Study Guide

Moby-Dick Introduction

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Moby-Dick Introduction


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.

Done? Good.

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!)

(Click the character infographic to download.)

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.

(Click the map infographic to download.)

What is Moby-Dick About and 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.

Moby-Dick Resources

Movie or TV Productions

Moby Dick – 1998 TV Miniseries
This relatively recent big-budget TV production, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab, received a whole slew of awards and award nominations, including a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor (for Gregory Peck, who plays Father Mapple in this version, after playing Ahab in the 1956 film version).

Moby Dick – 1956 Film
Adapted by Ray Bradbury (author of Fahrenheit 451) and starring Gregory Peck (he was Brad Pitt for your grandparents) as Captain Ahab, this has become the classic film adaptation of Moby Dick. Caution: the special effects, like the rest of the film, are from 1956.

Moby Dick – 1978 One-Man Stage Adaptation
In this filmed stage version of Moby Dick, a single actor, Jack Aranson, plays all the major characters and brings Melville’s text to life. Useful if you really want to focus on hearing the language of the novel, or if you’re an acting buff.

Moby Dick – 1930 Film
We only mention this one to warn you to stay away from it. There’s no Ishmael, Father Mapple has a daughter, Captain Ahab has a brother, and Ahab is lovesick for Miss Mapple. In fact, it’s not even based on Melville’s novel, but on a 1926 silent film titled The Sea Beast. (Check out the link if you don’t believe us.) Leave this one in the vault.

Moby Dick: The True Story – 2002 Documentary
This one’s exactly what it sounds like – a recent documentary about the actual whaling adventure that inspired the core plot of Melville’s novel.


Free Audiobook of Moby-Dick at Librivox
Stewart Wills reads the complete text of Moby-Dick, including the two prefaces "Etymology" and "Extracts." A terrific study aid or a way to kick-start your reading of the novel if you’re having trouble getting into it. You can stream it or download it onto your MP3 player.

"Moby-Dick: Into the Wonder-World, Audaciously"
In this review for NPR’s All Things Considered on June 13, 2007, Prof. Rebecca Stott describes why she fell in love with Moby-Dick – and the lessons modern readers can take from the novel. (You can read or listen to her commentary.)


Moby Dick Classic Film Poster (1956)
Vintage poster from the classic film version of the novel, starring Gregory Peck.

Sperm Whale Painting "Scarred Giant" by Chris Harman
This photograph-like painting, titled "Scarred Giant," by artist Chris Harman shows a detailed underwater view of a sperm whale.

19th-Century Engraving Based on Garneray’s Paintings of Whales
Remember how, in Chapter 56 ("Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes"), Melville/Ishmael says that the only really good pictures of whales are French engravings based on paintings by "Garnery" (he means Ambroise Louis Garneray)? Well, here are a few of those paintings on a website devoted to images relevant to studying Melville’s work.

Another 19th-Century Engraving Based on Garneray’s Paintings of Whales
Identified as "Usual Whaling Scene: Colored – modern."


E-Text of Moby-Dick from the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library
Includes the "Etymology" and "Extracts" prefaces as well as other dedicatory information; well-formatted and user-friendly. Definitely the best free online e-text of Moby-Dick we’ve seen.

The Book of Jonah
Full text of the Biblical Book of Jonah in the King James Version, from the Internet Sacred Text Archive. Jonah is a very short book and important background for Moby-Dick, especially the sermon in Chapter 9.

Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation
This site rocks; it provides full Moby-Dick text and has lots of awesome tools and resources.


Sperm Whale Fact Sheet
The American Cetacean Society gives information about sperm whale biology and whale hunt history. This site is particularly useful if you’re interested in knowing how accurate (or inaccurate) Melville can be about cetology.

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