Herman Melville, on writing Moby-Dick or, The Whale, keenly observed that “to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” Few American novels pack more literary punch than Moby-Dick and few have sustained such a fervent fan base.
Published in London in 1851, Melville’s magnum opus centers on Captain Ahab and his relentless quest to kill a giant white whale. The revenge that rages inside Ahab drives his every move.
This compelling backstory serves as the primary plot behind this epic, 135-chapter masterpiece. But there’s so much more to the allegorical tale; humor, metaphysics, philosophy, race, religion, romance, and biblical references. It’s also an encyclopedia for whale lore that has left many readers lost at sea and a theological tablet engraved with symbolism. Some see Moby-Dick as a symbol of the biblical leviathan noted in the books of Job and Psalm. The Whale of great strength and size can’t be defeated by man. The forces of nature will inevitably prevail.
Ishmael, the narrator, tells us in Chapter 42 that the “The Whiteness of the Whale” may signify purity, divineness, and honor. Dressed in black, a tormented Ahab is convinced that the albino whale is evil and the terror of the seas. The captain’s ship of doom, The Pequod, is painted black and covered with teeth and bones. This eerie branding is surely a harbinger of death and so are the black birds encircling the ship along the journey. The vessel itself is named after an extinct Native American tribe of Massachusetts.
Another symbol is Queequeg’s coffin built when he was gravely ill and preparing to die. But the exotic harpooner recovers and uses the dark box as a sea chest. In the end, the canoe-like coffin represents life and hope—providing Ishmael with a life buoy until the Rachel saves him.
Melville leaves us much room for interpretation and sets the stage for an inspiring masterpiece now widely considered the Great American Novel. Yet it’s also a monster of a book with unnerving complexity that scares many readers away.
Moby-Dick was Melville’s sixth book. He completed his first novel, Typee, at age 26. While writing Moby Dick, Melville received literary insights from his friend and Massachusetts neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables. Melville ultimately dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne who called it an epic worthy of Homer. "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."
Herman Melville on Moby-Dick
Born in 1819 in New York City, Melville was 31-years-old when he completed Moby-Dick in 1850. He was a merchant marine who sailed a whaling ship in the South Seas. He became fascinated by the real-life story of the Essex, a whaling vessel that was rammed by an angry, vengeful sperm whale in 1820. This account, as told by Captain George Pollard, details the tragedy and how his crew escaped in lifeboats, ending horribly in starvation and cannibalism. Pollard was among the few that survived the ordeal thousands of miles out to sea.
While this ghastly account planted the seeds for the Moby-Dick adventure, the name of the whale was inspired by a powerful albino whale, Mocha Dick, that terrified whalers for decades with deadly attacks off the central coast of Chile until it was killed in 1838.
This interesting maritime history fueled much of narrative behind Melville’s monumental book. Yet Moby-Dick was initially a literary flop. Sales were slow and some critics labeled it a seafaring yarn.
Melville continued to write and publish, but Moby-Dick began a downward spiral in his literary career. He couldn’t sustain a living as a writer and in 1865 he returned to New York to work as a customs inspector to support his family. He died a faint literary figure in 1891.
In the 1920s, Melville’s works, especially Moby-Dick, resurfaced and scholars began to take notice. The book became widely read in high schools and colleges.
Moby-Dick has been adapted to film, television, radio, comics, and the stage. In 1956, it became a feature film with the screenplay written by Ray Bradbury and starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. In 1998, the novel was made into television movie starring Patrick Stewart.
A 2015 movie, In the Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, tells the story of the Essex that inspired Moby-Dick. In 2019, the film Call Us Ishmael chronicles the world of Moby Dick through a variety of artists, writers, professors, and musicians. In 1999, for example, Laurie Anderson created a multimedia musical called Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. The splendid production brings the book to life in musical form filled with the beauty and strangeness of Melville’s seafaring world.
In art, perhaps no one captured Moby-Dick better than Rockwell Kent in his line drawings completed for a 1930 edition of the famous novel. Renowned artist Frank Stella has created the Moby-Dick series of more than 200 paintings, sculptures, and prints. He created at least one work for each of the novel’s 135 chapters. Ohio artist Matt Kish, in Moby Dick in Pictures, created an illustration for every single page of the 552-page Signet paperback edition of the classic novel.
Every January, hundreds of Melville fans visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum in
Massachusetts to read Moby-Dick out loud as part of a two-day marathon. Plymouth University hosts Moby-Dick The Big Read, with a full audio book of Melville’s classic, with famous voices recorded for each chapter.
These artists and creative events are all part of the mighty Moby-Dick movement. Melville could never have imagined his novel’s popularity today. Moby-Dick remains the quintessential classic—one that many readers find hard to conquer, while others are obsessed with its meaning in life and its special place in the world.
William Weger is a regular contributor to Books & Bards. A writer, former journalist, and author of Marshmallows over Manhattan and Inspire Good: Nonprofit Marketing for a Better World. He is the founder of Books & Bards and Clearfont Media.