In A Nutshell
Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about Moby-Dick, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.
We'll wait while you panic.
You probably know Moby-Dick as a huge, long, difficult novel about hunting an insane, bloodthirsty whale. Well, we at Shmoop are here to show you that it's also an insane, bloodthirsty novel about hunting a huge, long, difficult whale. And bonus: it's also a deep meditation on God, death, money, revenge, madness, exploitation, and religion.
Oh, and there's more violence than a Quentin Tarantino movie. (Hello, cannibalism!)
Published in 1851, Moby-Dick tells the story of uber-obsessed Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on the White Whale as observed by a common seaman who identifies himself only as "Ishmael." When the novel was first published, reviewers and readers alike were, at best, puzzled by its density and, at worst, offended by its religious and sexual allusions. Translation: it bombed. It was considered an epic, Movie 43-level fail to the critics of the day.
Those critics were idiots.
Poor Melville didn't live long enough to see his name in literary lights. It wasn't until the so-called "Melville Revival" of the early twentieth century that Moby-Dick was placed on every critic’s short list of great American novels (or great novels from any country, for that matter). Even those who’ve never read a word of Moby-Dick often recognize the book’s famous first line, "Call me Ishmael," or the plot device of an insane quest for vengeance on an aspect of the natural world.
So yes, it's huge. Yes, it's intimidating. Yes, many people have attempted to pin it down and died trying. (We're talking about the book here, not the whale).
But don't fear: you're sailing on the Good Ship Shmoop, and unlike those poor fools on the Pequod, we're going to take on this massive book at breakneck speed. (Also, unlike the Pequod we're not helmed by a revenge-thirsty maniac, we're not looking to kill any marine life, and we certainly know how to analyze symbols before they bite our rowboats in two.)
So come sail away with us to hunt the only white creature scarier than a White Walker—the Original Fail Whale, the Biggest Motion in the Ocean: Moby-Dick.
Why Should I Care?
There are plenty of people—most of them wearing tweed with elbow patches, sporting a smarmy "Did you read...?" expression and maybe even drinking tea with their pinkies raised—who are more than ready to tell you why you should care about Moby-Dick.
These people will probably tell you that should read Moby-Dick because it’s a Great American Novel. Because it’s a Tremendous Achievement in Literature. Because it's Significant.
We have some bad news and some good news, Shmoopers. The bad news: these pretentious little weasels are right. The good news: Moby-Dick is hoighty-toighty and Significant...but it's also just. plain. awesome. It's a Great American Novel... but it's a hilarious (yes, really) book about a crazy man on a revenge quest. There are cannibals. There's gore aplenty. There are whale penises being made into coats.
But before you can really get into Moby-Dick, you’re going to have to shrug off some of the stuff you may have been told, or that you might have picked up from the all the rumors that are swimming around this book. Let’s do as Adam and Jamie do on Mythbusters and bust two huge myths:
Myth #1: Moby-Dick is a long, dense, tedious, boring novel.
The Truth: We won’t lie to you. This novel is long, and it can be a difficult read because the vocabulary and syntax are complicated. But it is not tedious or boring.
Pretty much every chapter contains some kind of hilarious gag, accompanied by a nudge in the ribs from Melville. One thing Moby-Dick tries to be is Shakespearean, not only in the sense of Majestic Writing, but in the sense of having a lot of sex jokes.
And when Melville’s not making raunchy jokes, he’s explaining all the ways somebody can get killed on a whaling voyage (they're all brutal), or describing all the bizarre substances you can get from different bits of the whale (remember that whale-penis coat?).
Myth #2: You should skip the "whaling chapters" that give (pointless) background detail.
The Truth: This is the silliest piece of advice of them all. Because, as you’ll see when you read our "Classic Plot Analysis" of Moby-Dick, this novel is about far more than plot.
We’ll tell you the plot right now: Captain Ahab wants revenge on the White Whale that hacked off his leg. That’s it. But that’s also like saying that the plot of Broad City is Abbie and Ilana try to make it in New York City. It’s true on a really basic level, but what’s great about Broad City is that it’s a show that shows you what happens when you try to go grocery shopping right after you've had your wisdom teeth out.
In Moby-Dick—much like in Broad City—the digressions are where the good stuff is. Moby-Dick is never more fascinating than when Ishmael is explaining what a "Gam" is or what kind of rope is best for harpoons or what somebody’s tattoos mean, because that’s when Melville spins metaphors (and cracks jokes) that are crazy good. Really. Trust us on this—you won’t regret it.