Skip over navigation

Moby-Dick

Herman Melville

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. Moby-Dick features several characters who seem insane. How does insanity relate to this story? How do these characters contrast with one another?

Ishmael describes Ahab as mad in his narration, and it does indeed seem mad to try to fight the forces of nature or God. However, some of the other characters in the novel whom Ishmael labels insane—notably Pip and Gabriel—might be viewed as wise rather than crazy, thus calling into question the possibility of making a clear distinction between sanity and insanity. Gabriel, the prophet figure aboard the Jeroboam, behaves irrationally and makes a number of ridiculous-sounding predictions. If viewed in a certain light, however, his prophecies sound not like silly attempts to foresee the future but like cleverly phrased efforts to effect change aboard his ship. Gabriel’s prophecies are aimed at gaining the crew just treatment from the ship’s officers and at avoiding the danger that will come from trying to hunt Moby Dick. Like Ahab, he manipulates the crew’s superstitions and religious beliefs in order to gather support. But whereas Ahab’s obsession is monomaniacal and selfish, Gabriel’s “madness” is a response to irrational and unjust behavior on the part of those who control his ship.

2. Ishmael frequently refers to the relationships between men in terms normally used to describe heterosexual romantic relationships. What is the literal and symbolic importance of homoeroticism in Moby-Dick?

Ishmael and Queequeg are depicted in bed together several times and are frequently described as “married” or “wedded” to each other. When they wake in the Spouter-Inn, Queequeg has his arms around Ishmael in a seemingly conjugal embrace. Melville uses the vocabulary of love and marriage to suggest the strength and closeness of the bonds between men at sea. Marriage is one of the institutions upon which society on land is organized, but there are no women aboard the Pequod. Instead, the crew develops a bond based on mutual dependence: they need each other to stay alive and are thus literally “wedded” to one another. In the absence of other relationships, they become everything to one another—metaphorical parents, siblings, best friends, and lovers. The replacement of heterosexual relationships, so central to conventional society, with homoerotic ones also signals a rejection of other aspects of life on land, such as racism, economic stratification, and limited opportunities for social mobility. Queequeg, for example, is taken aboard the Pequod for his expert marksmanship, despite his nonwhite skin.

3. Describe the playlike scenes interspersed throughout Moby-Dick. What is the function of these scenes? In what ways do they differ from the rest of the narrative?

These scenes fall into two major categories: dramatic dialogues among several characters and soliloquies from a single character, often Ahab. The latter capture moments that Ishmael, the narrator, could not possibly have witnessed. Ahab must maintain his composure and certainty in front of his crew; it is only in private that he can express doubt or regret. These scenes are used to build dramatic tension, as they would in a play: Ahab senses the approach of catastrophe, which his soliloquies communicate to the reader by voicing his feeling of doom. The dialogue scenes frequently alternate with chapters that contain digressions from the plot. (Ishmael’s measurements of the whale’s skeleton, for example.) In this context, they become very suspenseful, as the plot is advanced purely through the authentic-seeming speech interactions of the sailors. Finally, by hearkening back to well-known dramatic works, these dramatic scenes also remind the reader of Moby-Dick’s thematic connections to tragic drama, particularly Shakespeare.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Why does Ishmael include so many digressions in his narrative? Why does he draw on so many other disciplines (geology, art, biology)? Choose one of these digressions (the chapter on “Cetology,” for example) and discuss the ways in which it comments on the main narrative.

2. Describe Ishmael’s method of narration. Is he reliable or unreliable as a narrator? Why is he the one to tell this story? What would the narrative have been like if Ahab were the narrator?

3. How is the concept of fate used to organize the narrative? Does fate justify Ahab’s actions? What is the relationship between fate and prophecy? What does fate have to do with religion, particularly Christianity?

4. Explain some of the biblical references in Moby-Dick. How does Melville use the Bible as a literary model and as a source for thematic material?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us