay, I realize that this is a very old book, and that the language of the book was written to speak to people of that time period, but it is way too lengthy and repetitive to be enjoyable. I can't critique the book any further beyond the segment entitled " The Whiteness of the Whale, " so I will just end my review by saying that after ten pages and countless analogies, I quite understood that the blooming whale was white! I had to take two headache pills just to get through what I read, which after the first few chapters wasn't much. Melville goes overboard with description, and it detracts greatly from your interest in the story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2002

    Hunting down 'the great American novel'

    I read this work for an upper-division survey course in American Literature. I consider myself VERY well (and widely) read in the 'classics' of the Western and Post-Colonialist world but if Melville was hunting down 'the great American novel,' I would have to say he failed, and so did the critics upon publication. In fact, Moby Dick didn't become the 'great American novel' that it is until the 1930s, sparked by scholarship. If you don't like Dickens' descriptiveness, you will HATE this book. I understood Moby Dick perfectly (in fact, wrote a really nice 'A' paper on it which was a Marxist reading of the text) but the immense detail puts Ayn Rand's thirty-page description of a train station to shame. Aside from the detail, the problem with the book is that in being such an ambitious work, it tries to do EVERYTHING--it is one part didactic, one part treatise on the whaling industry, one part American King Lear (comparing and contrasting Ahab and Lear or his daughters, Goneril and Regan, makes a FABULOUS essay topic) and one part metaphysics. So what works? Plot and characterization. What doesn't work? Pacing and structure. A LONG and TEDIOUS read but worth it in the end. Hawthorne was a much better novelist, IMHO.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2001

    A whale of a tale (lol)

    This is such a great book. Like most books you have to read a few chapters before it gets juicy. I started to read it and I was just hooked.It is filled with adventure, comedy and suspense. A really good read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2000

    Good and Bad

    I liked and disliked this book. I liked it because it was full of action and you were always wondering what would happen next. The characters were also pretty interesting. What I disliked about the book was that it was too descriptive, and it was a bit too long.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2000

    a whale of a tale

    While the frequent tangents away from the main story and into the history of whaling were distracting (for me, anyway), I still found Moby Dick a fascinating book. I especially liked the Captain's right-hand-man, Starbuck; caught between obedience to his Captain and obedience to his conscience, Starbuck shows exceptional fortitude- and character- in a difficult situation.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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