Moby Dick Notes
What is Moby Dick?
Many things. A revenge story, romance, Gothic novel with many themes, one of the greatest
being the theme of duality/universality – the idea that life must be observed from many
perspectives to be best appreciated and understood.
Examples of duality:
Multiple points of view (1st and 3rd person – narrative distance)
Duality of form – genres within genres
First person realism
Chapters of exposition (description of whales and whaling; the attempt to
convey the secret of the whale)
Chapters that are short sketches
Rhetorical apologies for its incompleteness
Struggle between realism and mysticism with allegorical significance
Melville’s struggle with art and life
QUEST: To find meaning and truth (“Ach . . . the impossibility of knowledge” – my
allusion to ???)
Good v. Evil
Nature v. Man
God v. Nature (Darwin’s influence???)
Eastern v. Western religions/cultures
This novel is, above all, an example of romanticism – (i.e) imagination. The whale is
larger-than-life, powerful, mysterious, beautiful, and full of meaning!
NOTE: The whale embodies all of these struggles and more!
Notes: Chapters 1-10
NOTE: The website powermobydick.com is completely annotated and
explains just about every reference possible in the text. My notes will
expand on those details and ask you to think more deeply about
Biblical allusions and other philosophical references.
loom 1 (l m)
intr.v. loomed, loom·ing, looms
1. To come into view as a massive, distorted, or indistinct image: "I faced the icons that loomed through
the veil of incense" (Fergus M. Bordewich). See Synonyms at appear.
2. To appear to the mind in a magnified and threatening form: "Stalin looms over the whole human
tragedy of 1930-1933" (Robert Conquest).
3. To seem imminent; impend: Revolution loomed but the aristocrats paid no heed.
A distorted, threatening appearance of something, as through fog or darkness.
The title is portentous. (Think about it.)
Ishmael (allusion to Abraham’s son by his maidservant Hagar – a Biblical outcast but
one with great narrative perspective) is drawn to the sea. Consider why.
Themes: power of fate/free will – Is free will an illusion?
Chapter 2 – “The Carpet Bag”
Why this title?
Where is Ishmael now? Where is he going? Why?
Other allusions/themes/interesting references:
“The Spouter Inn: -- Peter Coffin” – reference to whaling/foreshadowing—Does Ishmael
heed the warning?
Biblical allusion to Lazarus:
The parable of the Dives (generic name for a rich man):
Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, living in luxury
every day. A certain beggar, named Lazarus, was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be
fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. Yes, even the dogs came and licked his
sores. It happened that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels to Abraham's
bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried. In Hades, he lifted up his eyes, being in torment,
and saw Abraham far off, and Lazarus at his bosom. He cried and said, "Father Abraham, have
mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my
tongue! For I am in anguish in this flame."
But Abraham said, "Son, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things, and
Lazarus, in the same way, bad things. But now here he is comforted and you are in anguish.
Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that those who want to pass from
here to you are not able, and that none may cross over from there to us."
He said, "I ask you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house; for I have
five brothers, that he may testify to them, so they won't also come into this place of torment."
But Abraham said to him, "They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them."
He said, "No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent."
He said to him, "If they don't listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if
one rises from the dead."
— Luke 16:19–31, World English Bible
Consider how this allusion relates to the duality of heaven and hell, hot and cold, the heat or cold
of hell. Remember that Milton’s hell was hot, but Dante’s hell was cold. Ishmael is cold in New
Bedford in December, which causes Melville to muse . . .
Chapter 3 – “The Spouter Inn”
Consider the painting on the wall: “But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long,
limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue,
dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly,
enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained,
unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, til you involunatrily took an oath
with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant . . . But stop, does it not bear
a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? Even the great leviathan himself?
Consider how we feel about things we don’t understand. . . and what is Melville suggesting
about our understanding of the whale? Life?
Note the shape of the bar in the inn. Allusion to ???
Why is Ishmael so nervous about his harpooner roommate before he meets him? After he sees
him for the first time? How is Queequeg’s appearance symbolic? How are his habits exotic?
Consider Ishmael’s assessment of Queequeg at the end of the chapter. More duality?
Chapter 4 - “The Counterpane”
Definition of COUNTERPANE
Examples of COUNTERPANE
1. <a beautiful counterpane that was a family heirloom>
Origin of COUNTERPANE
alteration of Middle English countrepointe, modification of Middle French coute pointe,
literally, embroidered quilt
Consider the symbolism/significance of the counterpane and Queequeg. Again,
consider duality’s thematic impact.
Consider the tone of the following statement: “His education was not yet completed. He
was still an undergraduate.”
Chapter 5 – “Breakfast”
“We will not speak of Queequeg’s peculiarities here . . .” Example of ????
Chapter 6 – “The Street”
How was New Bedford a rather unique place in America in the 19th century? Any ideas
as to why?
Chapter 7 – “The Chapel”
“Silent islands of men and women sat steadfastly eyeing several marble tablets. . .”
Consider the scenarios of these three tablets: __________, __________, _______
Foreshadowing? Significance? Note that Queequeg is there.
Why do others sit there? Why do they sit alone? Why don’t they talk? Why is their grief
How does Ishmael relate their grief to faith?
How does Ishmael feel about the dichotomy (more duality) between the body and the
Chapter 8 – “The Pulpit”
Symbolism of the pulpit? HINT: Consider both a religious and political connotation
Consider the significance of this quotation: “Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out,
and not a voyage omplete, and the pulpit is its prow.”
Chapter 9 – “The Sermon”
This sermon should remind you of an earlier sermon we’ve read. It too is a _____, a
speech which rebukes and exhorts its listeners. Consider the Biblical story of Jonah
and the Whale as you read the chapter.
Jonah and the Whale - Story Summary:
The story of Jonah and the Whale, one of the oddest accounts in the Bible, opens with God speaking
to Jonah, son of Amittai, commanding him to preach repentance to the city of Nineveh.
Jonah found this order unbearable. Not only was Nineveh known for its wickedness, but it was also the
capital of the Assyrian empire, one of Israel's fiercest enemies. Jonah, a stubborn fellow, did just the
opposite of what he was told. He went down to the seaport of Joppa and booked passage on a ship to
Tarshish, heading directly away from Nineveh. The Bible tells us Jonah "ran away from the Lord."
In response, God sent a violent storm, which threatened to break the ship to pieces. The terrified crew
cast lots, determining that Jonah was responsible for the storm. Jonah told them to throw him
overboard. First they tried rowing to shore, but the waves got even higher. Afraid of God, the sailors
finally tossed Jonah into the sea, and the water immediately grew calm. The crew made a sacrifice to
God, swearing vows to him.
Instead of drowning, Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, which God provided. In the belly of the
whale, Jonah repented and cried out to God in prayer. He praised God, ending with the eerily
prophetic statement, "Salvation comes from the Lord." (Jonah 2:9, NIV)
Jonah was in the giant fish three days. God commanded the whale, and it vomited the reluctant
prophet onto dry land. This time Jonah obeyed God. He walked through Nineveh proclaiming that in
forty days the city would be destroyed. Surprisingly, the Ninevites believed Jonah's message and
repented, wearing sackcloth and covering themselves in ashes. God had compassion on them and did
not destroy them.
Again Jonah questioned God, because Jonah was angry that Israel's enemies had been spared. When
Jonah stopped outside the city to rest, God provided a vine to shelter him from the hot sun. Jonah was
happy with the vine, but the next day God provided a worm that ate the vine, making it wither.
Growing faint in the sun, Jonah complained again.
God scolded Jonah for being concerned about a vine, but not about Nineveh, which had 120,000 lost
people. The story ends with God expressing concern even about the wicked.
What two lessons does Father Mapple impart? Possible foreshadowing?
Chapter 10—“A Bosom Friend”
Consider the philosophical conclusions Ishmael makes in this chapter. How does
reason through to this conclusion?