Study Guide

Moby-Dick Literature and Writing

By Herman Melville

Literature and Writing

(Click the themes infographic to download.)

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.

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