ClassicNote on Moby Dick
About Moby Dick:
The novel Moby Dick was the sixth novel published by Herman Melville, a landmark of American literature that mixed a number of literary styles including a fictional adventure story, historical detail and even scientific discussion. The story of the voyage of the whaling ship Pequod , the novel draws at least partially from the experiences of its author while a sailor and a harpooner on whaling ships before settling in New England as a writer.
The title character of Moby Dick was inspired by an article in Knickerbocker magazine in May 1839 entitled "Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific." The author of this article, Jeremiah Reynolds, detailed the capture of a giant sperm whale legendary among whalers for its vicious attacks on ships. The whale was named as such after the Mocha Islands, the area where the whale was commonly sighted ("Dick" was used simply because it was a common male name). The origin of the "Moby" of the novel's title has never been conclusively determined.
By the time Melville had begun work on Moby Dick, he had lost a great deal of renown as a novelist following several disappointing novels. He intended Moby Dick as a return to the type of adventure stories such as Typee and Omoo that made his reputation, but the novel instead took a different turn. In his letters he described the novel as a romantic and fanciful adventure, yet the final novel took a far different turn. During this time Melville had become deeply influenced by his author and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose cynical and imposing works bear some resemblance to the tragic epic that Melville produced. Shifting away from the romantic adventure he had promised his publisher and influenced by Shakespeare and Hawthorne, Melville delivered instead a bleak and digressive narrative.
The first publication of Moby Dick was in London in October of 1851. Entitled The Whale, the novel was published in three volumes and was censored for some of its political and moral content. The British publisher of the novel, Richard Bentley, inadvertently left out the Epilogue to the novel, leading many critics to wonder how the tale could be told in the first person by Ishmael, when the final chapter witnesses the sinking of the Pequod with presumably no survivors.
The first American publication of the novel came the following month. The American version of the novel, published by Harper & Brothers, although fixing the narrative error of the British version through the inclusion of the epilogue, was poorly received by critics and readers who expected a romantic high seas adventure akin to Melville's first successes. The reputation of the novel floundered for many years, and it was only after Melville's death that it became considered one of the major novels in American literature.
Captain Ahab: Ahab is the Captain of the Pequod, a grave older man reaching his sixties who has spent nearly forty years as a sailor, only three of which he has spent on dry land (Melville alludes to Ahab as having a wife and son, but their existence seems of little significance to Ahab). The novel is essentially the story of Ahab and his quest to defeat the legendary Sperm Whale Moby Dick, for this whale took Ahab's leg, causing him to use an ivory leg to walk and stand. Ahab is a dour, imposing man who frightens his crew through his unwavering obsession with defeating Moby Dick and his grand hubris. In many respects Melville portrays Ahab as barely human, barely governed by human mores and conventions and nearly entirely subject to his own obsession with Moby Dick. Melville describes him in mostly alien terms: Ahab is a spectral figure haunting Stubb's dreams and existing in a place away from the living. He is in some ways a machine, unaffected by human appetites and without recognizable emotion. And most importantly, he claims himself a God over the Pequod, but instead he may be a Satanic figure through his somewhat blasphemous quest against the white whale.
Ishmael: Ishmael is the narrator of the novel, a simple sailor on the Pequod who undertakes the journey because of his affection for the ocean and his need to go sea whenever he feels "hazy about the eyes." As the narrator Ishmael establishes him as somewhat of a cipher and an everyman, and in fact his role in the plot of the novel is inconsequential; his primary task is to observe the conflicts around him. Nevertheless, Melville does give his narrator several significant character traits, the most important of which is his idealization of the Sperm Whale and his belief in its majesty. Also, it is Ishmael who has the only significant personal relationship in the novel; he becomes a close friend with the pagan harpooner Queequeg and comes to cherish and adore Queequeg to a somewhat improbable level open to great interpretation; Melville even describes their relationship ...