Study Guide

Moby-Dick Revenge

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(Click the themes infographic to download.)

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.

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