“A man thinks that by mouthing hard words he understands hard things.” – Herman Melville (August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891)
Today is the birthday of Herman Melville, author of Billy Bud, “Bartebly the Scrivener,” and Moby-Dick—considered by many, such as William Faulkner, to be the greatest American novel.
The Literature Criticism Series has had numerous entries on Melville and his many works. Below is a sample from the Moby-Dick entry in Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism: Volume 304.
American novelist, novella and short-story writer, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick (1851). For additional information about Moby-Dick, see NCLC, Volumes 12 and 181; for additional information about Melville, see NCLC, Volume 3; for additional information about the novella Billy Budd, see NCLC, Volumes 29 and 234; for additional information about the novel Typee, see NCLC, Volume 45; for additional information about the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” see NCLC, Volumes 49 and 193; for additional information about the novel Pierre, see NCLC, Volume 91; for additional information about the short story “Benito Cereno,” see NCLC, Volume 93; for additional information about the novel Redburn, see NCLC, Volume 123; for additional information about the novel The Confidence-Man, see NCLC, Volume 157; for additional information about the novel White-Jacket, see NCLC, Volume 221; for additional information about the novel Omoo, see NCLC, Volume 277.
When first published, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1819-1891) received a certain amount of critical approval, a good deal of critical condemnation, and very little attention from the reading public. Its daring mixture of multiple forms and genres, psychologically complex characters, and powerful, archetypal themes left nineteenth-century audiences generally at a loss. In the 1920s, however, sophisticated readers and critics began to recognize Moby-Dick as a masterwork of American literature. The external action of the novel follows Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge after having lost his leg and his boat in an attempt to kill the titular white whale. This simple plot unfolds chronologically, but the narrative is continually expanded and enriched by a memorable cast of characters and by thematic excursions that range from the science and sociology of whaling to the mysteries of existence. Ahab’s obsession with his quest to find the white whale and the resulting tragic consequences are described mainly from the perspective of the detached, meditative observer Ishmael, whose organizing consciousness unifies the novel’s many events and
Almost every detail of Moby-Dick bears some symbolic import, and its multilayered narrative reflects the long sweep of the Western literary tradition, from Homer and the Bible to William Shakespeare and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. This textual depth has attracted extensive critical attention, marked by diverse and sometimes conflicting interpretive approaches. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement regarding Melville’s virtuosic use of language, the compelling multidimensional approach to his narrative strategy, and the intricacy of his thematic constructions. Part epic adventure story, part tragic drama, and part meditation on the human condition, Moby-Dick is among the most ambitious, and ambiguous, Western literary works ever written.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
From its iconic first line—“Call me Ishmael”—to its apocalyptic conclusion, Moby-Dick is a novel of epic scope, comprising 135 chapters, two prologs and an epilog, dozens of characters, and a voyage that half circles the world. It is essentially the story of a disaster at sea, in which the captain and crew of the Nantucket whaling ship Pequod are killed while attempting to kill a preternaturally large whale. Ishmael, the only survivor of the incident, tells the story in retrospect, beginning at a point in his own life when he is figuratively adrift. He decides to take a job on a whaling vessel, strikes up a friendship with the imposing harpooner Queequeg, and joins the crew of the Pequod. After the voyage is well underway, the ship’s mysterious captain, Ahab, reveals his secret purpose: he means to find and kill the great sperm whale Moby Dick, who has taken the lives of several whalers and, on one occasion, severely injured Ahab himself. The captain now wears a prosthetic leg made of whalebone—and nurses a deep vengeance. Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, raises objections, to no avail. The Pequod meets up with other whaling ships to which Moby Dick has brought injury and death, but their captains regard the whale merely as a wild creature, and they have no desire for revenge. Ahab, however, sees a malevolent spirit in the great whale, and he cannot rest while Moby Dick lives. Ill omens accompany the Pequod. The cabin-boy Pip goes mad after falling overboard. Queequeg becomes so ill that a coffin is made for him; he recovers, however, and the coffin is turned into a life buoy. At last, Moby Dick is sighted, and during a three-day battle, the creature damages two of the Pequod’s whaling boats and finally rams the ship itself. From the third boat, Ahab harpoons Moby Dick but becomes entangled in the line and is dragged to his death by the diving whale. As the Pequod sinks, the remaining crew members all drown—except for Ishmael, who saves himself by clinging to the life buoy made from Queequeg’s coffin. Now literally adrift, Ishmael survives in the ocean for more than a day before being rescued. In a brief epilog, he recounts his rescue but does not reveal whether Moby Dick survived or perished.
Ahab and Ishmael, the novel’s main characters, are opposites both in character and in function. The young, restless Ishmael has no particular goal, while the experienced, bitter Ahab is consumed by a single purpose. As a mere oarsman, Ishmael plays a minor role in the events of the story and has almost no power, while Ahab compels the action and controls the crew. Unlike the obsessive, intense Ahab, Ishmael is reflective in temperament, driven by intellectual curiosity. Yet the two men also share important traits: both are named for characters from the Old Testament and both describe themselves as orphans. These explicit parallels suggest that Ishmael and Ahab may embody different aspects of the human experience—one comic, one tragic. Like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey (c. eighth to seventh centuries BC), Ishmael survives; like Achilles in the Iliad (c. eighth to seventh centuries BC), Ahab is doomed by his own wrath. Through the tension of their differences and the resonance of their similarities, Ishmael and Ahab form a dyad that dominates the novel. At the same time, they are enmeshed in the larger society formed by the Pequod’s crew and the extended whaling community. The crew is subdivided into three groups, each assigned to a boat used in the actual process of capturing whales and each with its own mate or leader. The three mates—conscientious, practical Starbuck, good-humored Stubb, and quick-tempered Flask—shape the social dynamics of the ship and represent fundamental personality types. Other subsidiary characters, including a South Sea islander, a Native American, and an African American, reflect the racial complexity of the rapidly expanding United States and also give the novel a universal quality.