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moby dick

Interpreting Moby Dick
Moby Dick can sustain numerous, if not seemingly infinite, readings generated by multiple interpretative
approaches. One of the most fruitful ways to appreciate the novel’s complexity is through the names that
Melville gave to its characters, many of which are shared with figures of the Abrahamic religions. The very
first line of Moby Dick, for instance, identifies Ishmael as the narrator; Ishmael was the illegitimate (in terms
of the Covenant) son of Abraham and was cast away after Isaac was born. There are a number of other
Abrahamic names in the book as well, including Ahab—who, according to the Hebrew Bible, was an evil king
who led the Israelites into a life of idolatry. Melville’s Ahab is obsessed with Moby Dick, an idol that causes
the death of his crew. The ship that saves Ishmael, the Rachel, is named for the mother of Joseph, known
for interceding to protect her children. It is Rachel, as depicted in the Book of Jeremiah, who convinced God
to end the exile placed upon the Jewish tribes for idolatry. The rescue of Ishmael by the Rachel in Moby Dick
can thus be read as his return from an exile caused by his complicity (because he was on the Pequod’s crew)
in Ahab’s idolatry of the whale. Melville’s use of these names grants his novel a rich layer of additional
The whale itself is perhaps the most striking symbol in Moby Dick, and interpretations of its meaning range
from the Judeo-Christian God to atheism and everything in between. Between the passages of carefully
detailed cetology, the epigraphs, and the shift from a hero’s quest narrative to a tragedy, Melville set the
stage for purposeful ambiguity. The novel’s ability to produce numerous interpretations is, perhaps, the
main reason it is considered one of the greatest American novels.
Context and reception
Melville himself was well versed in whaling, as he had spent some time aboard the Acushnet, a whaling
vessel, which gave him firsthand experience. He also did tremendous amounts of research, consulting a
number of scientific sources as well as accounts of historical events that he incorporated into Moby Dick. In
particular, the story of the Essex was one that fascinated Melville—and perhaps served as his primary
inspiration for the novel. The Essex, a whaling vessel, was attacked by a sperm whale in 1820. The ship sank,
and many of the crew members were either lost immediately or died of starvation as they awaited rescue
for nearly eight months.
Melville also consulted the story of Mocha Dick, a famed whale who was, like Moby Dick, very white and
aggressive and whose name was clearly an inspiration to Melville. Mocha Dick was often found off the coast
of Chile in the Pacific Ocean, near Mocha Island. He lived during the early 19th century and became a legend
among whalers. In 1839 a story about the whale was written in The Knickerbocker, which was likely the
source of Melville’s discovery of Mocha Dick. Unlike Moby Dick, however, Mocha Dick was eventually killed
and used for oil.
Melville befriended fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne during the writing of Moby Dick, which led to him
dramatically revising the narrative to make it more complex. The novel is dedicated to Hawthorne because
of his impact on Melville and the novel.
Once the novel was published, the public was unimpressed. It sold fewer than 4,000 copies in total, with
fewer than 600 in the United Kingdom. It was not until the mid-20th century that the novel became
recognized as one of the most important novels in American literature.