Moby Dick (1851)
Herman Melville, (born August 1, 1819, New York City—died September 28, 1891, New York City), American novelist, short-story writer, and poet, best known for his novels of the sea, including his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851).
Moby Dick Analysis
The novel is named after Moby Dick because he is the center of Ahab's obsession and a key figure in his own right. The White Whale's appearance is unique. He is an exceptionally large sperm whale with a snow-white head, wrinkled brow, crooked jaw, and an especially bushy spout. His hump is also white and shaped like a pyramid; the rest of his body is marbled with white. He has three holes in the right fluke of his tail, and he fantails oddly before he submerges.
The White Whale seems to have an almost human personality, featuring the battle savvy of a bold general. One of his favorite tricks is to seem to be fleeing from hunters but suddenly turn to attack and destroy their open boats. When engaged with the crew of the Pequod, he sounds (dives) and then reappears in their midst before they can escape or counter his attack. When they lodge harpoons in him, he uses the attaching ropes to whiplash and destroy their boats. In a final show of timely brute force, he crashes into the bow of the Pequod itself and quickly sinks her.
These are the facts. Equally important are the legends and suspicions regarding Moby Dick. He is said to be immortal and omnipresent, supposedly appearing in several locations at the same time. Most significant is what he means to Ahab. The captain sees the White Whale as a great mask, a façade behind which is some "inscrutable thing," an undefined power that Ahab resents and seeks to destroy. Each reader must confront this problem: Is Moby Dick a mask for some great force of evil? Is he a figure of nature that hides, perhaps, the face of God? Or is he just a big, clever fish that would leave men alone if they would stop bothering him? (From Cliffs Notes)
Moby Dick Discussion Questions
What is the significance of the whale? What do you think Melville intends in developing such a vicious antagonism between Ahab and the whale?
How does the presence of Queequeg, particularly his status as a "savage," inform the novel? How does Melville depict this cultural clash?
How does whaling as an industry function metaphorically throughout the novel? Where does man fit in in this scenario?
Melville explores the divide between evil and virtue, justice and vengeance throughout the novel. What, ultimately, is his conclusion? What is Ahab's?
(Questions issued by Random House.)
Why does Ahab pursue Moby Dick so single-mindedly?
Why does Starbuck decide against killing Ahab, despite believing that it is the only way to "survive to hug his wife and child again"? 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 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"?
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?
On what basis should we determine the point at which ambition turns into obsession?
(Questions issued by Penguin.)