Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 130 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
Moby Dick is probably one of the most dreaded stories for students in high school and college classrooms, because it's known for being extremely long, elaborate and boring. What most readers, or prospective readers, don't know is that the novel has influenced many areas of current culture, including the most famous coffee chain in America. Yep, Starbucks. The Starbucks founders chose the name because of its association with the ocean. (Initially, they were going to name it after the ship in the story, the 'Pequod', but that sounded kind of gross.)
But if the pop-culture connection isn't enough to catch your interest, consider that the author Herman Melville, who is writing about a bunch of seamen searching for a gigantic sperm whale with the name 'Dick,' did not fail to notice the obvious humor in such things. And while the story is a rather serious piece about evil and revenge, it's full of vulgar sex jokes that would make even the raunchiest of readers blush. In other words, the story is entertaining on a variety of levels, and worth the read, in spite of its reputation.
There are tons of characters in the story, some having more definition than others, but for the most part, there are three we need to remember. Ishmael is our 'narrator' who is about to start out on his first whaling adventure. Captain Ahab is the captain of the ship called the Pequod. He is on a vengeful hunt for a huge white whale called Moby Dick.
And who, or what, is Moby Dick? Well, aside from being a giant white whale, about 90 feet long, he is the object in the story onto which all of the characters sort of project their own interpretations. He is the central part of the story even though he only shows up in three chapters. Three out of 135.
The 135-chapter story begins with the very famous line, 'Call me Ishmael'. Ishmael, our first-person narrator, is a former schoolteacher who decides that hunting for whales might make him feel a bit better about life. On his way to Nantucket to find a ship, he meets a rather shady-looking guy named Queequeg. Queequeg, whose tattoo-covered body is a bit off-putting, has just returned from a whaling trip and is, too, looking for another adventure.
The two men become roommates (after Ishmael gets over the guy's general appearance), and both sign up for a three-year expedition to hunt sperm whales. Yes, I said sperm...whales, and feel free to giggle about that, 'cause the crew sure does throughout the story. Together, they hunt these sperm whales on a ship called the Pequod, a foreboding title since it's named after a Native American tribe called the Pequot, all of whom were killed in the 17th century.
The other sailors on the Pequod have equally strange names: Starbuck, Stubb, and, of course, Flask. Tashtego and Daggoo are on there too as the ship's harpooners. There is a captain of the ship, but he doesn't show up for a while, so the shipmates get everything going on their own.
Since Ishmael isn't familiar with the whole sailor gig, he isn't quite sure what to make of not seeing the captain, so when Captain Ahab does show up, Ishmael is pretty pumped. Captain Ahab, it transpires, only has one leg (which has been replaced with the jaw of a giant sperm whale), and we learn that Moby Dick, a ginormous white whale, ate the other one. In turn, the whole crew, including Ishmael, swears to hunt down Moby Dick to avenge the missing leg.
Life on the Pequod doesn't immediately become adventurous. The crew is always on the lookout for Moby Dick, and they talk to crews from other ships who have news about the white whale, but in the meantime, they do some actual whale hunting. Ishmael describes in detail how the whales are butchered and harvested for their sperm oil, which is stored in large barrels on the ship.
He goes on and on about getting sticky white goo out of the head of a sperm...whale. And if you're not giggling at this point, you've missed the joke. Thankfully, Melville has not missed the joke. He makes sure to let you in on it as the crew raunchily discusses what they are doing.
But Melville doesn't just include these facts for jokes. Once we get into Ishmael's thoughts, we learn that the gooey stuff is called spermaceti, and his job is to squeeze the lumps in the sperm whale's head to get the spermaceti. In the midst of the crew's committed quest for revenge, Ishmael explains how soothing the process of obtaining the spermaceti is and that it helps him forget about the likely doomed mission. It is also during this section that Ishmael begins to appreciate the rest of the crew and bonds with them.
Weirdly though, the crew discovers that there is another crew hidden away on the Pequod. Led by a creepy, prophetic harpooner named Fedallah, their purpose is to help Ahab and the crew when they finally get their shot at Moby Dick.
The story drags on for over a year, and the ship and crew make their way from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, by way of the southern part of Africa, where Moby Dick lives. Once they arrive in the general location, a bunch of bad stuff starts happening: their navigational tools break, they meet with a typhoon, Tasheto falls into the huge head of a whale and has to be saved by Queequeg, and we learn of several other crews who have lost members to good ol' Moby Dick.
In spite of all of this, Captain Ahab is holding the crew to their commitment of vengeance. In fact, he's so dead-set on it, he actually dips his harpoon in human blood, the blood of the Pequod's three main harpooners in fact, in a sort of baptismal way, to make a weapon that will surely kill Moby Dick.
After a prophecy from Fedallah that makes Ahab believe he's safe, and several warnings from Starbuck that he is in serious danger, Ahab directs the Pequod to the equator hoping to find Moby Dick.
In the meantime, Queequeg gets sick and thinks he's going to die, so he orders a coffin to be made. Thankfully though, he recovers and suggests the crew uses the coffin as a sort of buoy. This winds up being a good thing for Ishmael.
Just when you start thinking the whale might not exist, Captain Ahab finally gets his chance at Moby Dick. After three days of sending whaling boats after the beast, only for them to be easily destroyed, the Pequod goes in after the white whale. Predictably, the ship is wrecked, but that doesn't stop Ahab. In a last effort, he throws the special, blood-soaked harpoon at Moby Dick. Instead of hitting the whale, the harpoon misses, and the rope grabs Ahab around the neck, strangling him while he drowns.
Of course, the only survivor of the wreck is Ishmael, who saved himself by hanging on to Queequeg's coffin. The 'orphaned' Ishmael is rescued by another whaling ship, the Rachel, whose captain is on a mission to find his lost son.
So, what does all this mean? Well, as a dark romantic, Melville followed the idea that because of 'original sin' (where Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge), mankind is now evil. To do this, he is using a gigantic, important symbol, something that represents another idea. The greatest thing about this symbol is that it is open to many interpretations.
Moby Dick, the whale, not the novel, is quite literally the biggest symbol in the story. The only problem with the symbol is that it's open to so many interpretations that it can be difficult to, well...interpret. When it comes down to it, you have to see what the huge white whale represented to each of the characters. For Ahab, it was the embodiment of evil. For the rest of the crew, Moby Dick is more of a God-like persona, in that he is ever present and indestructible.
Ishmael takes a different approach, and seeing that the whale is white, looks at the symbolic representations of that: purity, angels and even atheism. Since we can't have a single interpretation for this symbol, it's just good to remember that each character's explanation of the symbol is relative to who they are at their core.
The fact that Moby Dick the novel, not the whale, is considered an allegory, where each of the characters and the plot stands for something else, is also one of many different interpretations. The characters are mainly named from people in the Old Testament of the Bible. Melville does this intentionally to fuel a moral allegory. Captain Ahab's character fuels this allegory.
Like Ahab in the Bible, Captain Ahab encounters prophets who foresee his death, and he is known to be a rather wicked ruler. We can also see Captain Ahab's struggle against Moby Dick as further development of the allegory, if we look at the white whale as a God-like figure.
Additionally, Moby Dick can be read as a political allegory. Many reads of the story have connected the white whale to the 19th century American quests with the characters representing the historical figures on the journeys. Of course, all of these symbols and allegories mean we have a variety of themes we can take from this story.
Very roughly, we see the power of nature (the sea and the whale) over that of the individual (the crew members, or Ahab). But, like most dark romantic novels, we ultimately see that evil and vengeance lead to insanity and self-destruction. Even though Captain Ahab believes that it is the whale that is evil, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of others in his own vengeance.
Not too bad for a story that inspired a successful coffee chain, right? Hopefully you've come to the conclusion, that in spite of its terrible reputation, Moby Dick is actually a pretty interesting story full of crude humor and probing questions. As Ishmael tells us the story of Captain Ahab, we learn about the America of Melville's time, whaling and the evil that lies in us all.
Herman Melville's classic dark romantic novel does just what it's supposed to do (in between lots of explanations about whaling and the inevitable sex jokes that follow). Through the use of symbols and allegory, it shows that vengeance can erode one's sanity. That's quite a weighty lesson for a story about a gigantic sperm whale by the name of Moby Dick.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 130 lessons | 11 flashcard sets