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Moby-Dick

Herman Melville

Key Facts

Important Quotations Explained

Study Questions & Essay Topics

full title  ·  Moby-Dick; or The Whale

author  · Herman Melville

type of work  · Novel

genre  · Epic, adventure story, quest tale, allegory, tragedy

language  · English

time and place written  · Between 1850 and 1851, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and New York City

date of first publication  · 1851

publisher  · Harper & Brothers in America (simultaneously published in England by Richard Bentley as The Whale )

narrator  · Ishmael, a junior member of the Pequod’s crew, casts himself as the author, recounting the events of the voyage after he has acquired more experience and studied the whale extensively.

point of view  · Ishmael narrates in a combination of first and third person, describing events as he saw them and providing his own thoughts. He presents the thoughts and feelings of the other characters only as an outside observer might infer them.

tone  · Ironic, celebratory, philosophical, dramatic, hyperbolic

tense  · Past

setting (time)  · 1830s or 1840s

setting (place)  · Aboard the whaling ship the Pequod, in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans

major conflict  · Ahab dedicates his ship and crew to destroying Moby Dick, a white sperm whale, because he sees this whale as the living embodiment of all that is evil and malignant in the universe. By ignoring the physical dangers that this quest entails, setting himself against other men, and presuming to understand and fight evil on a cosmic scale, Ahab arrogantly defies the limitations imposed upon human beings.

rising action  · Ahab announces his quest to the other sailors and nails the doubloon to the mast; the Pequod encounters various ships with news and stories about Moby Dick.

climax  · In Chapter 132, “The Symphony,” Ahab interrogates himself and his quest in front of Starbuck, and realizes that he does not have the will to turn aside from his purpose.

falling action  · The death of Ahab and the destruction of the Pequod by Moby Dick; Ishmael, the only survivor of the Pequod’s sinking, floats on a coffin and is rescued by another whaling ship, the Rachel.

themes  · The limits of knowledge; the deceptiveness of fate; the exploitative nature of whaling

motifs  · Whiteness; surfaces and depths

symbols  · The Pequod symbolizes doom; Moby Dick, on an objective level, symbolizes humankind’s inability to understand the world; Queequeg’s coffin symbolizes both life and death

foreshadowing  · Foreshadowing in Moby-Dick is extensive and inescapable: everything from the Pequod’s ornamentation to the behavior of schools of fish to the appearance of a giant squid is read as an omen of the eventual catastrophic encounter with Moby Dick.

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