Moby-Dick & Nantucket

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson describes the important role that the village of Nantucket plays in Herman Melville's 1851 classic Moby Dick, as well as how he got his information about the town and the impact that the novel has had on the town.

Melville's Connection to and Portrayal of Nantucket

Moby Dick, published by Herman Melville in 1851, famously portrays the whaling, or whale-fishing, community of Nantucket, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. One of the most interesting facts about this is that Herman Melville never actually visited Nantucket before writing the book even though the community and the seas that it borders are such a central setting of his novel. He did visit Nantucket after his novel was published, however, and met with a famous sea captain, George Pollard Jr, who survived a famous whaling expedition and even wrote a poem about him called ''Clarel'' in 1876.

Map of Massachusetts with Nantucket County in red
Map of Massachusetts and Nantucket

Melville vividly describes Nantucket and its inhabitants in the novel and captures the spirit of adventurous whaling sailors successfully without having been there himself. The following quote is an example of how specific and imaginative Melville's vision of the town was:

''And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders....Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two-thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.''

Melville clearly admires the people who are brave enough to live on an island like Nantucket, exposed as it is, on all sides. He compares the whalers from Nantucket to other world explorers and conquerors even though the whalers territory is even bigger because all of the world's oceans are theirs.


Nantucket and the whaling industry caught Herman Melville's imagination years before he started writing Moby Dick. Because he did not visit Nantucket firsthand, he relied heavily on what he had read to inform his descriptions and fuel his inspiration. There are several specific sources that were most influential on his ideas of what Nantucket was all about. In Chapter 2 of the novel, the narrator Ishmael says, '' For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.'' The narrator made his mind up that only a Nantucket boat would give him the quintessential whaling experience he was looking for; recognizing that there is something special about the spirit of that island.

The History of Nantucket by Obed Macy is a clear source for many of the details Melville uses. There is even a reference to Obed in the novel itself:

''The worthy Obed tells us, that in the early times of the whale fishery, ere ships were regularly launched in pursuit of the game, the people of that island erected lofty spars along the sea-coast, to which the lookouts ascended by means of nailed cleats, something as fowls go upstairs in a hen-house.'' (Moby Dick, Ch. 35)

Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket, published in 1821, was a first-hand account of Chase's experience as a first-mate on the Essex whale ship. Melville would use this book as inspiration for the whale ship Pequod and the sailors' experiences chasing Moby Dick.

Joseph C. Hart's, 1835, Miriam Coffin, Or, The Whale-Fisherman was a significant source, as well. While the above sources are all non-fiction historical accounts of Nantucket, Hart's novel is probably the most influential work of fiction on Melville's Moby Dick.

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