Literary Analysis of "Moby Dick"

Categories: Moby Dick

Herman Melville is one of the most famous American novelists during the American Renaissance period. He published many works such as short poems and stories, but he is most notably renowned for his novel, Moby-Dick. This well-known novel took over a year to complete and was finally published on November 14, 1851 in the United States. The novel did not do very well at release but was later considered to be a Great American Classic. Moby Dick is a narrative story told by Ishmael, the main character, who is alongside Ahab’s quest to find and kill the notorious white whale, Moby Dick.

This novel is full of underlying themes that can teach important life lessons and can have a lasting impact on it’s readers.

The novel begins with Ishmael, the main character, traveling to New Bedford, Massachusetts with intent on signing up for a whaling expedition. Ishmael stays the night at an overcrowded inn and is roomed with a man named Queequeg.

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Queequeg is a Polynesian who is also looking for a whaling voyage to join. Both Ishmael and Queequeg agree join the Quaker owned ship, the Pequod. The captain of the ship, Captain Ahab, is introduced describing his quest for vengeance of the great white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg. He gives an incentive of a gold coin to any man onboard who spots Moby Dick. The crew of the Pequod learned quickly in the beginning of the journey that they were there for revenge more so than to harvest whale oil and make money.

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They learned this by observing his blatant hatred for one particular whale and the rage inside him that fuels the obsession for revenge. The crew is made of many men with very different racial backgrounds and cultures. This is where the journey begins and the Pequod sets sail. Time passes with mild success harvesting whales but there is no sight of the elusive Moby-Dick. Along the way, the Pequod encounters nine ships in the ocean and each time is questioned about the elusive whale. These stops provide information about the whale’s whereabouts and characteristics as well as portraying Captain Ahab’s unhealthy obsession over the animal.

Finally after receiving information on the whale’s whereabouts, Captain Ahab orders the ship and it’s crew to sail southeast. After refusing to join a search and rescue mission for the missing crew members of another boat because of Ahab’s obsession of the whale, Moby Dick is sighted by none other than the captain himself, thus claiming the coin for himself. This sighting would be the start of a three day chase. Captain Ahab orders for the chase boats to be lowered and pursue the great whale. Moby Dick fights back and bites Captain Ahab’s chase boat in half. The second day is the same result with Moby Dick attacking the boats flinging Ahab into the sea. Ahab is rescued but loses his ivory leg and close companion, Fedallah. On the final day Ahab flings a spear into the back of Moby-Dick. Moby then flips all of the chase boats and all of the crew into the ocean. The crew then board the Pequod except for Ishmael, who remains treading water. Moby then turns its attention to the Pequod and splits the ship into two. Captain Ahab has one final stab at the whale but gets caught in the rope and is dragged into the ocean and never seen again. The sinking of the Pequod creates a water vortex that pulls the ship and its crew down under the ocean. Ishmael is the lone survivor of the Pequod and floats in wait for days until he was rescued by the same boat that wanted the Pequod’s help looking for it’s crew.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contains an abundance of underlying themes throughout its entirety. One of these is the theme of race. Moby Dick is very ahead of it’s time when it comes to this topic. Herman Melville uses characters like Queequeg, who is from a Southern Sea Island, to create a diverse set of characters in the novel. Melville uses these characters to portray examples of racial tolerance. For example, Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg portrays how race does not define an individual. Ishmael upon first meeting Queequeg is “put off” by his initial appearance. Ishmael is guilty of stereotyping Queequeg at first, and this shows the general mood of race during this time. However, as the story continues, Ishmael learns that Queequeg is a very loyal and trustworthy individual. This portrays Melville’s forward thinking during a time when racial tensions were high and slavery was still present in America.

The Pequod itself can be seen as a mini-portrayal of society in the novel as well. It is an expedition with a very diverse crew with a payroll based upon skill. This means white men did not just get paid more because of the color of their skin, unlike American society at the time. In the whaling industry, people are not paid by the hour or by salary. The profit is only made upon the success of the boat in this case. This means that if the boat is unsuccessful in their whaling efforts, there is no money to be distributed. In order for success, the crew must all work together as one unit. These crewman, with very different backgrounds and races worked together and put away the societal views toward race. The Pequod also differed from other whaling vessels by tieing the crewman, who holds the harpooner from falling off the boat, to the harpooner so if that the harpooner jettisons off of the boat, the crewman will follow. The crewmen were made up of mostly white men while the harpooners were normally non-white skilled men. This meant that a white man and a non-white man worked together, side by side. This obviously was not the societal normality during a time of slavery in America. This portrayal of race was ahead of its time and showed Melville’s abolitionist-like views.

Religion has a major presence throughout Moby Dick. Ishmael’s name itself is a biblical reference. Ishmael refers to the son of Abraham, who is portrayed in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Captain Ahab is also a biblical reference of King Ahab. Before Ishmael joins the whaling voyage, he went to a hearing at a “Whaleman’s chapel.”

There he hears the religious story of Jonah and the Whale. Jonah was trying to flee God and as punishment was swallowed by a whale. Jonah, while in the stomach of the whale, then accepted his punishment and was saved by god. This serves as a direct parallel to the ending of Moby-dick and Ishmael’s telling of his own experiences being the lone survivor of the Pequod.

“The whaling voyage was welcome; 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 procession of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Melville 16). This is a direct reference to the biblical stories, Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood. Melville compares the great flood to the battle between the Pequod and Moby Dick.

Along with countless religious and biblical references is the religious tolerance exercised in Moby Dick. Even though the majority of religious references refer to Christianity and the bible, Moby Dick never specifically advocates for a certain religion. Because of the diversity of the crew on the Pequod, there is a variety of religions on board. This variety and difference in religion portrays the tolerance of the crew unlike much of society. The novel suggests that as long as faith is present then goodness can be found in any individual. This sense of tolerance is supported with the friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael is a Christian and under Christianity, Queequeg would be seen as ‘Pagan.’ This tolerance is truly shown when Ishmael says, “There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan; – but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending ” (Melville 64). This along with when Ishmael participates in one of Queequeg’s religious ceremonies, which is directly forbidden inside Christianity, shows how accepting Melville was compared to the societal norm during his lifetime.

Ishmael’s belief of tolerance on the boat is no different from his views of how society should view religion on land. “I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool” (Melville 64). This is Ishmael reflecting on how he will not judge others for their religious differences and will respect anyone who fulfills their religious duties. Along with this, when Ishmael witnessed Queequeg’s skill as a harpooner, he saw past Queequeg’s differences and judged him off of his skills. He then proceeded to explained how a man should not be judged off of his religion or race, but his qualities. This friendship allowed Ishmael to become accepting of a different set of ideas and beliefs. Herman Melville established this idea of accepting others differences right at the beginning of the novel and intended for people to take this idea of tolerance into society.

Herman Melville shows the danger of obsession with the character, Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab throughout the entire story is set on finding the notorious whale that took his leg and this quest takes over his entire life. He left his family at home in order to find and kill this whale. “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” (Melville 128). Monomaniac means a person exhibiting an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing. This is the word used to describe Captain Ahab’s obsession for the animal. Captain Ahab does not have this obsession because of his leg, but because he views this whale as everything that has gone wrong in his life. Ahab then passed this obsession onto the rest of the crew on the Pequod. Captain Ahab’s obsession eventually leads to the death of him and all of the crew excluding Ishmael. This is Herman Melville showing that this obsession is dangerous to an individual as well as those around him.

Along with the theme of obsession is the danger of revenge expressed through Captain Ahab. Ahab’s need for revenge consumes him entirely making him mad. Melville uses Ahab to depict the danger of revenge on humans and once the thoughts of revenge overtake someone, it will lead to their destruction. ”What trances of torment does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire” (Melville 140). This is Ishmael noticing how Ahab’s need to have revenge has completely and utterly taken him over.

Melville expressed many ideas and attitudes towards death in Moby Dick. “And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side” (Melville 194). This is a hint of an important theme in Moby Dick which is the ubiquitousness and incomprehensible nature of death. Ishmael is an agnostic when it comes to his views on death. This is presented when he sees a funeral service for people who died at sea. Ishmael states his ideas about how those buried on land will feel a false sense of closure, while those who were never recovered from the sea more correctly represent the mysterious and incomprehensible nature of death.

Melville portrays many differing responses to death in Moby Dick. Stubb, one of the crewman, cursed the moon, the sun, and the stars for his death. He blames theses natural forces that cannot be accurately depicted or described which is much like Ishmael’s agnostic views towards death. Starbuck, the devoted christian on the Pequod, should be accepting and ready to join god in heaven based on his faith. This is the complete opposite of Starbucks actual reaction. He is very angry with god and even doubts his faith. “Is this the end of all my bursting prayers? all my life-long fidelities?” (Melville 375). This shows that Starbuck does not accept the universality of death. Captain Ahab, who views with great hostility and as a never ending war, takes on the characteristics of nihilism with regards to death. His life has little meaning other than the inevitability of death. Moby Dick represents everything wrong and death itself to Captain Ahab. He is not scared of death which is why he longs for the fight between him and the whale. “The drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell” (Melville 317). This quote of Ishmael explains how all of the reactions to death are made irrelevant. Melville is explaining the intangible nature of death and how it is the “great leveler.”

These themes and underlying philosophies demonstrated by Herman Melville are timeless in the sense that they are still very important topics today and will continue to be in the distant future. The ideas of racial and religious tolerance expressed in Moby Dick are the same as those being pushed for in modern day society. The dangers of obsession and revenge expressed will still be prevalent in centuries from now. Death will still be incomprehensible and universal in it’s effects. Moby Dick has many valuable perspectives on topics that are relevant today.

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Literary Analysis of "Moby Dick". (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from

Literary Analysis of "Moby Dick"

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