Study Guide

Moby-Dick Themes

By Herman Melville

  • Revenge

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    Hey, the phrase "white whale" entered the lexicon as "something you obsess over until it destroys you" because of Moby-Dick. This isn't just a book about revenge; it's a book that added new phrases to the revenge dictionary.

    Moby-Dick is, fundamentally, a revenge tragedy. It’s about one man’s maniacal obsession with vengeance. It’s about finding an object on which to pin all your anger and fear and rage, not only about your own suffering, but also about the suffering of all mankind.  It’s about the way that the desire for revenge can eat away at you until it becomes something inhabiting your body, something separate from your own personality.

    Questions About Revenge

    1. Why are the characters in this novel, including Ishmael, so easily caught up in Captain Ahab’s revenge quest?
    2. How does the theme of revenge intersect with the two main plot systems working in this novel—the quest and the tragedy?
    3. Is Captain Ahab’s quest for revenge on the White Whale doomed to failure from the start?
    4. What is Ahab actually taking revenge for—the loss of his leg, his suffering, his anger, something else, all of the above?
    5. How do Starbuck’s objections to Captain Ahab help us gain perspective on the revenge quest?

    Chew on This

    Ahab’s quest for revenge on the White Whale is impossible from the beginning, because it’s foolish to try and wreak vengeance on a non-sentient animal in the natural world.

    Ahab’s quest for revenge on the White Whale represents mankind’s struggle against the cruelty and arbitrariness of fate and human suffering.

  • Man and the Natural World

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    We don't even have to look at this one symbolically: this is quite literally a book about a dude who goes out into the natural world to kill animals. And by the end of Moby-Dick the score is Natural World: 1, Man: 0.

    Beyond Ahab and his whale, though, each character in the novel seems to have a slightly different way of understanding and being in the natural world. Some characters have a healthy respect for the power of Nature; others are so in awe of Nature that they feel themselves dissolving ecstatically into it; still others think of Nature as a collection of resources to be harvested and hunted for man’s profit.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Which character in Moby-Dick seems to have the healthiest relationship to the natural world? (Consider Ahab, Ishmael, the mates, and the harpooneers.)
    2. Does the author’s tone seem to endorse one perspective on Nature more than the others? If so, which one, and how can you tell?
    3. How did you react to Ishmael’s moment of pantheism, when he dissolves into the natural world around him (Chapter 35)? Is Ishmael transcendent, ridiculous, inspirational, delusional? Something else?
    4. Where does the novel find value in the natural world? Is Nature important because men hunt, fish, harvest, and otherwise make use of things they find to survive and profit? Does it have value outside of its uses for mankind?
    5. Is Nature in Moby-Dick a conscious, active power, or just a passive collection of animals and elements?
    6. Does Nature seem to have personality or force here, or is it impersonal and random?

    Chew on This

    Nature itself, personified through the white whale, is the most significant antagonist in Moby-Dick, so man’s struggle to survive in (and profit from) Nature is more intense even than crazy Ahab’s desire for vengeance.

    Moby-Dick teaches us to understand Nature as an impersonal backdrop, something that is simply a setting in which human beings act out their own neuroses.

  • Religion

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    Moby-Dick was way ahead of its time with respect to its views on religion. The novel shows equal respect for a wide variety of religious traditions and, at the same time, not-so-gently mocks the foolishness of religious extremism.

    In this novel, tribal pagans and New England Christians seem pretty similar—and frequently the pagans seem more ethical than some of the Christians around them. In contrast to both this complexly egalitarian attitude toward religiosity and the heavy satire that accompanies some of the religious commentary, the novel also uses a great deal of Biblical symbolism, especially in the names and allegorical roles of characters.

    Questions About Religion

    1. How does putting the reader in a position to sympathize with Queequeg allow Melville to create a new perspective on Christian beliefs?
    2. Why does Moby-Dick use so many Biblical references (e.g., Ishmael, Ahab, Job, and Jonah)? What effect to these allusions have on the tone of the novel?
    3. It’s interesting that all of these character names listed above are names from the Hebrew Bible, a.k.a. the Old Testament—why aren’t any of them New Testament references?
    4. How do the religious themes in Moby-Dick affect our understanding of Ahab’s desire for vengeance? (Hint: to whom does vengeance belong in the Bible? See Romans 12:19.)

    Chew on This

    Moby-Dick explodes and undercuts all types of religious faiths, showing that pragmatism, moderation, and affection are the only true moral principles—and that unhealthy obsession is the greatest sin.

    Even though Moby-Dick mocks Christian hypocrisy, its reliance on Biblical references demonstrates an underlying religious orthodoxy.

  • Race

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    The first thing the reader notices about race in Moby-Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters, which includes among its principals a South Sea Islander, a Native American, and an African tribesman. The protagonist and narrator express attitudes of racial tolerance that are surprising for a nineteenth century text. Overt racism, when it occurs, is usually condemned by the tone of the novel. Still, the racial dynamics here are far from perfect: all the non-white characters are subordinate to the whites and tend to function as caricatures of their cultures. Most importantly, there are hardly any African-American slaves or freedmen (freed slaves) in the novel at all, with one notable but relatively minor exception (Pip). Considering that Moby-Dick was published in 1851 and heavily engages race as a theme, it’s significant that Melville mostly avoids commenting on slavery, one of the most important issues of the period. (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published only months later, in 1852.)

    Questions About Race

    1. Were you surprised by the racial attitudes of Moby-Dick’s characters? Were there specific scenes when you saw characters being especially racist or broad-minded? What seemed to make them behave that way?
    2. Why are there representatives of so many different racial, national, and tribal groups aboard the Pequod? (See Chapter 40 for a great example.) Does this diversity affect how you read the book or which character(s) you identified with?
    3. Consider the way Moby-Dick presents blackness, especially with respect to the African harpooneer Daggoo and the African-American boy Pip. How does Pip, as the only major African-American character in the novel, provide a commentary on contemporary issues? (You might want to head over to Shmoop History and check out what Shmoop has to say about "Causes of the Civil War.")
    4. What difference does Fedallah’s race make to his characterization, and to the reactions of the other characters to him?

    Chew on This

    Moby-Dick presents a vision of America as a racially diverse nation that is both enriched and endangered by cultural variety.

    Although Moby-Dick works to undermine many typical nineteenth-century racial stereotypes, in the end it reinforces such stereotypes by repeatedly subordinating nonwhite characters to whites.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

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    The Pequod is the ship that launched a thousand jokes... jokes about dudes getting chummy while they're squeezing oozing gobs of spermaceti. Seriously. That happens.

    In Moby-Dick sexuality is expressed in the social and homoerotic bonds between men. Frequently, it’s difficult to say where exactly the line between friendship and romance is drawn. There are men who describe their relationships with one another as marriages, and who show so much mutual affection that people stare at them in public. Even hunting and harvesting whales even takes on homoerotic connotations—all that playing with squishy sperm oil.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Would you call Ishmael’s feelings for Queequeg friendship, romantic love, a man-crush, or some mix of all of these?
    2. At what points in the novel does Ishmael express physical or emotional admiration of Queequeg, and do these moments mean anything to the trajectory of the story? Why might Melville go to so much trouble to establish the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg right at the beginning of the book?
    3. Can we read that giant white Squid (Chapter 59) and the White Whale as sexual symbols? What might they represent?
    4. What’s with all the erotic puns on the word "sperm" in this novel? We’ve got a "sperm whale," barrels full of "sperm oil," and dozens of men with their hands in buckets of "spermaceti," squeezing.

    Chew on This

    The Pequod has the potential to become a fraternal paradise in which masculine sexual energy, symbolized by "sperm," is directed harmoniously, providing a positive foil to Captain Ahab’s desire to harness his crew for diabolical purposes.

    Moby-Dick can be read as a love story as easily as it can be read as a revenge story.

  • Literature and Writing

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    Moby-Dick is a novel that never lets you forget that you’re reading a novel or that the story you’re hearing has been filtered through the perspective of a first-person narrator. It's chock-full of tangents, interruptions, and meditations on its own characters and their dramatic potential. And it’s also a novel that surveys and reviews other literature (broadly defined) in its quest to be comprehensive in its treatment of the subject matter.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. How does Ishmael’s self-presentation as a highly educated storyteller affect the way we read Moby-Dick?
    2. Why does Ishmael, as the narrator (or Melville, as the author), include so much "background detail" about whales and whaling in the novel? Does Ishmael’s (and Melville’s) concern with establishing the basic elements of Moby-Dick as plausible convince the reader that the story could be true?
    3. Why is Moby Dick himself portrayed as covered in markings that seem like some kind of writing? Do we learn to read Moby Dick as we’re reading Moby-Dick?
    4. How does the novel play with the ideas of communication and legibility?
    5. Why is Queequeg covered in tattoos that nobody, including Queequeg himself, can read?

    Chew on This

    Moby-Dick is a novel about novels, because the White Whale itself is an allegorical representation of a book.

    By creating a slippery association between himself as a former sailor-author and Ishmael as a fictional sailor-author-narrator, Melville makes the reader conscious of the relation between the real-life author’s perspective and his narrator’s motivations.

  • Fate and Free Will

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    Some novels might be subtle about issues of fate vs. chance, but subtlety isn't really Moby-Dick's thing.

    This book thrusts questions of free will vs. determinism right into the reader’s face, starting in the very first chapter. At one point (Chapter 47, to be precise), the novel even develops a complicated metaphor that brings together fate, chance, and free will in one elaborate system. The question for the reader is whether this metaphor can take all the strain of an insane quest, a revenge tragedy, a series of strange coincidences, and heavily allegorical symbolism. When we can no longer bear the power and strangeness of fate, the novel explicitly encourages us to consider laughter our only recourse.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Do the characters in Moby-Dick have unavoidable destinies? Consider especially Ahab, Ishmael, and Starbuck.
    2. Read the first two paragraphs at the beginning of Chapter 47, "The Mat-Maker," in which Queequeg and Ishmael work together to weave a sword-mat for their boat. As Melville lays out his metaphorical interpretation of this activity, why is it so important to include all three elements: fate, free will, and chance?
    3. How does the invocation of Fate increase the tragedy of the story in Moby-Dick?
    4. Why does Ishmael alone escape the wreck of the Pequod? Is there something that marks him out as different from the rest of the crew, or is it simply blind chance?

    Chew on This

    The only choice Ishmael makes in Moby-Dick is to sign the ship’s articles of the Pequod; from that point forward, his entire adventure is the result of Ahab’s tragic destiny, and there’s nothing he can do to alter it.

    Even though the narrator continually describes the voyage of the Pequod as a journey cursed by fate, the novel also goes to great lengths to emphasize many different points at which small decisions, if made differently, could have saved the ship.

  • Madness

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    Insanity, in Moby-Dick, means having a single-minded obsession over one thing or being completely possessed by one overpowering desire... like the desire to personally destroy a perfectly nice whale. Come on, Ahab: you were trying to kill it. Of course it ate your leg.

    Functioning highly while being completely mad is certainly an option. The most insane monomaniac (person obsessed with one thing), in this case Captain Ahab, can still behave with cool rationality as he calculates his ship’s course and manages his crew—it’s only his goal that’s totally ridiculous. Other, saner characters seem helpless in the face of his driven, controlled, all-consuming obsession. Another kind of madness the novel explores is the effect of desperate depression on an otherwise normal character.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Compare and contrast Captain Ahab’s madness and Pip’s madness. The old Manx sailor describes them as "[o]ne daft with strength, the other daft with weakness" (125.29). Which is which?
    2. How do Ahab and Pip manage to communicate through their different forms of insanity?
    3. Why is Ahab so affected by Pip?
    4. Why does Melville specifically emphasize that Ahab’s madness is a form of "monomania" (obsession with a single thing)?
    5. In what respects is Ahab sane? In what respects is he insane?
    6. How does Ahab’s monomania interact with his status as a tragic hero? Does it make him more heroic or more tragic, or less of either?
    7. Would we understand Ahab’s character differently if he had had a straightforward psychotic break rather than a madness that develops slowly, over a long period of time, after his encounter with Moby Dick?

      Chew on This

      By depicting single-minded obsession as an extreme form of madness, Moby-Dick implies that sanity can only consist of moderation and the relinquishing of bad feeling.

      Pip’s madness, which he expresses in monologues of witty sound-play and metaphorical association, associates him with the tradition of the Shakespearean fool.