from Moby Dick
This selection from the novel established the sinister atmosphere of the Pequod and foreshadows Captain
Ahab‟s momentous conflict with the great white whale. As the chapter opens, Captain Ahab paces the
deck furiously, lost in thought. Just before sunset, he orders Starbuck, his first mate, to assemble the crew.
He works them into a frenzy of anticipation about hunting the white whale, Moby-Dick, and nails a
Spanish doubloon to the main mast for the man who first spots the whale. The men respond
enthusiastically, except for the level headed Starbuck, who objects to Ahab‟s seeking revenge on an
animal that had, in his view, acted instinctively when it severed Ahab‟s leg years before. Nevertheless, the
crew drinks to the pursuit of Moby-Dick in blasphemous mock communion.
1. The History of Whaling in America
Although whales have been hunted since the Stone Age by Inuit and other peoples of the Polar
regions, whaling began in the United States in 1690 off the islands of Nantucket and Long Island.
In the 1760s brick ovens for processing whale blubber were built on the ships and the industry
began to spread around the globe. After 1800, most of the American whale-ships sailed to the
Pacific Arctic in search of sperm whales. Although the Pequod sailed out of Nantucket, by 1848
New Bedford had surpassed that port as the biggest whaling center in the country.
2. (Paragraph 2 – p. 314) Drawing Inferences about Character
What inferences about Ahab can you make from the description of him walking on the deck?
What two clues suggest that he is a driven man?
3. (Paragraph 2 – p. 314) Simile
Why does the author compare the planks upon which Ahab walks to geological stones? To what
does he compare the dents on the planking?
4. (Paragraph 3 – p. 314) Responding to the Text
Visualize this scene, perhaps pace back and forth yourself as you read it aloud. Also note how the
rhythm of the language, particularly in the third paragraph, mimics the rhythm of Ahab‟s pacing.
5. (Paragraph 4 – p. 314) Characterization
In contrast to the descriptive passage before it, what technique does this passage use for
characterizing Ahab? What do you think the crew members are saying about Ahab?
6. (Paragraphs 2-3 – p. 315) Technical Vocabulary
Some of the sailing terms in the selection, such as bulwarks, are footnoted: for others such as
mastheads, you may need to look up meanings in a dictionary. List the technical terms and
definitions as you read.
7. (Paragraphs 1-7 – p. 316) Drawing Inferences about Character
What is Ahab trying to do with these frenzied questions and answers in this scene? What can you
infer from Ahab‟s offer of a sixteen-dollar gold coin for spotting Moby-Dick?
8. (Paragraphs 10-15 – p. 316) A Diverse Crew
The crew of the Pequod is a multinational, multiethnic mix. Queequeg is a South Sea Islander,
Tashtego is a Native American, and Daggoo is a free African.
9. (Paragraphs 10-15 – p. 316) Characterization
Melville introduces the three harpooners through both description and dialogue. What does he
show about them?
10. (Paragraph 16 – p. 316) Drawing Inferences about Character
What does Ahab‟s poetic description of the white whale tell you about him?
11. (Paragraph 16 – p. 316) Characterization
What special characteristics of Moby-Dick do Ahab and his crew remember?
12. (Paragraph 17 – p. 316) Drawing Inferences about Character
What can you infer about first mate Starbuck from this passage?
13. (Paragraph 1 – p. 317) Characterization
How does Ahab speak when he describes what Moby-Dick did to him?
14. (Paragraph 1 – p. 317) Geographical Notes
The Maelstrom is a dangerous whirlpool formed by tides off the Lofoten Islands of Norway. The
word maelstrom has come to be used for any whirlpool or, figuratively, for a dangerous situation
that might draw a person down to destruction. The Cape of Good Hope is at the southern tip of
Africa; Cape Horn is at the southern tip of South America.
15. (Paragraph 4-5 – p. 317) Historical Connections: The Economics of Whaling
Each crewman on a whaler was paid a percentage of the profits at the end of the voyage. The
captain received one-twelfth of the take, whereas the cabin boy might get only one thirty-five-
hundredth. Therefore, the crew‟s inclination would be to hunt as many whales as possible. Given
this fact, Starbuck and Ahab are debating whether it is wise to pursue only one whale for the sake
16. (Paragraph 6 – p. 317) Characterization
What does Stubb‟s comment imply about Captain Ahab?
17. (Paragraph 8 – p. 317) Cultural Connections: Influence of Transcendentalism
Ahab‟s speech conveys an inverse or negative transcendentalism. The transcendentalists believed
that one should transcend or go beyond the senses to perceive an ennobling truth in Nature. Here,
Ahab suggests that one should transcend the senses (pierce the mask) but that there may be no
truth or meaning to be found.
18. (Paragraph 1-3 – p. 318) Drawing Inference about Character
Judging from Starbuck‟s comment and the description of his expression, what is his state of
19. (Paragraph 3 – p. 318) Finding Details
In this paragraph Melville describes a number of omens or premonitions about the Pequod’s
voyage. Why doesn‟t Ahab pay attention to these signs?
20. (Paragraph 4 – p. 318) Characterization
How is Ahab described in this paragraph? What does Ishmael prophesy for Ahab, and what might
the “Indian” in this metaphor represent?
21. (Paragraphs 5-6 – p. 318) Allusion
This scene is a powerful inversion of the Christian sacrament of communion with Ahab
officiating as a venomous “Pope.”
22. (Paragraphs 6-8 – p. 318) Interpreting
What does the mates‟ reaction to Ahab‟s ceremony with the lances indicate? What does Ahab‟s
comment “in vain!” refer to? How does Ahab rationalize and then dismiss their reluctance?
23. Cultural Connections: Religious Imagery in Moby-Dick
Melville uses it to portray the depth to which Ahab has sunk into “the realms of darkness.” Here‟s
a list of religious images: mates as clergymen, grog rather than wine, maledictions in place of
prayers, and “murderous chalices.” Ahab pulls his men to physical, moral, and spiritual
24. Whaling: Facts and figures
The statistics say it all. The blue whales of the Antarctic are at less than 1 percent of their original
abundance, despite 40 years of complete protection. Some populations of whales are recovering but some
Only one population, the East Pacific grey whale, is thought to have recovered to its original abundance,
but the closely related West Pacific grey whale population is the most endangered in the world. It hovers
on the edge of extinction with just over 100 remaining.
Recent DNA evidence shows that the impact of commercial whaling may be even worse than previously
Most estimates of historic whale population size have been extrapolated from old whaling figures, but this
method is often very inaccurate, according to marine biologist Steve Palumbi of Stanford University's
Hopkins Marine Station in California, USA.
In 2003 Palumbi and his colleagues used DNA samples to estimate that humpback whales could have
numbered 1.5 million prior to the onset of commercial whaling in the 1800s.
That number dwarfs the figure of 100,000 previously accepted by the IWC based on 19th century whaling
records. Humpback whales currently number only 20,000.
Japanese delegates to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) constantly refer to a 1990 estimate of
the Antarctic minke population of 760,000. But that figure was withdrawn by the IWC in 2000 because
recent surveys found far fewer minkes than the older ones.
The new estimates are half the old in every area that has been resurveyed. The IWC's scientists do not
understand the reasons for this and so far have not been able to agree a new estimate.
Consumption, contamination, catastrophe
Whaling is no longer the only threat to whales. The oceans, or rather, human impacts on the oceans, have
changed dramatically over the half-century since whales have been protected.
Known environmental threats to whales include global warming, pollution, overfishing, ozone depletion,
noise such as sonar weaponry, and ship strikes. Industrial fishing threatens the food supply of whales and
also puts whales at risk of entanglement in fishing gear.
If you're thinking of eating whale, you might want to think again - the blubber of dead whales in some
areas is so highly contaminated with organochlorines such as PCBs and pesticides that it would be
classified as toxic waste!
Organochlorines are known to damage development of children and affect reproduction.
Despite these accumulating threats, an increasing number of nations in the International Whaling
Commission (IWC) are voting for an immediate resumption of commercial whaling. Some new and
enthusiastic members of the IWC include Benin, Gabon, Tuvalu and Nauru.
Obviously, these new memberships and voting numbers do not reflect a change in world opinion. These
countries have all been recruited to join the IWC and vote under what is termed a "vote consolidation
program" by the Fisheries Agency of Japan.
Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for
commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago.
Sadly, this assumption is no longer valid. This is why we believe that commercial whaling in all forms
must be stopped.
Ishmael recounts the fear and superstition surrounding whales in general and Moby-Dick in particular. He
also recounts the story of Ahab‟s monomaniacal obsession with the whale that dismembered him and how
the whale became a symbol of evil.
1. (Paragraph 1 – p. 321) Drawing Inferences about Character
What is Ishmael‟s attitude at this stage of the voyage? What hint suggests that his enthusiasm is
not altogether genuine?
2. (Paragraph 2 – p. 321) Getting the Main Idea
What happens, according to the narrator, when “a sperm whale of uncommon magnitude and
malignity” destroys a sailing ship?
3. (Paragraph 1 – p. 322) Historical Connections: First-Hand Accounts
The destructive power of whales was not exaggerated by Melville. Thomas Hefferman‟s book,
Stove by a Whale: Owen Chase and the Essex, tells of an 1820 incident in which an eighty-five-
foot sperm whale attacked and sank the whaling ship Essex in the Pacific Ocean. A survivor,
Owen Chase, wrote a sixty-three-page account of the frightful ramming. Chase and several
witnesses survived for three months on a smaller whaleboat until they were rescued off the coast
of Chile. In an 1839 article, “Mocha Dick,” J.N. Reynolds describes a ferocious white whale,
sporting nineteen harpoons that caused the death of thirty men by ramming several ships.
Melville acknowledged reading both accounts which he referred to as “fish documents.”
4. (Paragraph 2 – p. 322) Analyzing
How does Ishmael support his portrayal of the white whale?
5. (Paragraph 3 – p. 322) Getting the Main Idea
Why are whalers especially superstitious?
6. (Paragraph 5 – p. 322) Noting Details
What distinction between whalers does Ishmael draw?
7. (Paragraphs 3-4 – p. 323) Symbol
How do these rumors that the white whale is ubiquitous relate to the symbolic value that Ahab
attaches to Moby-Dick? How does Ishmael seem to feel about these rumors?
8. (Paragraph 1 – p. 324) Speculating
How could you tell that a harpoon in the side of a whale in the Pacific had been thrown by a
harpooner in the Atlantic?
9. (Paragraphs 2-4 – p. 324) Determining Author’s Purpose
Why does Ishmael provide so much lore about whales in general and Moby-Dick in particular?
10. (Paragraphs1-2 – p. 325) Interpreting
How did the White Whale‟s reputation for “intelligent malignity” arise?
11. (Paragraph 3 – p. 325) Speculating
How do you think sailors caught in such a situation would react? How would they view the whale
and, by extension, nature? Why would emerging into calm waters and sunlight inflame rather
than relieve them?
12. (Paragraph 4 – p. 325) Simile
What simile describes the way Moby-Dick took Ahab‟s leg?
13. (Paragraph 4 – p. 325) Drawing Inferences about Character
In what sense is Ahab one of these “deep men”? Note: the anger people feel can become
magnified into an obsession.
14. (Paragraph 4 – p. 325) Finding the Main Idea
In Ishmael‟s view, what does Moby-Dick signify for Ahab?
15. History: The Process of Whaling
Whaling ships carried at least two boats, each manned by a mate, four oarsmen and a harpooner.
Once a whale was killed, the crew removed the blubber and cooked it in large pots on the sip to
extract the oil. Not only did the blubber yield oil (used as a lamp fuel and in soaps and candles),
but the skin was used for leather and the cartilage for glue. The meat, of course, was eaten. Sperm
whales were particularly difficult to hunt, but a single whale could produce hundreds of gallons of
spermaceti (or sperm oil)-a waxy substance used in making candles, ointments, and cosmetics-
and ambergris, used in making perfume.
16. Critical Comment: The Whale as Symbol
Does Moby-Dick represent evil, as Ishmael says it does for Ahab? Critic Richard Chase takes a
broader view: “In the...white whale Melville found a perfect unifying symbol for his various
strands of meaning. The whale, with all of its ambiguity, its enormous power and its mildness, its
horrendous violence and its beauty, is the perfect foil both for Ahab‟s tortured search for
vengeance and truth and for Ishmael‟s reveries and speculations...It cannot be said with
finality..that Moby-Dick symbolizes Evil. Only Ahab in his growing madness sees him this way.
To Starbuck the whale is only a „dumb brute.‟ To Ishmael he is something very like nature itself:
a thing of infinite inner contradiction, complexity, and paradox-the rich, endlessly protean but
finally inscrutable object of human dream and thought.”
17. (Paragraph 2 – p. 326) Finding Sequence of Events
Chart the sequence of events in Ahab‟s life from the time of Ahab‟s life from the time of Ahab‟s
injury to his securing command of the Pequad.
18. (Paragraph 2 – p. 326) Analyzing
What do you think of the unusual image of Ahab and anguish lying together in the hammock?
Explore how his body and soul could bleed into one another.