Moby Dick - Herman Melville
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About the Book
August 1, 1819 – September 28, 1891
An American novelist, short story writer and poet of the American Renaissance period
Published in London in October 1851 as The Whale and a month later in New York City as Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
Generally regarded as Melville’s magnum opus and one of the greatest American novels.
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Moby Dick famously begins with the narratorial invocation “Call me Ishmael.” The narrator, like his biblical counterpart, is an outcast. Ishmael, who turns to the sea for meaning, relays to the audience the final voyage of the Pequod, a whaling vessel.
The ship’s captain is Ahab, who Ishmael and his friend Queequeg soon learn is losing his mind. Starbuck, Ahab’s first-mate, recognizes this problem too, and is the only one throughout the novel to voice his disapproval of Ahab’s increasingly obsessive behavior.
This nature of Ahab’s obsession is first revealed to Ishmael and Queequeg after the Pequod’s owners, Peleg and Bildad, explain to them that Ahab is still recovering from an encounter with a large whale that resulted in the loss of his leg.
That whale’s name is Moby Dick. The Pequod sets sail, and the crew is soon informed that this journey will be unlike their other whaling missions: this time, despite the reluctance of Starbuck, Ahab intends to hunt and kill the beastly Moby Dick no matter the cost.
Ahab and the crew continue their eventful journey and encounter a number of obstacles along the way. Queequeg falls ill, which prompts a coffin to be built in anticipation of the worst.
After he recovers, the coffin becomes a replacement lifeboat that eventually saves Ishmael’s life. Ahab receives a prophecy from a crew member informing him of his future death, which he ignores.
Moby Dick is spotted and, over the course of three days, engages violently with Ahab and the Pequod until the whale destroys the ship, killing everyone except Ishmael.
Ishmael survives by floating on Queequeg’s coffin until he is picked up by another ship, the Rachel. The novel consists of 135 chapters, in which narrative and essayistic portions intermingle, as well as an epilogue and front matter.
British author E. M. Forster, remarked in 1927: "Moby-Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem."
Biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant sees epistemology as the book's theme. Ishmael's taxonomy of whales merely demonstrates "the limitations of scientific knowledge and the impossibility of achieving certainty".
She also contrasts Ishmael and Ahab's attitudes toward life, with Ishmael's open-minded and meditative, "polypositional stance" as antithetical to Ahab's monomania, adhering to dogmatic rigidity.
Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco cites race as an example of this search for truth beneath surface differences. All races are represented among the crew members of the Pequod.
Although Ishmael initially is afraid of Queequeg as a tattooed cannibal, he soon decides, "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."
Moby-Dick is based on Melville's experience on the whaler Acushnet, however even the book's most factual accounts of whaling are not straight autobiography.
Ahab seems to have had no model in real life, though his death may have been based on an actual event.
In addition to his own experience on the whaling ship Acushnet, two actual events served as the genesis for Melville's tale.
One was the sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820, after a sperm whale rammed her 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the western coast of South America.
The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha.
Scholars have concluded that Melville composed Moby-Dick in two or even three stages.
The earliest surviving mention of what became Moby-Dick is a letter Melville wrote to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. on May 1, 1850
The most intense work on the book was done during the winter of 1850–1851, when Melville had changed the noise of New York City for a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
The move may well have delayed finishing the book.