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Moby-Dick

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.

Course Breakdown

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).

When you get to the top, try not to look down.
(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.