Moby Dick As Greatest Novel in American Literature

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Moby Dick is the greatest novel in American literature which every individual seems to recognize in the 20th century. The most distinctive feature of the novel is the variety of genres. According to Bezanson, there are autobiography, sermons, travel account, Elizabethan plays, and epic poetry. (Bezanson, 1986:188) Melville was just at 31 and struggling financially with two young children when he wrote this novel and it was a big deal in his situation. The novel became popular about 150 years after it was written even though he created incredible timeless work. There was a small readership and it was a financial and critical disaster for Melville in 1951. The center of Moby Dick is a contrast between two main characters Captain Ahab and narrator Ishmael. My research findings indicate that discussion of the narrator and main character of the novel. As well as the meaning represented by Moby Dick, a gigantic whale pursued by the maniacal Captain Ahab. Keywords: Whale whiteness, monomania, vengeance


“Our ego occupies so much space, there is little room for anything.” This quotation is made clear in “Moby Dick” written by Herman Melville. Herman Melville was an American novelist, poet, short story writer and best known for his literary masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851). Moby Dick is an adventure fiction and classic which is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne as he said “in token of my admiration for his genius”. In this novel, Queequeg as Ishmael’s friend in the opening chapters as it mirrors the Hawthorne and Melville friendship, and how their relationship impacted Melville’s revision of Moby Dick. The novel focuses on one of the main characters Captain Ahab, the one-legged commander of the whaling ship Pequod. and his obsession with a gigantic whale, Moby Dick. Captain Ahab lost his leg because of the whale which has destroyed his ship on his previous voyage and brings Ahab’s life desire to kill Moby Dick and revenge on that White Whale. In this way, he is ready to sacrifice everything in his life, not only his own life but also the lives of his crew members and this obsession causes monomania. Melville wrote in magnificent language and used a number of different literary genres such as fiction, science that the biological facts of whales in whaling, poetry, sermonic materials, and all of that as intentional for Melville to show his vast literary power that he can write in almost every single genre imaginable. The novel based on thoughtful and complicated allegories and symbolism.

The narrator Ishmael is a young, curious, and witted sailor who has a strong desire to travel the sea and whaling venture. In the beginning of the narrative, he has traveled to New Bedford from Manhattan and signs up for Pequod’s journey. At the Spouter-Inn, he has to share a bed with the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg who looks gruesome and a cannibal according to his first imagination due to his dark skin and all-over body tattoos. But, soon he realizes that he is the most generous, courageous, honest, wise, and faithful person he has ever met as he says “Everything I need to know about life I learned from a cannibal,”. Albeit being the son of a king on a South Sea island, Queequeg gives up life on his native island in order to see the world which he had only heard in stories. Another main character Captain Ahab is described as the best whaling captains in Nantucket and a monomaniac since he has only goal to revenge on an enormous white whale called Moby Dick as he lose his leg on his previous voyage because of that whale Moby Dick which is the main antagonist and considered as incarnation by Ahab. Captain Ahab views himself as the hero who can destroy everything includes Moby Dick. “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” He is monomaniacal through his words and thoughts and he admits it in his words “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I will smoke no more.” He has been quoted as “…in colleges, as well as ‘mong the cannibals.” Which means that he is more than other men and experienced.

The novel takes place during the period of the mid-nineteenth century, on a whaling ship the Pequod which sails most of the way around three various Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans and meets ships from all kinds of other countries. The opening scene illustrates the surrounding of Ishmael as “There are now is your insular city of the Manhattan, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs commerce surrounds it with her surf,” (Melville 1892: 1). It can be seen that the city surrounded by water, and islands. Melville illustrated Ishmael’s desire to the seas as luring into the scenery of Manhattans. Ishmael encounters New Bedford, Massachusetts in the beginning of his voyage. It is described as deterioration and oldness of the scenery “ New Bedford has of late been gradually monopolizing the business of whaling,” (Melville 1892: 6). While his voyage in New Bedford, he attends a sermon in a nearby chapel. “Entering, I found a small scattered congregation of sailors, and sailors wives and widows”. “Three of them ran something like the following, but I don’t pretend to quote”. (Melville 1892: 29). These monuments were for the people who died at sea while doing their missions and the chapel brings melancholy to the reader. In New Bedford the destination island of Ishmael that he desired during his voyage was Nantucket.

It is told from the first-person point of view and the narrator is the main character, an adventurous young man Ishmael who is actively involved in the novel’s events. According to the point of view, there are four general types of chapters:

  1. In chapter 41, “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew”. It can be clear that he is the first-person narrator.
  2. In chapter 45, “I have personally known” which explains details of whaling. In this chapter, it is told from the first-person narrator who is probably Ishmael
  3. In chapter 44 he does not logically know and seems to use his voice or tone.
  4. In chapter 40 is like a dramatic style like a play.

Hence, the point of view in this novel is super-complicated and the first person seems ambiguous as it can be the author himself describing his whaling experience in lieu of the main character Ishmael. The book begins with “Call me Ishmael”. The narrator does not introduce himself as my name is Ishmael which applies his name might not be Ishmael but Melville wants to call him Ishmael. He is dictated by his mood, he does not freely decide to go to sea that is the certain time he just has to go to sea as he says “There is a fake that has constant survey…. of and dol… me and influences me” (Melville 1892: 5).

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He meets a harpooner Queequeg who will also sail on the Pequod when he rests at the Spouter-Inn. The struggle against the White Whale lasts three days. On the first day, the Captain spies Moby Dick himself and the whaling boats row after it. The whale attacks the Captain’s boat, causing it to sink, but the Captain survives the ordeal when he reaches Stubb’s boat. Albeit that first failed attempt at defeating the whale, Ahab follows him for a second day. On the second day of the chase, the same defeat occurs which causes Ahab’s ivory leg to be broken by Moby Dick. On the next day, Ahab finally stabs the whale with his harpoon when they reach Moby Dick. However, Moby Dick again tips Ahab’s boat and rams the Pequod, causing it to start sinking. The captain throws his harpoons at the whale but becomes himself entangled in the line and goes down with it. Only Ishmael among them survives since he is on a whaling boat instead of on the Pequod and rescued by Rachel, whose captain is still looking for his son, lost at sea. These three-day fight with Moby Dick is the climax in the novel which causes the destruction of all the boat, the death of Ahab, and all the crew members – except Ishmael as well as the sinking of the Pequod.


Moby Dick is rich with widely known symbols in American literature. One of the greatest symbols in the novel is the White Whale which has a wide range of interpretations. It symbolizes pure evil to Captain Ahab. However, it is white as the color white stands not only for purity but also for supernaturalism for terror and for invincibility. Thus, for some point, it is a symbol of the unconquerable god.

The land symbolizes a prison as it is solid and bounded, describing the people walking along the shore of the island “These are all landsmen of week days pent up in lath and plaster – tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.”

The ocean is on the other hand unbounded and mysterious which symbolizes ungraspable meaning as Ishmael reflects “Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not to grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it was and drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; this the key to it all.” The Pequod symbolizes doom as it is covered in whale teeth and bones and painted a gloomy black.

Queequeg’s coffin is a symbol of life and death. It is built by Queequeg when he is seriously sick but when he gets well it becomes a chest to hold hid belongings and the things gives him a will to live. In the same way, it becomes Ishmael’s buoy and saves his life when the Pequod sinks Whiteness in this novel represents beauty and innocence as Ishmael says “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” One central metaphor is a battle against the White Whale.

The Captain’s madly pursuit of the White Whale can be read as an allegory revealing the craziness of chasing that which cannot be captured. “For again Starbuck’s downcast eyes lightened up with the stubbornness of life; the subterranean laugh died away; the winds blew on; the sails filled out; the ship heaved and rolled as before. Ah ye admonitions and warnings!” (Melville 1892: 281). From this quote, we can see that the tone of the novel is foreboding and gloomy One of the central themes of the novel is free will. Ishmael does not believe that free will exists, he concludes that fate compelled him to go on a whaling voyage that it was his destiny. He writes “ Doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand program of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago… I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induces me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.” Another main theme is revenge as Captain Ahab becomes a slave to his passion for killing the White Whale for a lost leg as he cannot forget and forgive what Moby Dick has done to him.

Literature Review

According to Walter E. Bezanson, there are two types of Ishmael’s character “the first Ishmael is the enfolding sensibility of the novel, the hand that writes the tale, the imagination of the book pass. He is the narrator… The second Ishmael is not the narrator, not the informing presence, but is the young man of whom, among others, narrator Ishmael tells us in his story… This is forecastle Ishmael or the younger Ishmael of ‘some years ago’. Narrator Ishmael, moreover, is concerned with narrative and narration. When focusing on narrative, he tries imaginatively to recapture the moods and hopes and perceptions of forecastle Ishmael and his companions; his narrative deals with the then, with an experience already completed. When focusing on narration, Ishmael’s concern is with the now- with his ongoing endeavor to put into words what happened then. The now, representing an experience not yet completed, puts its stamp upon the books as emphatically as the then: novel” “Moby-Dick is founded on Ishmael’s capacity for wonder…” (Bender, 1986:105) “Ishmael, as representative of that which is common to all humanity, is the guardian of the novel’s deepest values,” (Way, 1977:53). Since Ishmael acknowledges that he has had a Presbyterian background, however, he distances himself by treating all religions from it in chapter 10,17. “I can assure you Ernest Hemingway was wrong when he said modern American literature began with Huckleberry Finn. It begins with Moby Dick, the book that swallowed European civilization whole.” (E. L. Doctorow, 2003: 24)

Moby-Dick is also considered a work of poetry. Kazin described the novel as “Moby Dick is not so much as a book about Captain Ahab’s quest for a whale as it is an experience of that quest. This is only to say what we say of any true poem, that we cannot reduce its essential substance to a subject, that we should not intellectualize and summarize it… In these terms, Moby-Dick seems to be far more of a poem than a novel,” (Kazin, 2007:9)


Moby-Dick is an extremely long and digressive novel but it includes all sorts of information that is relevant to whom lived had some life experience what it has to teach us. Factually, it is based on the parallels between Ishmael and Ahab. The White Whale clearly symbolizes how people view the world. Hence, the captain’s pride and obsession bring him about fate, while Ishmael survives among all the crew members as he respects and views Moby-Dick as a force of nature. This novel is a great lesson for people who are obsessed with vengeance. It can only bring eternal unhappiness.

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