A whale of a book.
Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: you've probably heard of it as a huge, long, difficult novel about hunting an insanely bloodthirsty whale. Well, we at Shmoop are here to show you that it's also an insanely bloodthirsty novel about hunting a huge, long, difficult whale. And, bonus: it's also a deep meditation on God, death, money, revenge, madness, and religion—with lots of stylish, Tarantino-esque violence to boot.
This is a not-huge, not-long, not-difficult fifteen-lesson course, so we're trimming out all the blubber from the book, and giving you everything you need to get through Moby-Dick, real quick. Once you've set sail with us, we're pretty sure you'll be every bit as obsessed with Moby-Dick as Captain Ahab is with, uh, Moby Dick.
The reading, activities, and whale-watching moments in this course will help you
- understand how a book about a whaling voyage is also secretly a book about money, death, destiny, slavery, Christianity, and literature.
- get what's going on with all the weird digressions, obscure references, and ultra-violent scenes, and how they make Moby-Dick different from almost every other novel out there.
- tease out some of the novel's crazy weird whaling symbolism.
- get into the heads of the crew members of the Pequod, the strangest set of sailors this side of Jack Sparrow.
Unit 1. Moby-Dick
Everyone has their own personal white whale. Captain Ahab's happens to be an actual white whale, but ours is a big ol' novel. In this 15-lesson unit, we'll tackle one of the heftiest American stories ever written.
Sample Lesson - Introduction
Lesson 2: Losing His Religion
We hate/love to break it to you: Moby-Dick is about a lot more than whaling.
One of Melville's biggest obsessions is religion—specifically, the strict form of Calvinist Christianity in which he was raised. And the dude was intensely conflicted about it.
His friend Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote about Melville: "He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other" (source). After finishing Moby-Dick, Melville—using a Biblical allusion, wrote to Hawthorne: "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb" (source).
Basically, Melville can't just believe or disbelieve in religion—so with Moby-Dick, he obsessively investigates both possibilities to the fullest.
But that doesn't mean it's just a book of heresy. Actually, it shows respect for different religious traditions, and it also shows a deep understanding of the religious tradition that it's dealing with.
Mostly, it pokes fun at religious extremism, which was a pretty dominant attitude back in puritanical New England. At one point, Ishmael says:
I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also. (82)
So while you're reading, start to focus on how the book reflects Ishmael's (and Melville's) attitude on religion.
And boy, do we mean attitude.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.2a: Chapters 2-4
Reading Chapters 2-4.
Ishmael's made up his mind to hit the waves, and now he's getting ready. Make sure you read all of the footnotes in the text whenever they appear; most of them point out the places where Melville's making a religious reference.
See what we mean? On page 24 alone, there are five separate references, and some of them are pretty obscure (Euroclydon, anybody?). And beyond that, religious elements appear pretty much everywhere Ishmael turns:
- Ishmael accidentally walks into a "negro church" when he's looking for a place to stay (26).
- The first two inns he finds are called "The Crossed Harpoons" and "Sword-Fish Inn"; both of them take religious symbols (crosses, fish) and make them nautical.
- The Spouter-Inn is run by Peter Coffin. Ishmael remarks how "ominous" but common his last name is, but so is his first name: Peter is one of Jesus's apostles, after all. (Lots of less common names in Moby-Dick are pulled straight from the Bible, too: Ishmael, Ahab, Elijah, and the Rachel, Jeroboam, and Jungfrau. As with Ishmael's name, the Biblical connection usually relates directly to what the character or ship is like.)
- The painting in The Spouter-Inn features a whale "in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads" (26). Remember what a mast looks like? This is a crucifixion image, plain and simple.
- The leviathan is a fancy word for "whale" that comes from the Bible, which uses it to refer to any kind of scary sea monster. (And also the Devil, at one point!)
So yeah—a lot of religious stuff is packed in there. For now, all you have to do is notice it, but as we'll see, it's a deep part of the novel's meaning.
(Oh, yeah—one important thing that happens in these chapters is that he shares a room with a harpooneer named Queequeg, but we're going to save that for next lesson.)
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 1.2b: Chapters 8-9
Read Chapters 8 and 9.
The major event in this part is a sermon that takes up most of Chapter 9, given by a preacher named Father Mapple; Mapple's sermon ends up being an action-packed retelling of the Biblical Book of Jonah.
What happens in the Book of Jonah, you ask? Well, a guy named Jonah goes out to sea in order to escape punishment from God, but it doesn't go so well; the ship gets hit by a storm, he tells everyone to abandon ship, and then he gets swallowed by a whale. In the whale's belly, he repents, God has mercy, and the whale spits him back out, alive.
Now, the important thing here isn't just that Melville's making more Bible references; it's that he's taking Bible references and combining them with nautical symbols, like "The Crossed Harpoons" and "Sword-Fish Inn" did in Chapter 4.
Just to name a few:
- Father Mapple used to be a sailor and harpooner (46).
- The pulpit has a ladder like the one used to mount a ship (46).
- The pulpit itself looks like "a ship's bluff bows" and is compared to the "prow" of the world (47).
- The Bible is compared to "a ship's fiddle-headed beak" (47).
- The church has a huge painting of a ship being overseen by an angel (47).
- Ishmael says Mapple seems to be "kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea" (48).
- Mapple calls the churchgoers "Shipmates" (49) and uses other seafaring slang.
- The whole Book of Jonah is basically retold as a seafaring adventure.
Again and again, Melville connects Biblical symbolism to the symbolism of the sea: the church is a boat, the preacher is a captain, the pulpit is a prow, the Bible is the beak, and so on. You could say that that's Melville's way of honoring the Bible...or you could say that he's sort of competing with it.
And, as it turns out, both things are true. Which is crazy and audacious, but that's Moby-Dick for you.
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 1.2a: Hunting the Symbol Part 1
Moby-Dick is a book about hunting an elusive white whale, so we figured we'd have you hunt something, too: a symbol.
In this lesson, you'll begin a three-part assignment that we'll revisit throughout this course. We'll start off quick and easy. First, pick any symbol from this list of symbols:
- Oil / spermaceti
- Coffins / graves / tombs / containers
- Harpoons / spears / darts / needles / nails / piercing
- Marriage / spouses
- Cannibals / meat-eating
- Killing / murder / death
- Life / resurrection / return
- Ropes / lines
- Ships / boats
- Candles / fires / lights / the sun
- Heads / faces / skulls
- Crosses / crossed things / masts
- Whiteness / darkness / shadows
- Maps / marks / visual art / tattoos
Now, for all the chapters you've read so far, we want you to track your symbol. Here's what we mean by "tracking" your symbol:
- Whenever it appears, underline it. We're not just talking about the specific words—any kind of synonym or related term will do. So, for example, if you pick the symbol "Money," don't just underline the word "money"; you should also underline words like "cash," "coin," "spend," "buy," "profit," "doubloon," and so on. Anything that relates to money, underline it.
- If it appears near another symbol on the list, then make a note of that. You can write in the margin, or in a notebook along with page number, or with those little colorful Post-It tape flags—whatever works for you.
Think of it as a big game of bingo. You'll likely be amazed at how many times all these things pop up and the ways that they relate to each other.
That's all you have to do for this activity, but you'll need to keep tracking your symbol from now until the end of the unit. We're watching...
Sample Lesson - Activity
Quiz 1.2b: Symbolz
- Course Length: 3 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12, College
- Course Type: Short Course
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.1