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Moby Dick

Term Definition
Moby Dick

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is a novel written by American writer Herman Melville, published in 1851 during the period of the American Renaissance.

Background of Moby Dick and Melville

Moby Dick (the novel) was written in 1851 by Herman Melville, Sometimes called The Whale, the book is a classic example of romanticism and American renaissance. The story’s narrator Ishmael tells the tale of Captain Ahab’s quest to find the white whale. Upon his whaler ship Pequod, Ahab searches for Moby Dick, the whale who completely destroyed Ahab’s ship on a previous sea voyage that cost Ahab his leg. Over the next year or so, the crew hunts sperm whales and harvests their oil. When they reach the home of Moby Dick, Ahab’s obsession with revenge only grows. Just when the reader starts to wonder if there ever was a great white whale, the crew spots him. They chase him for three days, sending boat after boat after the whale, but all are destroyed by the whale’s terrible might. Finally, Moby Dick attacks the ship itself and the entire crew go into the water. In one last, desperate attempt, Ahab throws a harpoon at the whale, misses, and strangles himself with the rope. Ishmael is the only survivor of the voyage. 

The theme of obsession and insanity

Insanity is one of the most obvious themes in Moby Dick. Ahab’s single-minded, compulsive obsession with hunting Moby Dick is clearly insane. He is totally possessed by this one desire and is literally driven mad by the idea of it. His monomaniac tendencies are controlling but allow him to still behave with enough rationality to sail the ship and manage the ship’s crew. Still his ambitions are ludicrous, as they will obviously contain dire consequences for those involved (which it inevitably does, as the entire crew except for Ishmael perish during the hunt). The other characters are no match for Ahab’s obsession and are powerless to deter him from his quest. Insanity inspires Ahab’s mission and actions and are ultimately responsible for his death.

Critical reception and inspiration for Moby Dick

The book took Henry Melville a year and a half to write and is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne for his importance to and influence on his life and career. It draws on Melville’s own experiences at sea and from his intense study of whaling literature and history, in addition to other inspirations such as the Bible and William Shakespeare. The details of the whale hunting are incredibly realistic and the culturally diverse crew offers an accurate platform for exploring class, good versus evil, social status, and the existence of God. Melville uses literary prose, in addition to various literary styles and devices such as songs, catalogs, poetry, stage directions, asides, and soliloquies. 

Moby Dick did not experience success when it was first released. Instead, it was seen as a commercial failure and was already out of print by the time the author died. In the twentieth century, its reputation and popularity as a great American novel grew as it received praise from critics, other authors, and regular readers alike. William Faulkner once confessed that he often wishes that he himself had written Moby Dick. By D. H. Lawrence, it was called one of the most wonderful books in the world and the greatest book about the sea that was ever written. Indeed, the line “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous, easily recognized, and often repeated lines of world literature.

The book was first published under the name of The Whale in October 1851 in London before being published as Moby Dick in New York in November. The two editions vary in several ways. In London, publishers edited and removed some parts they believed were too sensitive and Melville made changes and revisions for the New York edition. Only thirty two hundred copies were sold during Melville’s lifetime and he mad little more than twelve hundred dollars from the proceeds.

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Synonyms: moby-dick

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