Irony in Moby-Dick: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine some examples of verbal and situational irony from Herman Melville's ''Moby-Dick,'' the epic novel of Captain Ahab's obsession with hunting an infamous whale.


In the movie Mean Girls, Cady gives Regina some Swedish nutrition bars that Regina thinks will help her lose weight, but they are actually weight-gaining bars. This is an example of dramatic irony, because what occurs is the opposite of what Regina thinks will happen. Irony sometimes makes a story funny, but other times it just makes it interesting. In Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, the author uses a great deal of situational irony, as well as using some verbal irony when telling the story of the monomaniacal captain of a whaling ship who is determined to hunt down the whale that bit off his leg. Let's look at some examples of irony from this epic novel.

The Bouton de Rose

One of the types of irony that is employed in this novel is verbal irony. Verbal irony takes place when what is said is the opposite of what is meant. One example of verbal irony from this novel occurs when the Pequod encounters the Bouton-de Rose. Stubb muses, '' 'Bouton de Rose',--Rose-button, or Rose-bud; and this was the romantic name of this aromatic ship.'' This is ironic because the ship is dragging two decaying whale carcasses that should have been cut long ago, filling the air with a putrid smell.

Ahab's Leg

The other type of irony that appears in this novel is situational irony. Situational irony takes place when the opposite of what you would expect to happen occurs. For example, when Ahab was young, ''Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.'' This is what caused Ahab to become so fixated on hunting Moby Dick. When Captain Ahab's ivory leg is broken off, he instructs the ship's carpenter to ''without delay set about making a new leg, and directed the mates to see him supplied with all the studs and joists of jaw-ivory (Sperm Whale).'' This is situational irony in that the artificial leg which now supports Ahab is made from the same material as the creature that destroyed his own leg.

Ahab's Obsession

After Moby Dick destroys Ahab's leg, Ahab develops a monomaniacal obsession with hunting the whale. Ahab tells his men, ''I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up.'' By the end of a three-day chase, Ahab realizes, ''…he's chasing ME now; not I, HIM--that's bad….'' In the end, Moby Dick kills Ahab rather than the other way around, making this another example of situational irony.

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