Study Guide

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville in Hermeneutics

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

The American classic Moby-Dick features an angsty sailor named Ishmael who’s having a bad day and so decides to sets sail with a satanically blasphemous captain hell-bent on revenge against a white whale. Just a typical day in 1850’s New England, right?

And what is that infamous white whale, you might ask? Ah, that is the question. Melville plays metaphorically with his grandiose god of the sea, but as the novel is written from the perspective of so-called Ishmael, the symbolism of the whale comes to us through the eyes of this outcast character’s observations. We get everything through his lens. In hermeneutic jargon, he mediates the meaning of the whale. Even when we get the musings and pontifications of other characters, Ahab especially, we get these thoughts filtered through Ishmael’s perspective.

Yet it’s Ahab’s perspective that dominates. Ahab wins the crew to his revenge quest by creating a hermeneutic tradition centered on revenge against the whale that injured him—basically, getting everyone around him to understand the whale as he does and share in his hatred for it (because let’s be real, if they don’t, they’re likely to revolt against the crazy captain and get him tossed in the loony bin).

To this end, he uses his commanding personality, poetic condemnations of the beast, and religious-like ritual to form his crew into a community bound by their intent on violence. Spellbound by the cap’s blinding narrative, they set out on a voyage to their own ruin.