Study Guide

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville in Narrative Theory

Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

Even if you've never read this novel, chances are you're familiar with its plot. It starts out in first-person mode as its narrator introduces himself as a sailor called Ishmael. Ishmael is looking to get a post on a whaling vessel, and after spending some time hanging out with the right crowd, he secures a position on the Pequod: a fearsome-looking ship whose captain, Ahab, lost one of his legs in a battle with a whale, the one and only Moby Dick.

When Ahab finally appears, it's clear that he's geared up not just for a standard whaling mission but specifically to seek out Moby Dick at any cost. So begins an epic voyage, with Ishmael describing day-to-day life with his fellow crewmen, the details of whaling, and the seemingly fateful—and, for all but Ishmael, fatal—showdown with Ahab's archenemy.

Though Ishmael starts off as our narrator, the narration in this novel is pretty varied: there are some chapters in which Ishmael uses second-person narration or retreats into the shadows. Additionally, we switch between chapters that focus on the action and those that go into the details of whaling and have a more academic, scientific vibe that sets the novel apart from a standard adventure. Some chapters even take the form of a play: instead of description, these chapters are made up of back-and-forth dialogue between crewmembers, or else they're presented as soliloquies.

These scenes are fitting, given that Ishmael compares the story to a drama; plus, they give us a direct window on the characters' dialogue and thoughts. Ahab's soliloquies, in particular, bring to mind Elizabethan tragedy, flagging up the novel's thematic and emotional stakes.

This mix of narrative styles may seem like a mishmash, but it adds variety and helps with the novel's pacing. Given that the story is set at sea, there's something fitting about the narrative having this rhythm (you know, like the waves). These choices also relate to what Melville wants to convey or bring into focus—what's right for one chapter may not right for another.

This mixed narration reflects Ishmael's character, too. When it comes to the history of whaling, for instance, he's devoted to the facts and clearly knows what he's talking about. However, he has a poetic streak: even when he's discussing whaling, he sometimes puts a romantic spin on it and shows an interest in mythology. Let's take a look at one of these passages.