Herman Melville

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Moby-Dick Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Herman Melville

Herman Melville’s writings have granted him worldwide renown since his death, at the end of the 19th century, but he was read only fitfully by the American public during his lifetime, and his greatest literary achievements were received with a mixture of puzzlement and disregard. Coming from a relatively well-to-do New York family, with aristocratic connections on his mother Maria Gansevoort’s side, Melville’s father Allan lost a great deal of money when Herman was a young man. As a result, Melville attended several schools in New York State, but never learned any one trade. He taught high school in various New York State locations, and later decided to try his fate on the open sea as a sailor, much as his narrator Ishmael does in Moby Dick. Melville gathered material on several long sea voyages, which was fictionalized later in the novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). These novels established Melville’s early reputation as a writer of adventures—a reputation Melville could not shake during his life, even as his work grew stranger, and became infused with philosophical and religious themes. Melville married in 1847 and began work on a series of other fiction projects, including Moby Dick, which was completed in 1851, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Melville befriended fellow novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne during this period, and dedicated Moby Dick to him. The novel, now widely viewed as one of the greatest in the English language, earned mixed reviews upon its publication. Melville’s other, later works, including Pierre, Benito Cereno, and The Confidence-Man, did even worse among the reading public. To earn money in later life, Melville took a job in a customs house. He died in 1891, and his reputation among American writers was not rehabilitated fully until the early 1900s.
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Historical Context of Moby-Dick

The 1850s were a time of political upheaval in the United States, which led, ultimately, to the breakout of the American Civil War in 1861. They were also a period of rapid industrialization, or the transition from a local, “cottage” economy of artisanal production, to large-scale production of goods in urban centers, like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore. Industrialization took place largely in the more densely-populated north, and resulted in the linking of northern cities with efficient rail lines, used to transport goods, and, later, materiel for the Civil War. In addition, the 1850s reflected a high point in the sailing and whaling industries, as large sailing vessels were used to transport items across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, and across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to reach parts of Asia. These voyages were dangerous, but American sailing fleets—located in port towns along the northeast of the US, including New Bedford, Massachusetts, as described in Moby Dick—were large, and many boats offered positions to young men who wished to leave home. Thus Moby Dick treats many of the scientific advances being made at this time—advances in biology that allowed for a more detailed understanding of whale anatomy, for example—without abandoning the philosophical and religious investigations so prominent in a country that, 80 years after its founding, was still dominated by Protestant Christian denominations in New England and parts of the Mid-Atlantic. In this sense, Moby Dick uses the trappings of a whaling and adventure novel as an excuse, or a platform, for a much broader-ranging examination of American life in the middle of the 19th century.

Other Books Related to Moby-Dick

Melville’s Moby Dick might be compared, most immediately, to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom Melville struck up a friendship during the composition of the novel. Hawthorne was perhaps the most famous prose writer in the United States at the time, the author of poems and short stories like “Young Goodman Brown,” and his The Scarlet Letter came out in 1850, not long before Moby Dick. The Scarlet Letter—a fixture on many American high school literature syllabi—tells the story of Hester Prynne, and the “shame” resulting from a pregnancy occurring outside the bounds of marriage. Hawthorne’s examination of Prynne’s psychological response to these events, as well as the feelings of those in her small New England town, show a complex understanding of the interaction of doubt, grief, and contentment. In some sense, then, the psychological inquiries made by Melville and by Hawthorne are a broad response to the primary literary currents in American life in the generation preceding them. That period, in the early 1800s, was dominated by the “transcendentalist” writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson, drawing widely from the religious traditions of the East and West, wrote poems and essays investigating the particular American spirit he had encountered during his life in the “new world.” And Thoreau, whose Walden is one of the most famous collections of memoir and philosophical reflection ever published, seeks to determine man’s relation to nature, to his fellow man, and to friendship, all during a period of relative seclusion near the now-famous Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Thus Melville and Hawthorne wrote on similar themes—man’s relationship to God, fate, and nature—but from the perspective of a more industrialized, more populous society in the middle of the 1800s. Melville, in particular, set several of his writings in New York City, which was emerging at that time as one of the great urban centers in the new world.
Key Facts about Moby-Dick
  • Full Title: Moby Dick; or, The Whale
  • When Written: 1850-1851
  • Where Written: Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1851
  • Literary Period: Pre-Civil War American fiction; the “transcendentalist” and “post-transcendentalist” eras
  • Genre: Novel of the sea; whaling novel; episodic novel; novel of ideas; precursor to the modernist novel
  • Setting: Primarily on the Pequod, a whaling vessel, throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in the late 1840s
  • Climax: On the third day of the chase, Moby Dick causes Ahab to kill himself, by snagging himself in his own harpoon-line; Moby Dick then smashes into the Pequod, drowning all aboard except Ishmael, who lives to report the story of the whale.
  • Antagonist: Moby Dick, the White Whale
  • Point of View: Mostly first person from Ishmael’s point of view, although a number of sections appear to be narrated by a third-person-like presence, since Ishmael cannot have seen the events being reported in the narrative

Extra Credit for Moby-Dick

Short chapters. Although Moby Dick is often regarded, in the popular imagination, as a novel of interminable length, it is actually divided into 136 rather short chapters—some of which are no longer than a couple paragraphs. This style of writing, in which a larger narrative is broken into much smaller chunks, is known as “episodic” writing.

Alternate title. Perhaps as a way of emphasizing the novel’s concern with whales and whaling, Moby Dick was initially titled The Whale when it was released in England in 1851.