Life and works
•Melville was born in New York from a Calvinist family. He had to drop school at 19, due to his family’s economic difficulties, and joined the crew of an English merchant ship. In 1841 he joined the crew of an American whaler, sailing on the Pacific, but deserted the ship on a Polynesian island, where he spent one month with the local tribe of the Taipis. He escaped and boarded first an Australian, then an American whaler bound to Hawaii, where he spent three months.
•By 1850 he was a well-known author, having published five books, mainly based on his experiences at sea, which allowed him to mix with literary circles in New York and to travel to England. He settled on a farm in Massachusets and in 1851 he published his masterpiece, Moby Dick.
•His fame anyway vanished with the passing of years, even if he never had to meet financial difficulties. His last work, Billy Bud, a short story, was published after his death. His reputation started to revive in the 1920s, thanks to the critical works of Modernist writers.
Main features and themes
•Melville’s mature works are allegories, mixing the realistic with the symbolic. His narrative techniques vary from the first person narration to the third, and dramatic forms like soliloquies, asides, dialogues are often employed; also his language varies, from the colloquial to the elevated and poetical.
•Melville’s main theme is the quest of man’s place in a universe where God is absent; in fact according to him, the presence of evil makes the belief in a divinely ordained universe impossible; as religious faith does not provide a code of ethical behavior to man anymore, man’s response to reality becomes subjective, and Melville is particularly interested in the way disturbed personalities react.
•An additional theme of his works is satire on the beliefs and values of Western society, usually contrasted with primitive ones.
Ishmael (first person narrator) sails on the whaler Pequod with his newly friend Queequeg, a harpooner, and a crew composed of men of different countries, races and religion. Captain Ahab, the ship’s master, is a man who has lost one leg, torn off by a white whale. He walks with an ivory leg now. Ahab’s purpose is to chase the whale and take his revenge. Finally the whale is sighted and the fight starts. Ahab is caught around the neck by the line of a harpoon that has struck the whale, is thrown into the sea and dies. The whale shatters the ship and all the crew dies, with the exception of Ishmael.
•Ishmael He seems well-educated, but claims not to have had a proper education; as the rest of the crew is composed of uneducated men, he’s the only possible narrator, but he’s often replaced by dramatic dialogues between other characters and by Ahab’s soliloquies. On the whole, the reader does not know much about him. In the Bible, his name means “outcast”
•Ahab is in a way a Shakespearian hero, as he suffers from a single fatal flaw: his overconfidence. He believes Moby Dick is evil and his mission is to destroy it. At the same time and for the same reason, he’s an anti-hero, who behaves like God and overcomes the boundaries set by Him, sinning against Nature. Ahab in the Bible is the king who defied God, introducing the worship of Baal and when he died “the dogs licked up his blood”. On the other hand, in the Book of Jonah, the protagonist defied God and was punished being swallowed by a whale
•Moby Dick represents the inscrutability of Universe. For Ahab it’s evil, but it’s actually Nature (created by God?) in its force, which has not to be disturbed. It’s Evil because of its cruelty, it’s Good because of its colour, which can anyway be associated both with purity and with death (the shroud).
•Ishmael insists on the mystery of whales, who are usually unseen, like the depths of the ocean, and so impossible to define or understand
Ishmael is the main narrator, first person, but he’s often substituted by dramatic dialogues between other characters and by Ahab’s soliloquies and asides.
Setting and time
The story is mainly set on the whaler Pequod, and it covers a period of several months, spent whale hunting.
•The story is an allegory of the conflict between man and Universe, seen as inscrutable in its forces: God, Nature, fate. The conflict is embodied by the characters of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, with a strong reference to the Bible, both to King Ahab and to the Book of Jonah
•All the efforts Ishmael makes to define the essential nature of whales fail, demonstrating the limits of knowledge
•The ways of Moby Dick, like those of the Christian God, are unknowable to man, and thus trying to interpret them, as Ahab does, is inevitably futile and often fata