Moby-Dick as a Hero's Journey & Holy Grail Quest

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Melville's ''Moby-Dick'' can be understood as a hero's journey (with Ishmael operating as the hero) or as a Holy Grail quest, led by Captain Ahab. This lesson looks at evidence in the text for both of these interpretations.

Relevant Plot Summary

Moby-Dick is about the voyage of the Pequod, a whaling ship, under the command of Captain Ahab. While the Pequod is technically supposed to be hunting sperm whales in general, Captain Ahab encourages his crew to help him on his quest for revenge against one specific whale: the White Whale, or Moby Dick. Ever since the White Whale took Captain Ahab's leg on a previous journey, Ahab has been obsessed with hunting him down and killing him. In the end, the Pequod catches up with the White Whale, but Ahab, along with everyone in his crew except Ishmael, die in their attempt to bring down Moby Dick.

Ishmael's Character

Ishmael is the character that Melville's reader gets to know the best in Moby-Dick, because he is the narrator, so we understand the story through his perspective. The book begins with Ishmael's introduction of himself to the reader ('Call me Ishmael') and continues as he decides to leave his previous life behind and try out whaling. He ends up working aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab and getting involved in Ahab's quest to find and kill the White Whale. When Ahab finally makes his attempt to kill Moby Dick at the end of the book, the Pequod ends up sinking and everyone on board, except for Ishmael, dies.

What Is the Hero's Journey?

The concept of the hero's journey is based on the writings of Joseph Campbell. In short, Campbell suggested that many stories about heroes and their adventures follow a common plot structure, which involves the hero starting out in the normal world, entering a different world that is filled with adventure, and then returning back to normal. Within those three stages, there are several more specific elements, some of which will be explained in the next section. Ishmael's story in Moby-Dick fits into many of these stages.

Significant Stages of Ishmael's Hero's Journey

There are arguments to be made for Ishmael's story matching up with several of the elements of the hero's journey; this lesson will cover the most important of these. At the beginning of the novel, when Ishmael decides to try out whaling and signs up to work on the Pequod, this works as the call to adventure in the hero's journey. Next, when the Pequod leaves the port and enters open sea, this works as the moment when the hero (Ishmael) crosses the threshold. The voyage of the Pequod can be considered the road of trials in the hero's journey, when the hero faces many challenges. (As Ishmael confronts his own fears, the madness of Captain Ahab, and the sickness and death of crew mates, he undergoes his fair share of challenges.) Finally, when Ahab and the crew find and confront Moby Dick, and Ishmael watches everyone die, barely surviving himself, this is his moment of atonement within the hero's journey. 'Atonement' in this context can best be understood as confronting the ultimate challenge in order to leave it behind you and move forward with your life. Moby-Dick ends with Ishmael being rescued by another whaling ship, whcih can clearly be understood as the rescue from without stage of the hero's journey.

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