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Moby-Dick is a classic novel published in 1851 by American author Herman Melville. Originally misunderstood by contemporary audiences and critics , Moby-Dick is now often referred to as The Great American Novel and is considered one of the treasures of world literature. The story tells the adventures of the wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod, commanded by Captain Ahab. Ishmael soon learns that Ahab seeks one specific whale, Moby Dick, a white sperm whale of tremendous size and ferocity. Comparatively few whaleships know of Moby Dick, and fewer yet have encountered him. In a previous encounter, the whale destroyed Ahab's boat and bit off his leg. Ahab intends to take revenge.

In Moby-Dick, Melville employs stylized language, symbolism, and metaphor to explore numerous complex themes. Through the main character's journey, the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of gods are all examined as Ishmael speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. The narrator's reflections, along with his descriptions of a sailor's life aboard a whaling ship, are woven into the narrative along with Shakespearean literary devices such as stage directions, extended soliloquies and asides.

Often considered the embodiment of American Romanticism, Moby-Dick was first published by Richard Bentley in London on October 18, 1851 in an expurgated three-volume edition titled The Whale, and weeks later as a single volume, by New York City publisher Harper and Brothers as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale on November 14, 1851. The first line of Chapter One—"Call me Ishmael."—is one of the most famous opening lines in American literature. Although the book initially received mixed reviews, Moby-Dick is now considered one of the greatest novels in the English language and has secured Melville's place among America's greatest writers.

Background

Moby-Dick appeared in 1851, during an important period in American literature. The year before, Melville's good friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne published his bestseller The Scarlet Letter. The year after, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, which would become the second best-selling book in America in the 19th century after the Bible. Two actual events inspired Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucketmarker whaleship Essexmarker, which foundered in 1820 after it was rammed by a large sperm whale 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Already out-of-print, the book was rare even at the time. Knowing that Melville was looking for it, his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.

The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, who was usually encountered in the waters off the Chileanmarker island of Mochamarker. Riddled with dozens of harpoons from his numerous escapes from whalers, Mocha Dick often attacked ships with premeditated ferocity. One of his battles with a whaler served as subject for an article by explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker, New York Monthly Magazine. Melville was familiar with the article, which described "an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength... [that] was white as wool". Significantly, Reynolds writes a first-person narration that serves as a frame for the story of a whaling captain he meets. The captain resembles Ahab and suggests a possible symbolism for whales in that, when his crew first encounters Mocha Dick and cowers from him, the captain rallies them thus: "'Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil],' said I, 'this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale.'"

Mocha Dick had over 100 battles with whalers. First noted (because of his color, and later for his wounds) in 1810, he battled them on a regular basis until the late 1830s. He was described as being giant (even for a whale). He was covered in barnacles. Mocha Dick may not have been the only white whale in the sea. A Swedish whaleship claimed to have taken a very old white whale in 1859; a retired Nantucket whaleship claimed to have harpooned a white whale in 1902. Nor was he the only whale to attack his hunters. Periodic attacks on whaleboats were recorded until they were replaced by the harpoon gun. In 1850, the bark Parker Cook was rammed in mid-Atlantic; the crew killed and harvested the whale, but had to put into port for repairs. Later that same year, the Pocahontas was almost sunk in the same area. In 1851, not long after publication of the novel, the Ann Alexander was destroyed by a sperm whale near where the Essex was sunk, but the crew were picked up the next day. In 1820 the Essex was alone in mid-Pacific, but by 1851 the area "virtually swarmed with whalers". Other whalers disappeared at sea, perhaps sunk by their prey. Other reported rammings by whales were a ship in 1640 {damaged}; the "Harmony" in 1796 {sunk}; the Union in 1807 {sunk}; the "Waterloo" in 1855 {sunk}; the "Herald of the Morning" in 1859 {damaged}; the "Forest Oak" in 1865 {damaged}; the "Watanga" {damaged—later sank in 1873}; the "Eastern City" {ran into a whale} in 1869 and the Kathleen in 1902.

The most important inspiration for the novel was Melville's experiences as a sailor, in particular those during 1841-1842 on the whaleship Acushnet. He had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in previous novels—Mardi the closest to Moby-Dick in its symbolic or allegorical aspirations—but he had never focused specifically on whaling. Melville had read Chase's account before sailing on the Acushnet in 1841; he was excited about sighting Captain Chase himself, who had returned to sea. During a midocean "gam" (rendezvous) he met Chase's son William, who loaned him his father's book.

Moby-Dick contains large sections — most of them narrated by Ishmael — that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot but describe aspects of the whaling business. Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it. Since Romantics such as Sir Walter Scott, Washington Irving, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley had greatly influenced him from an early age, he hoped to emulate them with a book that was compelling and vivid both emotionally and poetically. Early Romantics also proposed that fiction was the exemplary way to describe and record history (after all, Walter Scott had invented the historical novel, and almost all of Irving's work had the trappings of history), so Melville wanted to craft something educational and definitive. However, despite his own interest in the subject, Melville claimed to struggle with it, writing to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. on May 1, 1850:

Themes

Moby-Dick is a symbolic work, but also includes chapters on natural history. Major themes include obsession, religion, idealism versus pragmatism, revenge, racism, sanity, hierarchical relationships, and politics. All of the members of the crew have biblical-sounding, improbable, or descriptive names, and the narrator deliberately avoids specifying the exact time of the events (such as the giant fish disappearing into the dark abyss of the ocean) and some other similar details. These together suggest that the narrator — and not just Melville — is deliberately casting his tale in an epic and allegorical mode.

The white whale has also been seen as a symbol for many things, including nature and those elements of life that are out of human control.Ch 42 The character Gabriel, "in his gibbering insanity, pronounc[ed] the White Whale to be no less a being than the Shaker God incarnated; the Shakers receiving the Bible.". Melville mentions the Matsya Avatar of Lord Vishnu, the first among ten incarnations when Vishnu appears as a giant fish on Earth and saves creation from the flood of destruction. Melville mentions this while discussing the spiritual and mystical aspects of the sailing profession and he calls Lord Vishnu as the first among whales and the God of whalers.

The Pequod's quest to hunt down Moby Dick itself is also widely viewed as allegorical. To Ahab, killing the whale becomes the ultimate goal in his life, and this observation can also be expanded allegorically so that the whale represents everyone's goals. Furthermore, his vengeance against the whale is analogous to man's struggle against fate. The only escape from Ahab's vision is seen through the Pequod's occasional encounters, called gams, with other ships. Readers could consider what exactly Ahab will do if he, in fact, succeeds in his quest: having accomplished his ultimate goal, what else is there left for him to do? Similarly, Melville may be implying that people in general need something to reach for in life, or that such a goal can destroy one if allowed to overtake all other concerns. Some such things are hinted at early on in the book, when the main character, Ishmael, is sharing a cold bed with his newfound friend, Queequeg:

... truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

Moby-Dick, Ch. 11[3002]


Ahab's pipe is widely looked upon as the riddance of happiness in Ahab's life. By throwing the pipe overboard, Ahab signifies that he no longer can enjoy simple pleasures in life; instead, he dedicates his entire life to the pursuit of his obsession, the killing of the white whale, Moby Dick. A number of biblical themes can also be found in the novel. The book contains multiple implicit and explicit allusions to the story of Jonah, in addition to the use of certain biblical names (see below).

Ishmael's musings also allude to themes common among the American Transcendentalists and parallel certain themes in European Romanticism and the philosophy of Hegel. In the poetry of Whitman and the prose writings of Emerson and Thoreau, a ship at sea is sometimes a metaphor for the soul.

Plot

"Call me Ishmael," Moby-Dick begins, in one of the most recognizable opening lines in American, or indeed English-language, literature. The narrator, an observant young man setting out from Manhattanmarker, has experience in the merchant marine but has recently decided his next voyage will be on a whaling ship. On a cold, gloomy night in December, he arrives at the Spouter-Inn in New Bedford, Massachusettsmarker, and agrees to share a bed with a then-absent stranger. When his bunk mate, a heavily tattooed Polynesian harpooner named Queequeg, returns very late and discovers Ishmael beneath his covers, both men are alarmed, but the two quickly become close friends and decide to sail together from Nantucket, Massachusettsmarker on a whaling voyage.

In Nantucket, the pair signs on with the Pequod, a whaling ship that is soon to leave port. The ship’s captain, Ahab, is nowhere to be seen; nevertheless, they are told of him – a "grand, ungodly, godlike man," according to one of the owners, who has "been in colleges as well as 'mong the cannibals." The two friends encounter a mysterious man named Elijah on the dock after they sign their papers and he hints at troubles to come with Ahab. The mystery grows on Christmas morning when Ishmael spots dark figures in the mist, apparently boarding the Pequod shortly before it sets sail that day.

The ship’s officers direct the early voyage while Ahab stays in his cabin. The chief mate is Starbuck, a serious, sincere Quaker and fine leader; second mate is Stubb, happy-go-lucky and cheerful and always smoking his pipe; the third mate is Flask, short and stout but thoroughly reliable. Each mate is responsible for a whaling boat, and each whaling boat of the Pequod has its own pagan harpooneer assigned to it. Some time after sailing, Ahab finally appears on the quarter-deck one morning, an imposing, frightening figure whose haunted visage sends shivers over the narrator. (A white scar, reportedly from a thunderbolt, runs down his face and it is hinted that it continues the length of his body.) One of his legs is missing from the knee down and has been replaced by a prosthesis fashioned from a sperm whale's jawbone.

Soon gathering the crewmen together, with a rousing speech Ahab secures their support for his single, secret purpose for this voyage: hunting down and killing Moby Dick, an old, very large sperm whale, with a snow-white hump and mottled skin, that crippled Ahab on his last whaling voyage. Only Starbuck shows any sign of resistance to the charismatic but monomaniacal captain. The first mate argues repeatedly that the ship’s purpose should be to hunt whales for their oil, with luck returning home profitably, safely, and quickly, but not to seek out and kill Moby Dick in particular – and especially not for revenge. Eventually even Starbuck acquiesces to Ahab's will, though harboring misgivings.

The mystery of the dark figures seen before the Pequod set sail is explained during the voyage's first lowering for whales. Ahab has secretly brought along his own boat crew, including a mysterious harpooneer named Fedallah, an inscrutable figure with a sinister influence over Ahab. Later, while watching one night over a captured whale carcass, Fedallah darkly prophecies to Ahab hints regarding their twin deaths.

The novel describes numerous "gams," social meetings of two ships on the open sea. Crews normally visit each other during a gam, captains on one vessel and chief mates on the other. Mail may be exchanged and the men talk of whale sightings or other news. For Ahab, however, there is but one relevant question to ask of another ship: “Hast seen the White Whale?” After meeting several other whaling ships, which have their own peculiar stories, the Pequod enters the Pacific Ocean. Queequeg becomes deathly ill and requests that a coffin be built for him by the ship’s carpenter. Just as everyone has given up hope, Queequeg changes his mind, deciding to live after all, and recovers quickly. His coffin becomes his sea chest, and is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod's life buoy.

Soon word is heard from other whalers of Moby Dick. The jolly Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby has lost an arm to the whale, and is stunned at Ahab's burning need for revenge. Next they meet the Rachel, which has seen Moby Dick very recently. As a result of the encounter, one of its boats is missing; the captain’s youngest son had been aboard. The Rachel's captain begs Ahab to aid in the search for the missing boat, but Ahab is resolute. The Pequod’s captain is very near the White Whale now and will not stop to help. Finally the Delight is met, even as its captain buries a sailor who had been killed by Moby Dick. Starbuck begs Ahab one final time to reconsider his thirst for vengeance, but to no avail.

The next day, the Pequod meets Moby Dick. For two days, the Pequod's crew pursues the whale, which wreaks widespread destruction, including the disappearance of Fedallah. On the third day, Moby Dick kills Ahab and sinks the Pequod, dragging almost all the crew to their watery deaths. Only Ishmael survives, clinging to Queequeg’s coffin-turned-life buoy for an entire day and night before the Rachel rescues him.

Characters

The crew-members of the Pequod are carefully drawn stylizations of human types and habits; critics have often described the crew as a "self-enclosed universe".

Ishmael

The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts — in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, Ishmael tells the reader that he has turned to the sea out of a feeling of alienation from human society. In the last line of the book, Ishmael also refers to himself symbolically as an orphan. Ishmael has a rich literary background (he has previously been a schoolteacher), which he brings to bear on his shipmates and events that occur while at sea.

Elijah

The character Elijah (named for the Biblical prophet, Elijah, who is also referred to in the King James Bible as Elias), on learning that Ishmael and Queequeg have signed onto Ahab's ship, asks, "Anything down there about your souls?" When Ishmael reacts with surprise, Elijah continues:

"Oh, perhaps you hav'n't got any," he said quickly. "No matter though, I know many chaps that hav'n't got any — good luck to 'em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul's a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon."[3003]


Later in the conversation, Elijah adds:

"Well, well, what's signed, is signed; and what's to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it wont be, after all. Any how, it's all fixed and arranged a'ready; and some sailors or other must go with him, I suppose; as well these as any other men, God pity 'em! Morning to ye, shipmates, morning; the ineffable heavens bless ye; I'm sorry I stopped ye."[3004]


Ahab

Ahab is the tyrannical captain of the Pequod who is driven by a monomaniacal desire to kill Moby Dick, the whale that maimed him on the previous whaling voyage. Despite the fact that he's a Quaker, he seeks revenge in defiance of his religion's well-known pacifism. Ahab's name comes directly from the Bible (see 1 Kings 16:28).

Little information is provided about Ahab's life prior to meeting Moby Dick, although it is known that he was orphaned at a young age. When discussing the purpose of his quest with Starbuck, it is revealed that he first began whaling at eighteen and has continued in the trade for forty years, having spent less than three on land. He also mentions his "girl-wife," whom he married late in life, and their young son, but does not give their names.

In Ishmael's first encounter with Ahab's name, he responds "When that wicked king was slain, the dogs, did they not lick his blood?" (Moby-Dick, Chapter 16).

Ahab ultimately dooms the crew of the Pequod (save for Ishmael) to death by his obsession with Moby Dick. During the final chase, Ahab hurls his final harpoon while yelling his now-famous revenge line:

... to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.


The harpoon becomes lodged in Moby Dick's flesh and Ahab, caught around the neck by a loop in his own harpoon's rope and unable to free himself, is dragged into the cold oblivion of the sea with the injured whale. The mechanics of Ahab's death are richly symbolic. He is literally killed by his own harpoon, and symbolically killed by his own obsession with revenge. The whale eventually destroys the whaleboats and crew, and sinks the Pequod.

Ahab has the qualities of a tragic hero — a great heart and a fatal flaw — and his deeply philosophical ruminations are expressed in language that is not only deliberately lofty and Shakespearian, but also so heavily iambic as often to read like Shakespeare's own pentameters.

Ahab's motivation for hunting Moby Dick is perhaps best summed up in the following passage:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; -- Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.


Mates

The three mates of the Pequod are all from New Englandmarker.

Starbuck

Starbuck, the young first mate of the Pequod, is a thoughtful and intellectual Quaker from Nantucketmarker.

Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance... [H]is far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend[ed] to bend him ... from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. "I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.

Moby-Dick, Ch. 26


Little is said about Starbuck's early life, except that he is married with a son. Unlike Ahab's wife, who remains nameless, Starbuck gives his wife's name as Mary. Such is his desire to return to them, that when nearly reaching the last leg of their quest for Moby Dick, he considers arresting or even killing Ahab with a loaded musket, one of several which is kept by Ahab (in a previous chapter Ahab threatens Starbuck with one when Starbuck disobeys him, despite Starbuck's being in the right) and turning the ship back, straight for home.

Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal, which lacks reason. Starbuck advocates continuing the more mundane pursuit of whales for their oil. But he lacks the support of the crew in his opposition to Ahab, and is unable to persuade them to turn back. Despite his misgivings, he feels himself bound by his obligations to obey the captain.

Starbuck was an important Quaker family name on Nantucket Islandmarker, and there were several actual whalemen of this period named "Starbuck," as evidenced by the name of Starbuck Islandmarker in the South Pacific whaling grounds. The multinational coffee chain Starbucks was named after Starbuck, not for any affinity for coffee but after the name Pequod was rejected by one of the co-founders.

Stubb

Stubb, the second mate of the Pequod, is from Cape Codmarker, and always seems to have a pipe in his mouth and a smile on his face. "Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whaleboat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests." (Moby-Dick, Ch. 27) Although he is not an educated man, Stubb is remarkably articulate, and during whale hunts keeps up an imaginative patter reminiscent of that of some characters in Shakespeare. Scholarly portrayals range from that of an optimistic simpleton to a paragon of lived philosophic wisdom.

Flask

Flask is the third mate of the Pequod. He is from Martha's Vineyardmarker.

King Post is his nickname because he is a short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered.

Moby-Dick, Ch. 27


Harpooneers

The harpooneers of the Pequod are all non-Christians from various parts of the world. Each serves on a mate's boat.

Queequeg

Queequeg hails from the fictional island of Kokovoko in the South Seas, inhabited by a cannibal tribe, and is the son of the chief of his tribe. Since leaving the island, he has become extremely skilled with the harpoon. He befriends Ishmael very early in the novel, when they meet in New Bedfordmarker, Massachusettsmarker before leaving for Nantucketmarker. He is described as existing in a state between civilized and savage. For example, Ishmael recounts with amusement how Queequeg feels it necessary to hide himself when pulling on his boots, noting that if he were a savage he wouldn't consider boots necessary, but if he were completely civilized he would realize there was no need to be modest when pulling on his boots.

Queequeg is the harpooneer on Starbuck's boat, where Ishmael is also an oarsman. Queequeg is best friends with Ishmael in the story. He is prominent early in the novel, but later fades in significance, as does Ishmael.

Tashtego

Tashtego is described as a Native American harpooneer. The personification of the hunter, he turns from hunting land animals to hunting whales. Tashtego is the harpooneer on Stubb's boat.

Next was Tashtego, an unmixed Indian from Gay Head, the most westerly promontory of Martha’s Vineyard, where there still exists the last remnant of a village of red men, which has long supplied the neighboring island of Nantucket with many of her most daring harpooneers. In the fishery, they usually go by the generic name of Gay-Headers.

Moby-Dick, Ch.27


Daggoo

Daggoo is a gigantic African harpooneer from a coastal village with a noble bearing and grace. He is the harpooneer on Flask's boat.

Fedallah

Fedallah is the harpooneer on Ahab's boat. He is of Indian Zoroastrian ("Parsi") descent. Because of descriptions of him having lived in China, he might have been among the great wave of Parsi traders who made their way to Hong Kong and the Far East from India during the mid-19th century. At the time when the Pequod sets sail, Fedallah is hidden on board, and he emerges with Ahab's boat's crew later on, to the surprise of the crew. Fedallah is referred to in the text as Ahab's "Dark Shadow." Ishmael calls him a "fire worshipper" and the crew speculates that he is a devil in man's disguise. He is the source of a variety of prophecies regarding Ahab and his hunt for Moby Dick.

Tall and smart, with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips. A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head.

Moby-Dick, Ch.48


Other notable characters

Pip (nicknamed "Pippin," but "Pip" for short) is a black boy from Tolland Countymarker, Connecticutmarker who is "the most insignificant of the Pequod's crew". Because he is physically slight, he is made a ship-keeper, (a sailor who stays in the Pequod while its whaleboats go out). Ishmael contrasts him with the "dull and torpid in his intellects" — and paler and much older — steward Dough-Boy, describing Pip as "over tender-hearted" but "at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe". Ishmael goes so far as to chastise the reader: "Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king's cabinets."

The after-oarsman on Stubb's boat is injured, however, so Pip is temporarily reassigned to Stubb's whaleboat crew. The first time out, Pip jumps from the boat, causing Stubb and Tashtego to lose their already-harpooned whale. Tashtego and the rest of the crew are furious; Stubb chides him "officially" and "unofficially", even raising the specter of slavery: "a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip, in Alabama". The next time a whale is sighted, Pip again jumps overboard and is left stranded in the "awful lonesomeness" of the sea while Stubb's and the others' boats are dragged along by their harpooned whales. By the time he is rescued, he has become (at least to the other sailors) "an idiot", "mad". Ishmael, however, thought Pip had a mystical experience: "So man's insanity is heaven's sense." Pip and his experience are crucial because they serve as adumbration, in Ishmael's words "providing the sometimes madly merry and predestinated craft with a living and ever accompanying prophecy of whatever shattered sequel might prove her own." Pip's madness is full of poetry and eloquence; he is reminiscent of Tom in King Lear. Ahab later sympathizes with Pip and takes the young boy under his wing.

Dough-boy is the pale, nervous steward of the ship. The Cook (Fleece), Blacksmith (Perth) and Carpenter of the ship are each highlighted in at least one chapter near the end of the book. Fleece, a very old African-American with bad knees, is presented in the chapter "Stubb Kills a Whale" at some length in a dialogue where Stubb good-humoredly takes him to task over how to prepare a variety of dishes from the whale's carcass.

The crew as a whole is exceedingly international, having constituents from both the United States and the world. Chapter 40, "Midnight, Forecastle," highlights, in its stage-play manner (in Shakespearean style), the striking variety in the sailors' origins. A partial list of the speakers includes sailors from the Isle of Manmarker, France, Icelandmarker, Hollandmarker, the Azores, Sicily and Maltamarker, China, Denmark, Portugal, India, England, Spain, Chilemarker and Ireland.

Critical reception

Melville's expectations

In a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne written within days of Moby-Dick's American publication, Melville made a number of revealing comments:

... for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is Jove appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of his great allegory—the world? Then we pigmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity.


A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your understanding the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable sociabilities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome's Pantheon. It is a strange feeling—no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content—that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.


Contemporary

Moby-Dick received decidedly mixed reviews from critics at the time it was published. Since the book first appeared in England, the American literary establishment took note of what the English critics said, especially when these critics were attached to the more prestigious journals. Although many critics praised it for its unique style, interesting characters and poetic language, others agreed with a critic for the highly regarded London Athenaeum, who described it as: "[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed."

One problem was that publisher Peter Bentley botched the English edition, most significantly in omitting the (somewhat perfunctory) epilogue. For this reason, many of the critics faulted the book on what little they could grasp of it, namely on purely formal grounds, e.g., how the tale could have been told if no one survived to tell it. The generally bad reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish about picking up the tome. Still, a handful of American critics saw much more in it than most of their U.S. and English colleagues. Hawthorne said of the book: "What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones". Perhaps the most perceptive review came from the pen of Evert Augustus Duyckinck, a friend of Melville who was able to introduce Melville to Hawthorne.

Underground

Within a year after Melville's death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York's literary underground seemed to take much interest, just enough to keep Melville's name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be fairly easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.

Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. The stage was set for Melville to find his place.

The Melville Revival

With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Not only did many of Melville's techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends. His new readers also found in him an almost too-profound exploration of violence, hunger for power, and quixotic goals. Although many critics of this time still considered Moby-Dick extremely difficult to come to grips with, they largely saw this lack of easy understanding as an asset rather than a liability.

In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville's value.

In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans' attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps most surprising is that Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the original English edition.

In his 1921 study, The American Novel, Carl Van Doren returns to Melville with much more depth. Here he calls Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.

Post-revival

The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Published in 1941, the book proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted (and mostly pre-Civil War) literature important for its promulgation of democracy and the exploration of its possibilities, successes, and failures. Since Matthiessen's book came out shortly before the entry of the U.S. into World War II, the end of which found the U.S. in possession of the atomic bomb and thus a superpower, critic Nick Selby argues that
Moby-Dick was now read as a text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world.


On October 9, 2008, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill naming Moby-Dick Massachusetts' official “epic novel.”

Adaptations

See also



Notes

References

  • Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, ed. (2002). Moby Dick / Herman Melville. Norton Critical Edition. ISBN 0-393-97283-6


Editions

  • Melville, H. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851.
  • Melville, H., Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. xxiii, 635 pages. Published probably on November 14, 1851.
  • Melville, H. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Northwestern–Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville 6. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern U. Press, 1988. A scholarly edition with full textual apparatus. This text has been reprinted in other editions.
  • Melville, H., Moby Dick; or The Whale. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1981. A reduced version of the Arion Press Edition with 100 illustrations by Barry Moser.
  • Melville, H., Moby-Dick The Folio Society 2009. A Limited Edition with 281 illustrations by Rockwell Kent.


External links








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