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.