NAAL: Melville
The Norton Anthology of American Literature

Volume B: American Literature, 1880-1865

Herman Melville


Herman Melville's father was a New York City merchant who, when he died suddenly, left his family heavily in debt. Melville was only twelve at the time, but he was forced to leave school to go to work. After a variety of jobs in his teens, Melville joined a whaler sailing for the South Seas in 1841. On that trip, Melville and a crewmate jumped ship and lived for several weeks with a native tribe; upon his return to America, Melville transformed that experience into Typee (1846), a popular adventure tale that established him as a literary celebrity. A sequel, Omoo, soon followed, but Melville's appeal was dampened by his more philosophical works such as Mardi (1849), Pierre (1853), and even Moby-Dick (1851). Critics of these novels declared Melville unbalanced, and Melville had to struggle to regain the economic and critical popularity he had enjoyed with his earlier writing. After Pierre, he primarily wrote short stories for magazines like Harper's. Financial concerns burdened the family for years, but an inheritance late in life allowed Melville to work on his final masterpiece, Billy Budd, Sailor. Only after his death did Melville rise from the ranks of second-rate adventure novelists to his present status as one of the most important American writers.

The Moby-Dick excerpts in NAAL are selected to give you an experience of the novel's energy, intellectual reach, and array of compelling characters. Published in 1851, this freewheeling narrative was all but forgotten at the time of Melville's death forty years later. But generations of modern novelists have looked to it as a milestone in the liberation and expansion of American fiction and the achievement of a lively vernacular style on the printed page, a style that still resonates with democratic values and aspirations.

1. Read chapters I, X, and XVI, and describe Ishmael's personality and how his mind seems to move and work. As he moves through his experiences, what appeals to him? What is his attitude toward big value systems--religious, cultural, intellectual, political? Do you find him a plausible human being? Why or why not?

2. Look over the variety of crew members whom Ishmael introduces in the "Knights and Squires" chapters (XXVI and XXVII). Without worrying about the symbolic or allegorical significations of any one of these characters or the whole group, talk about them as a cast of characters in a drama, an adventure story, or a speculation about human nature.

3. In chapters XLI and XLVI ("Moby-Dick" and "The Whiteness of the Whale"), Ishmael offers us insight both into Ahab's obsession with Moby-Dick and into how that obsession spreads among the crew of the Pequod. Is there logic to Ahab's thinking? Do you regard him as a Romantic? As an existential hero? As a madman? How can we explain the hold which his rhetoric and thinking seem to have over so many of the crew?

4. Hundreds of pages have been published about symbolism in this novel. Rather than decode the symbols again, can you talk about Moby-Dick as being "about" a wish to read the world symbolically, to find signs and meanings in worldly experience? In other words, do Ahab's and Ishmael's symbol hunting and symbol finding tell us something about their temperaments, intellectual and psychological habits, and core beliefs?