Ishmael travels in December from Manhattan Island to New Bedford with plans to sign up for a whaling voyage. The inn where he arrives is so crowded, he must share a bed with the tattooed Polynesian Queequeg, a harpooneer whose father was king of the (fictional) island of Rokovoko. The next morning, Ishmael and Queequeg attend Father Mapple's sermon on Jonah, then head for Nantucket. Ishmael signs up with the Quaker ship-owners Bildad and Peleg for a voyage on their whaler Pequod. Peleg describes Captain Ahab: "He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man" who nevertheless "has his humanities". They hire Queequeg the following morning. A man named Elijah prophesies a dire fate should Ishmael and Queequeg join Ahab. While provisions are loaded, shadowy figures board the ship. On a cold Christmas Day, the Pequod leaves the harbor.
Ishmael discusses cetology (the zoological classification and natural history of the whale), and describes the crew members. The chief mate is 30-year-old Starbuck, a Nantucket Quaker with a realist mentality, whose harpooneer is Queequeg; second mate is Stubb, from Cape Cod, happy-go-lucky and cheerful, whose harpooneer is Tashtego, a proud, pure-blooded Indian from Gay Head, and the third mate is Flask, from Martha's Vineyard, short, stout, whose harpooneer is Daggoo, a tall African, now a resident of Nantucket.
When Ahab finally appears on the quarterdeck, he announces he is out for revenge on the white whale which took one leg from the knee down and left him with a prosthesis fashioned from a whale's jawbone. Ahab will give the first man to sight Moby Dick a doubloon, a gold coin, which he nails to the mast. Starbuck objects that he has not come for vengeance but for profit. Ahab's purpose exercises a mysterious spell on Ishmael: "Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine". Instead of rounding Cape Horn, Ahab heads for the equatorial Pacific Ocean via southern Africa. One afternoon, as Ishmael and Queequeg are weaving a mat — "its warp seemed necessity, his hand free will, and Queequeg's sword chance" — Tashtego sights a sperm whale. Immediately, five hidden figures appear whom Ahab has brought as his own boat crew. Their leader, Fedallah, a Parsee, is Ahab's harpooneer. The pursuit is unsuccessful.
Southeast of the Cape of Good Hope, the Pequod makes the first of nine sea-encounters, or "gams", with other ships: Ahab hails the Goney (Albatross) to ask whether they have seen the White Whale, but the trumpet through which her captain tries to speak falls into the sea before he can answer. Ishmael explains that because of Ahab's absorption with Moby Dick, he sails on without the customary "gam", which defines as a "social meeting of two (or more) Whale-ships", in which the two captains remain on one ship and the chief mates on the other. In the second gam off the Cape of Good Hope, with the Town-Ho, a Nantucket whaler, the concealed story of a "judgment of God" is revealed, but only to the crew: a defiant sailor who struck an oppressive officer is flogged, and when that officer led the chase for Moby Dick, he fell from the boat and was killed by the whale.
Ishmael digresses on pictures of whales, brit (microscopic sea creatures on which whales feed), squid and — after four boats lowered in vain because Daggoo mistook a giant squid for the white whale — whale-lines. The next day, in the Indian Ocean, Stubb kills a sperm whale, and that night Fleece, the Pequod's black cook, prepares him a rare whale steak. Fleece delivers a sermon to the sharks that fight each other to feast on the whale's carcass, tied to the ship, saying that their nature is to be voracious, but they must overcome it. The whale is prepared, beheaded, and barrels of oil are tried out. Standing at the head of the whale, Ahab begs it to speak of the depths of the sea. The Pequod next encounters the Jeroboam, which not only lost its chief mate to Moby Dick, but also is now plagued by an epidemic.
The whale carcass still lies in the water. Queequeg mounts it, tied to Ishmael's belt by a monkey-rope as if they were Siamese twins. Stubb and Flask kill a right whale whose head is fastened to a yardarm opposite the sperm whale's head. Ishmael compares the two heads in a philosophical way: the right whale is Lockean, stoic, and the sperm whale as Kantean, platonic. Tashtego cuts into the head of the sperm whale and retrieves buckets of oil. He falls into the head, and the head falls off the yardarm into the sea. Queequeg dives after him and frees his mate with his sword.
The Pequod next gams with the Jungfrau from Bremen. Both ships sight whales simultaneously, with the Pequod winning the contest. The three harpooneers dart their harpoons, and Flask delivers the mortal strike with a lance. The carcass sinks, and Queequeg barely manages to escape. The Pequod's next gam is with the French whaler Bouton de Rose, whose crew is ignorant of the ambergris in the gut of the diseased whale in their possession. Stubb talks them out of it, but Ahab orders him away. Days later, an encounter with a harpooned whale prompts Pip, a little black cabin-boy from Alabama, to jump out of his whale boat. The whale must be cut loose, because the line has Pip so entangled in it. Furious, Stubb orders Pip to stay in the whale boat, but Pip later jumps again, and is left alone in the immense sea and has gone insane by the time he is picked up.
Cooled sperm oil congeals and must be squeezed back into liquid state; blubber is boiled in the try-pots on deck; the warm oil is decanted into casks, and then stowed in the ship. After the operation, the decks are scrubbed. The coin hammered to the main mast shows three Andes summits, one with a flame, one with a tower, and one a crowing cock. Ahab stops to look at the doubloon and interprets the coin as signs of his firmness, volcanic energy, and victory; Starbuck takes the high peaks as evidence of the Trinity; Stubb focuses on the zodiacal arch over the mountains; and Flask sees nothing of any symbolic value at all. The Manxman mutters in front of the mast, and Pip declines the verb "look".
The Pequod next gams with the Samuel Enderby of London, captained by Boomer, a down-to-earth fellow who lost his right arm to Moby Dick. Nevertheless, he carries no ill will toward the whale, which he regards not as malicious, but as awkward. Ahab puts an end to the gam by rushing back to his ship. The narrator now discusses the subjects of 1) whalers supply; 2) a glen in Tranque in the Arsacides islands full of carved whale bones, fossil whales, whale skeleton measurements; 3) the chance that the magnitude of the whale will diminish and that the leviathan might perish.
Leaving the Samuel Enderby, Ahab wrenches his ivory leg and orders the carpenter to fashion him another. Starbuck informs Ahab of oil leakage in the hold. Reluctantly, Ahab orders the harpooneers to inspect the casks. Queequeg, sweating all day below decks, develops a chill and soon is almost mortally feverish. The carpenter makes a coffin for Queequeg, who fears an ordinary burial at sea. Queequeg tries it for size, with Pip sobbing and beating his tambourine, standing by and calling himself a coward while he praises Queequeg for his gameness. Yet Queequeg suddenly rallies, briefly convalesces, and leaps up, back in good health. Henceforth, he uses his coffin for a spare seachest, which is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod's life buoy.
The Pequod sails northeast toward Formosa and into the Pacific Ocean. Ahab, with one nostril, smells the musk from the Bashee isles, and with the other, the salt of the waters where Moby Dick swims. Ahab goes to Perth, the blacksmith, with bag of racehorse shoenail stubs to be forged into the shank of a special harpoon, and with his razors for Perth to melt and fashion into a harpoon barb. Ahab tempers the barb in blood from Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo.
The Pequod gams next with the Bachelor, a Nantucket ship heading home full of sperm oil. Every now and then, the Pequod lowers for whales with success. On one of those nights in the whaleboat, Fedallah prophesies that neither hearse nor coffin can be Ahab's, that before he dies, Ahab must see two hearses — one not made by mortal hands and the other made of American wood — that Fedallah will precede his captain in death, and finally that only hemp can kill Ahab.
As the Pequod approaches the Equator, Ahab scolds his quadrant for telling him only where he is and not where he will be. He dashes it to the deck. That evening, an impressive typhoon attacks the ship. Lightning strikes the mast, setting the doubloon and Ahab's harpoon aglow. Ahab delivers a speech on the spirit of fire, seeing the lightning as a portent of Moby Dick. Starbuck sees the lightning as a warning, and feels tempted to shoot the sleeping Ahab with a musket. Next morning, when he finds that the lightning disoriented the compass, Ahab makes a new one out of a lance, a maul, and a sailmaker's needle. He orders the log be heaved, but the weathered line snaps, leaving the ship with no way to fix its location.
The Pequod is now heading southeast toward Moby Dick. A man falls overboard from the mast. The life buoy is thrown, but both sink. Now Queequeg proposes that his superfluous coffin be used as a new life buoy. Starbuck orders the carpenter take care it is lidded and caulked. Next morning, the ship meets in another truncated gam with the Rachel, commanded by Captain Gardiner from Nantucket. The Rachel is seeking survivors from one of her whaleboats which had gone after Moby Dick. Among the missing is Gardiner's young son. Ahab refuses to join the search. Twenty-four hours a day, Ahab now stands and walks the deck, while Fedallah shadows him. Suddenly, a sea hawk grabs Ahab's slouched hat and flies off with it. Next, the Pequod, in a ninth and final gam, meets the Delight, badly damaged and with five of her crew left dead by Moby Dick. Her captain shouts that the harpoon which can kill the white whale has yet to be forged, but Ahab flourishes his special lance and once more orders the ship forward. Ahab shares a moment of contemplation with Starbuck. Ahab speaks about his wife and child, calls himself a fool for spending 40 years on whaling, and claims he can see his own child in Starbuck's eye. Starbuck tries to persuade Ahab to return to Nantucket to meet both their families, but Ahab simply crosses the deck and stands near Fedallah.
On the first day of the chase, Ahab smells the whale, climbs the mast, and sights Moby Dick. He claims the doubloon for himself, and orders all boats to lower except for Starbuck's. The whale bites Ahab's boat in two, tosses the captain out of it, and scatters the crew. On the second day of the chase, Ahab leaves Starbuck in charge of the Pequod. Moby Dick smashes the three boats that seek him into splinters and tangles their lines. Ahab is rescued, but his ivory leg and Fedallah are lost. Starbuck begs Ahab to desist, but Ahab vows to slay the white whale, even if he would have to dive through the globe itself to get his revenge.
On the third day of the chase, Ahab sights Moby Dick at noon, and sharks appear, as well. Ahab lowers his boat for a final time, leaving Starbuck again on board. Moby Dick breaches and destroys two boats. Fedallah's corpse, still entangled in the fouled lines, is lashed to the whale's back, so Moby Dick turns out to be the hearse Fedallah prophesied. "Possessed by all the fallen angels", Ahab plants his harpoon in the whale's flank. Moby Dick smites the whaleboat, tossing its men into the sea. Only Ishmael is unable to return to the boat. He is left behind in the sea, and so is the only crewman of the Pequod to survive the final encounter. The whale now fatally attacks the Pequod. Ahab then realizes that the destroyed ship is the hearse made of American wood in Fedallah's prophesy. The whale returns to Ahab, who stabs at him again. The line loops around Ahab's neck, and as the stricken whale swims away, the captain is drawn with him out of sight. Queequeg's coffin comes to the surface, the only thing to escape the vortex when Pequod sank. For an entire day, Ishmael floats on it, and then the Rachel, still looking for its lost seamen, rescues him.
Ishmael is the narrator, shaping his story with use of many different genres including sermons, stage plays, soliloquies, and emblematical readings. Repeatedly, Ishmael refers to his writing of the book: "'But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.'" Scholar John Bryant calls him the novel's "central consciousness and narrative voice." Bezanson first distinguishes Ishmael as narrator from Ishmael as character, whom he calls "forecastle Ishmael", and who is the younger Ishmael of some years ago. Narrator Ishmael, then, is "merely young Ishmael grown older." A second distinction avoids confusion of either of both Ishmaels with the author Herman Melville. Bezanson warns readers to "resist any one-to-one equation of Melville and Ishmael."
According to critic Walter Bezanson, the chapter structure can be divided into "chapter sequences", "chapter clusters", and "balancing chapters". The simplest sequences are of narrative progression, then sequences of theme such as the three chapters on whale painting, and sequences of structural similarity, such as the five dramatic chapters beginning with "The Quarter-Deck" or the four chapters beginning with "The Candles". Chapter clusters are the chapters on the significance of the colour white, and those on the meaning of fire. Balancing chapters are chapters of opposites, such as "Loomings" versus the "Epilogue," or similars, such as "The Quarter-Deck" and "The Candles".
Scholar Lawrence Buell describes the arrangement of the non-narrative chapters as structured around three patterns: first, the nine meetings of the Pequod with ships that have encountered Moby Dick. Each has been more and more severely damaged, foreshadowing the Pequod's own fate. Second, the increasingly impressive encounters with whales. In the early encounters, the whaleboats hardly make contact; later there are false alarms and routine chases; finally, the massive assembling of whales at the edges of the China Sea in "The Grand Armada". A typhoon near Japan sets the stage for Ahab's confrontation with Moby Dick. The third pattern is the cetological documentation, so lavish that it can be divided into two subpatterns. These chapters start with the ancient history of whaling and a bibliographical classification of whales, getting closer with second-hand stories of the evil of whales in general and of Moby Dick in particular, a chronologically ordered commentary on pictures of whales. The climax to this section is chapter 57, "Of whales in paint etc.", which begins with the humble (a beggar in London) and ends with the sublime (the constellation Cetus). The next chapter ("Brit"), thus the other half of this pattern, begins with the book's first description of live whales, and next the anatomy of the sperm whale is studied, more or less from front to rear and from outer to inner parts, all the way down to the skeleton. Two concluding chapters set forth the whale's evolution as a species and claim its eternal nature.
Some "ten or more" of the chapters on whale killings, beginning at two-fifths of the book, are developed enough to be called "events". As Bezanson writes, "in each case a killing provokes either a chapter sequence or a chapter cluster of cetological lore growing out of the circumstance of the particular killing," thus these killings are "structural occasions for ordering the whaling essays and sermons".
Buell observes that the "narrative architecture" is an "idiosyncratic variant of the bipolar observer/hero narrative", that is, the novel is structured around the two main characters, Ahab and Ishmael, who are intertwined and contrasted with each other, with Ishmael the observer and narrator. As the story of Ishmael, remarks Robert Milder, it is a "narrative of education".
Bryant and Springer find that the book is structured around the two consciousnesses of Ahab and Ishmael, with Ahab as a force of linearity and Ishmael a force of digression. While both have an angry sense of being orphaned, they try to come to terms with this hole in their beings in different ways: Ahab with violence, Ishmael with meditation. And while the plot in Moby-Dick may be driven by Ahab's anger, Ishmael's desire to get a hold of the "ungraspable" accounts for the novel's lyricism. Buell sees a double quest in the book: Ahab's is to hunt Moby Dick, Ishmael's is "to understand what to make of both whale and hunt".
One of the most distinctive features of the book is the variety of genres. Bezanson mentions sermons, dreams, travel account, autobiography, Elizabethan plays, and epic poetry. He calls Ishmael's explanatory footnotes to establish the documentary genre "a Nabokovian touch".
A significant structural device is the series of nine meetings (gams) between the Pequod and other ships. These meetings are important in three ways. First, their placement in the narrative. The initial two meetings and the last two are both close to each other. The central group of five gams are separated by about 12 chapters, more or less. This pattern provides a structural element, remarks Bezanson, as if the encounters were "bones to the book's flesh". Second, Ahab's developing responses to the meetings plot the "rising curve of his passion" and of his monomania. Third, in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael interprets the significance of each ship individually: "each ship is a scroll which the narrator unrolls and reads." Bezanson sees no single way to account for the meaning of all of these ships. Instead, they may be interpreted as "a group of metaphysical parables, a series of biblical analogues, a masque of the situation confronting man, a pageant of the humors within men, a parade of the nations, and so forth,'as well as concrete and symbolic ways of thinking about the White Whale".
Scholar Nathalia Wright sees the meetings and the significance of the vessels along other lines. She singles out the four vessels which have already encountered Moby Dick. The first, the Jeroboam, is named after the predecessor of the biblical King Ahab. Her "prophetic" fate is "a message of warning to all who follow, articulated by Gabriel and vindicated by the Samuel Enderby, the Rachel, the Delight, and at last the Pequod". None of the other ships has been completely destroyed because none of their captains shared Ahab's monomania; the fate of the Jeroboam reinforces the structural parallel between Ahab and his biblical namesake: "Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him" (I Kings 16:33).
An early enthusiast for the Melville Revival, British author E. M. Forster, remarked in 1927: "Moby-Dick is full of meanings: its meaning is a different problem." Yet he saw as "the essential" in the book "its prophetic song", which flows "like an undercurrent" beneath the surface action and morality.
Editors Bryant and Springer suggest perception is a central theme, the difficulty of seeing and understanding, which makes deep reality hard to discover and truth hard to pin down. Ahab explains that, like all things, the evil whale wears a disguise: "All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks" — and Ahab is determined to "strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside, except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall" (Ch. 36, "The Quarter-Deck"). This theme pervades the novel, perhaps never so emphatically as in "The Doubloon" (Ch. 99), where each crewmember perceives the coin in a way shaped by his own personality. Later, the American edition has Ahab "discover no sign" (Ch. 133) of the whale when he is staring into the deep. In fact, Moby Dick is then swimming up at him. In the British edition, Melville changed the word "discover" to "perceive", and with good reason, for "discovery" means finding what is already there, but "perceiving", or better still, perception, is "a matter of shaping what exists by the way in which we see it". The point is not that Ahab would discover the whale as an object, but that he would perceive it as a symbol of his making.
Melville biographer Delbanco cites race as an example of this search for truth beneath surface differences. All races are represented among the crew members of the Pequod. Although Ishmael initially is afraid of Queequeg as a tattooed cannibal, he soon decides, "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." While it may be rare for a mid-19th century American book to feature black characters in a nonslavery context, slavery is frequently mentioned. The theme of race is primarily carried by Pip, the diminutive black cabin boy. When Pip has almost drowned, Ahab, genuinely touched by Pip's suffering, questions him gently, Pip "can only parrot the language of an advertisement for the return of a fugitive slave: 'Pip! Reward for Pip!'".
Yet Melville does not offer easy solutions. Ishmael and Queequeg's sensual friendship initiates a kind of racial harmony that is shattered when the crew's dancing erupts into racial conflict in "Midnight, Forecastle" (Ch. 40). Fifty chapters later, Pip suffers mental disintegration after he is reminded that as a slave he would be worth less money than a whale. Commodified and brutalized, "Pip becomes the ship's conscience." His views of property are another example of wrestling with moral choice. In Chapter 89, Ishmael expounds the concept of the fast-fish and the loose-fish, which gives right of ownership to those who take possession of an abandoned fish or ship, and observes that the British Empire took possession of American Indian lands in colonial times in just the way that whalers take possession of an unclaimed whale.
An incomplete inventory of the language of Moby-Dick by editors Bryant and Springer includes "nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological" influences, and his style is "alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic, and unceasingly allusive": Melville tests and exhausts the possibilities of grammar, quotes from a range of well-known or obscure sources, and swings from calm prose to high rhetoric, technical exposition, seaman's slang, mystic speculation, or wild prophetic archaism.
The superabundant vocabulary of the work can be broken down into strategies used individually and in combination. First, the original modification of words as "Leviathanism" and the exaggerated repetition of modified words, as in the series "pitiable", "pity", "pitied" and "piteous" (Ch. 81, "The Pequod Meets the Virgin"), Second, the use of existing words in new ways, as when the whale "heaps" and "tasks". Third, words lifted from specialized fields, as "fossiliferous". Fourth, the use of unusual adjective-noun combinations, as in "concentrating brow" and "immaculate manliness" (Ch. 26, "Knights and Squires"). Fifth, using the participial modifier to emphasize and to reinforce the already established expectations of the reader, as the words "preluding" and "foreshadowing" ("so still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene ...", "In this foreshadowing interval ...").
Characteristic stylistic elements of another kind are the echoes and overtones. Responsible for this are both Melville's imitation of certain distinct styles and his habitual use of sources to shape his own work. His three most important sources, in order, are the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton.
Another notable stylistic element are the several levels of rhetoric, the simplest of which is "a relatively straightfoward expository style" that is evident of many passages in the cetological chapters, though they are "rarely sustained, and serve chiefly as transitions" between more sophisticated levels. One of these is the "poetic" level of rhetoric, which Bezanson sees "well exemplified" in Ahab's quarter-deck soliloquy, to the point that it can be set as blank verse. Set over a metrical patern, the rhythms are "evenly controlled--too evenly perhaps for prose," Bezanson suggests. A third level of rhetoric is the idiomatic, and just as the poetic it hardly is present in pure form. Examples of this are "the consistently excellent idiom" of Stubb, such as in the way he encourages the rowing crew in a rhythm of speech that suggests "the beat of the oars takes the place of the metronomic meter". The fourth and final level of rhetoric is the composite, "a magnificent blending" of the first three and possible other elements:
The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his buisiness, which a Noah's flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.
("Nantucket," Ch. 14).
This passage, from a chapter that Bezanson calls a comical "prose poem", blends "high and low with a relaxed assurance". Similar great passages include the "marvelous hymn to spiritual democracy" that can be found in the middle of "Knights and Squires".
The elaborate use of the Homeric simile may not have been learned from Homer himself, yet Matthiessen finds the writing "more consistently alive" on the Homeric than on the Shakespearean level, especially during the final chase the "controlled accumulation" of such similes emphasizes Ahab's hubris through a succession of land-images, for instance: "The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a ploughshare and turns up the level field" ("The Chase - Second Day," Ch. 134). One paragraph-long simile describes how the 30 men of the crew became a single unit:
For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp--yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.
("The Chase - Second Day," Ch. 134).
The final phrase fuses the two halves of the comparison, the men become identical with the ship, which follows Ahab's direction. The concentration only gives way to more imagery, with the "mastheads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs". All these images contribute their "startling energy" to the advance of the narrative. When the boats are lowered, the imagery serves to dwarf everything but Ahab's will in the presence of Moby Dick. These similes, with their astonishing "imaginative abundance," are not only invaluable in creating the dramatic movement, Matthiessen observes: "They are no less notable for breadth; and the more sustained among them, for an heroic dignity."
The influence of Shakespeare on the book has been analyzed by F.O. Matthiessen in his 1941 study of the American Renaissance with such results that almost a half century later Bezanson still considered him "the richest critic on these matters." According to Matthiesen, then, Melville's "possession by Shakespeare went far beyond all other influences" in that it made Melville discover his own full strength "through the challenge of the most abundant imagination in history". Especially the influence of King Lear and Macbeth has attracted scholarly attention. On almost every page debts to Shakespeare can be discovered, whether hard or easy to recognize. Matthiessen points out that the "mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing" at the end of "Cetology" (Ch.32) echo the famous phrase in Macbeth: "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." As Matthiessen demonstrates, Ahab's first extended speech to the crew, in the "Quarter-Deck" (Ch.36), is "virtually blank verse, and can be printed as such":
But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat,
That thing unsays itself. There are men
From whom warm words are small indignity.
I mean not to incense thee. Let it go.
Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn--
Living, breathing pictures painted by the sun.
The pagan leopards--the unrecking and
Unworshipping things, that live; and seek and give
Most importantly, through Shakespeare, Melville infused Moby-Dick with a power of expression he had not previously possessed. Reading Shakespeare, Matthiessen observes, had been "a catalytic agent" for Melville, one that transformed his writing "from limited reporting to the expression of profound natural forces". The extent to which Melville was in full possession of his powers is demonstrated by Matthiessen through the description of Ahab, which ends in language "that suggests Shakespeare's but is not an imitation of it: 'Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked from the skies and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!' The imaginative richness of the final phrase seems particularly Shakespearean, "but its two key words appear only once each in the plays ... and to neither of these usages is Melville indebted for his fresh combination." Melville's assimilation of Shakespeare, Matthiessen concludes, gave Moby-Dick "a kind of diction that depended upon no source", and that could, as D.H. Lawrence put it, convey something "almost superhuman or inhuman, bigger than life." The prose is not based on anybody else's verse but on "a sense of speech rhythm".
In addition to this sense of rhythm, Melville acquired verbal resources which for Matthiessen showd that he "now mastered Shakespeare's mature secret of how to make language itself dramatic". He had learned three essential things, Matthiessen sums up:To rely on verbs of action, "which lend their dynamic pressure to both movement and meaning." The effective tension caused by the contrast of "thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds" and "there's that in here that still remains indifferent" in "The Candles" (Ch. 119) makes the last clause lead to a "compulsion to strike the breast", which suggests "how thoroughly the drama has come to inhere in the words;"
The Shakespearean energy of verbal compounds was not lost on him ("full-freighted");
And, finally, Melville learned how to handle "the quickened sense of life that comes from making one part of speech act as another – for example, 'earthquake' as an adjective, or the coining of 'placeless', an adjective from a noun."
Moby-Dick is based on Melville's actual experience on a whaler. On December 30, 1840, he signed on as a green hand for the maiden voyage of the Acushnet, planned to last for 52 months. Its owner, Melvin O. Bradford, resembled Bildad, who signed on Ishmael, in that he was a Quaker: on several instances when he signed documents, he erased the word "swear" and replaced it with "affirm". Its captain was Valentine Pease, Jr., who was 43 years old at the start of the voyage. Although 26 men signed up as crew members, two did not show up for the ship's departure and were replaced by one new crew member. Five of the crew were foreigners, four of them Portuguese. The Scottish carpenter was one of the two who did not show for the ship's departure. Three black men were in the crew, two seamen and the cook. Fleece, the cook of the Pequod, was also black, so probably modeled on this Philadelphia-born William Maiden, who was 38 years old when he signed for the Acushnet.
Only 11 of the 26 original crew members completed the voyage. The others either deserted or were regularly discharged. The First Officer, Frederic Raymond, left the ship after a "fight" with the captain. A first mate, actually called Edward C. Starbuck, was on an earlier voyage with Captain Pease, in the early 1830s, and was discharged at Tahiti under mysterious circumstances. The second mate on the Acushnet was John Hall, English-born but a naturalized American. He is identified as Stubb in an annotation in the book's copy of crew member Henry Hubbard, who, like Melville, had joined the voyage as a green hand. Hubbard also identified the model for Pip: John Backus, a little black man added to the crew during the voyage. Hubbard's annotation appears in the chapter "The Castaway" and reveals that Pip's falling into the water was authentic; Hubbard was with him in the same boat when the incident occurred.
Ahab seems to have had no model in real life, though his death may have been based on an actual event. On May 18, 1843, Melville was aboard The Star, which sailed for Honolulu. Aboard were two sailors from the Nantucket who could have told him that they had seen their second mate "taken out of a whaleboat by a foul line and drowned". The model for the Whaleman's Chapel of chapter 7 is the Seamen's Bethel on Johnny Cake Hill. Melville attended a service there shortly before he shipped out on the Acushnet, and he heard a sermon by the chaplain, 63-year-old Reverend Enoch Mudge, who is at least in part the model for Father Mapple. Even the topic of Jonah and the Whale may be authentic, for Mudge was a contributor to Sailor's Magazine, which printed in December 1840 the ninth of a series of sermons on Jonah.
In addition to his own experience on the whaling ship Acushnet, two actual events served as the genesis for Melville's tale. One was the sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex in 1820, after a sperm whale rammed her 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from the western coast of South America. First mate Owen Chase, one of eight survivors, recorded the events in his 1821 Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.
The other event was the alleged killing in the late 1830s of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick, in the waters off the Chilean island of Mocha. Mocha Dick was rumored to have 20 or so harpoons in his back from other whalers, and appeared to attack ships with premeditated ferocity. One of his battles with a whaler served as subject for an article by explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker or New-York Monthly Magazine. Melville was familiar with the article, which described:
This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature... a singular consequence had resulted — he was white as wool!
Significantly, Reynolds writes a first-person narration that serves as a frame for the story of a whaling captain he meets. The captain resembles Ahab and suggests a similar symbolism and single-minded motivation in hunting this whale, in that when his crew first encounters Mocha Dick and cowers from him, the captain rallies them:
As he drew near, with his long curved back looming occasionally above the surface of the billows, we perceived that it was white as the surf around him; and the men stared aghast at each other, as they uttered, in a suppressed tone, the terrible name of MOCHA DICK!
"Mocha Dick or the d----l [devil]', said I, 'this boat never sheers off from any thing that wears the shape of a whale."
Mocha Dick had over 100 encounters with whalers in the decades between 1810 and the 1830s. He was described as being gigantic and covered in barnacles. Although he was the most famous, Mocha Dick was not the only white whale in the sea, nor the only whale to attack hunters.
While an accidental collision with a sperm whale at night accounted for sinking of the Union in 1807, it was not until August 1851 that the whaler Ann Alexander, while hunting in the Pacific off the Galápagos Islands, became the second vessel since the Essex to be attacked, holed, and sunk by a whale. Melville remarked, "Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster."
While Melville had already drawn on his different sailing experiences in his previous novels, such as Mardi, he had never focused specifically on whaling. The 18 months he spent as an ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841–42, and one incident in particular, now served as inspiration. During a mid-ocean "gam" (rendezvous at sea between ships), he met Chase's son William, who lent him his father's book. Melville later wrote:
I questioned him concerning his father's adventure; [...] he went to his chest & handed me a complete copy [...] of the Narrative [of the Essex catastrophe]. This was the first printed account of it I had ever seen. The reading of this wondrous story on the landless sea, and so close to the very latitude of the shipwreck, had a surprising effect upon me.
The book was out of print, and rare. Melville let his interest in the book be known to his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, whose friend in Nantucket procured an imperfect but clean copy which Shaw gave to Melville in April 1851. Melville read this copy avidly, made copious notes in it, and had it bound, keeping it in his library for the rest of his life.
Moby-Dick contains large sections—most of them narrated by Ishmael—that seemingly have nothing to do with the plot, but describe aspects of the whaling business. Although a successful earlier novel about Nantucket whalers had been written, Miriam Coffin or The Whale-Fisherman (1835) by Joseph C. Hart, which is credited with influencing elements of Melville's work, most accounts of whaling tended to be sensational tales of bloody mutiny, and Melville believed that no book up to that time had portrayed the whaling industry in as fascinating or immediate a way as he had experienced it.
Melville found the bulk of his data on whales and whaling in five books, the most important of which is Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), a book of reputed authority which Melville bought on July 10, 1850. "In scale and complexity," scholar Steven Olsen-Smith writes, "the significance of [this source] to the composition of Moby-Dick surpasses that of any other source book from which Melville is known to have drawn." According to scholar Howard P. Vincent, the general influence of this source is to supply the arrangement of whaling data in chapter groupings. Melville followed Beale's grouping closely, yet adapted it to what art demanded, and he changed the original's prosaic phrases into graphic figures of speech. The second most important whaling book is Frederick Debell Bennett, A Whaling Voyage Round the Globe, from the Year 1833 to 1836 (1840).
The third book was the one Melville reviewed for the Literary World in 1847, J. Ross Browne's Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1846), which may have given Melville the first thought for a whaling book, and in any case contains passages embarrassingly similar to passages in Moby-Dick. The fourth book, Reverend Henry T. Cheever's The Whale and His Captors (1850), was used for two episodes in Moby-Dick but probably appeared too late in the writing of the novel to be of much more use. Melville did plunder a fifth book, William Scoresby, Jr., An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (1820), although the book became the standard whaling reference soon after publication, Melville satirized and parodied it on several occasions—for instance in the description of narwhales in the chapter "Cetology", where he called Scoresby "Charley Coffin" and gave his account "a humorous twist of fact": "Scoresby will help out Melville several times, and on each occasion Melville will satirize him under a pseudonym."
The earliest surviving mention of the composition of what became Moby-Dick is the final paragraph of the letter Melville wrote to Richard Henry Dana, Jr. on May 1, 1850:
About the "whaling voyage" — I am half way in the work, & am very glad that your suggestion so jumps with mine. It will be a strange sort of book, tho', I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho' you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; — & to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy, which from the nature of the thing, must be ungainly as the gambols of the whales themselves. Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.
Some scholars have concluded that Melville composed Moby-Dick in two or even three stages. Reasoning from a series of inconsistencies and structural developments in the final version, they hypothesize that the work he mentioned to Dana was, in the words of Lawrence Buell, a "relatively straightforward" whaling adventure, but that reading Shakespeare and his encounters with Hawthorne inspired him to rewrite it as "an epic of cosmic encyclopedic proportions". Bezanson objects that the letter contains too many ambiguities to assume "that Dana's 'suggestion' would obviously be that Melville do for whaling what he had done for life on a man-of-war in White-Jacket". In addition, Dana had experienced how incomparable Melville was in dramatic story telling when he met him in Boston, so perhaps "his 'suggestion' was that Melville do a book that captured that gift". And the long sentence in the middle of the above quotation simply acknowledges that Melville is struggling with the problem, not of choosing between fact and fancy but of how to interrelate them. The most positive statements are that it will be a strange sort of a book and that Melville means to give the truth of the thing, but what thing exactly is not clear.
Melville may have found the plot before writing or developed it after the writing process was underway. Considering his elaborate use of sources, "it is safe to say" that they helped him shape the narrative, its plot included. Scholars John Bryant and Haskell Springer cite the development of the character Ishmael as another factor which prolonged Melville's process of composition and which can be deduced from the structure of the final version of the book. Ishmael, in the early chapters, is simply the narrator, just as the narrators in Melville's earlier sea adventures had been, but in later chapters becomes a mystical stage manager who is central to the tragedy.
Less than two months after mentioning the project to Dana, Melville reported in a letter of June 27 to Richard Bentley, his English publisher:
My Dear Sir, — In the latter part of the coming autumn I shall have ready a new work; and I write you now to propose its publication in England. The book is a romance of adventure, founded upon certain wild legends in the Southern Sperm Whale Fisheries, and illustrated by the author's own personal experience, of two years & more, as a harpooneer.
Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family had moved to a small red farmhouse near Lenox, Massachusetts, at the end of March 1850. He became friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Melville beginning on August 5, 1850, when the authors met at a picnic hosted by a mutual friend. Melville wrote an unsigned review of Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse titled "Hawthorne and His Mosses", which appeared in the The Literary World on August 17 and 24. Bezanson finds the essay "so deeply related to Melville's imaginative and intellectual world while writing Moby-Dick" that it could be regarded as a virtual preface and should be "everybody's prime piece of contextual reading". In the essay, Melville compares Hawthorne to Shakespeare and Dante, and his "self-projection" is evident in the repeats of the word "genius", the more than two dozen references to Shakespeare, and in the insistence that Shakespeare's "unapproachability" is nonsense for an American.
The most intense work on the book was done during the winter of 1850–1851, when Melville had changed the noise of New York City for a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The move may well have delayed finishing the book. During these months, he wrote several excited letters to Hawthorne, including one of June 1851 in which he summarizes his career: "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches." This is the stubborn Melville who stood by Mardi and talked about his other, more commercial books with contempt. The letter also reveals how Melville experienced his development from his 25th year: "Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself. But I feel that I am now come to the inmost leaf of the bulb, and that shortly the flower must fall to the mould." One other theory holds that getting to know Hawthorne first inspired him to write Ahab's tragic obsession into the book, but Bryant and Springer object that Melville already had experienced other encounters which could just as well have triggered his imagination, such as the Bible's Jonah and Job, Milton's Satan, Shakespeare's King Lear, Byron's heroes.
Theories of the composition of the book have been harpooned in three ways, first by raising objections against the use of evidence and the evidence itself. Scholar Robert Milder sees "insufficient evidence and doubtful methodology" at work. John Bryant finds "little concrete evidence, and nothing at all conclusive, to show that Melville radically altered the structure or conception of the book". A second type of objection is based upon Melville's intellectual development. Bezanson is not convinced that before he met Hawthorne, "Melville was not ready for the kind of book Moby-Dick became", because in his letters from the time Melville denounces his last two "straight narratives, Redburn and White-Jacket, as two books written just for the money, and he firmly stood by Mardi as the kind of book he believed in. His language is already "richly steeped in 17th-century mannerisms", characteristics of Moby-Dick. A third type calls upon the literary nature of passages used as evidence. According to Milder, the cetological chapters cannot be leftovers from an earlier stage of composition and any theory that they are "will eventually founder on the stubborn meaningfulness of these chapters", because no scholar adhering to the theory has yet explained how these chapters "can bear intimate thematic relation to a symbolic story not yet conceived". Buell finds that theories based on a combination of selected passages from letters and what are perceived as "loose ends" in the book not only "tend to dissolve into guesswork", but he also suggests that these so-called loose ends may be intended by the author: repeatedly the book mentions "the necessary unfinishedness of immense endeavors". Despite all this, Buell finds the evidence that Melville changed his ambitions during writing "on the whole convincing".
Melville first proposed the English publication in a 27 June 1850 letter to Richard Bentley, London publisher of his earlier works. Textual scholar G. Thomas Tanselle explains that for these earlier books, American proof sheets had been sent to the English publisher and that publication in the United States had been held off until the work had been set in type and published in England. This procedure was intended to provide the best (though still uncertain) claim for the English copyright of an American work. In the case of Moby-Dick, Melville had taken almost a year longer than promised, and could not rely on Harpers to prepare the proofs as they had done for the earlier books. Indeed, Harpers had denied him an advance, and since he was already in debt to them for almost $700, he was forced to borrow money and to arrange for the typesetting and plating himself. John Bryant suggests that he did so "to reduce the number of hands playing with his text".
The final stages of composition overlapped with the early stages of publication. In June 1851, Melville wrote to Hawthorne that he was in New York to "work and slave on my 'Whale' while it is driving through the press". By the end of the month, "wearied with the long delay of printers", Melville came back to finish work on the book in Pittsfield. Three weeks later, the typesetting was almost done, as he announced to Bentley on 20 July: "I am now passing thro' the press, the closing sheets of my new work". While Melville was simultaneously writing and proofreading what had been set, the corrected proof would be plated, that is, the type fixed in final form. Since earlier chapters were already plated when he was revising the later ones, Melville must have "felt restricted in the kinds of revisions that were feasible".
On 3 July 1851, Bentley offered Melville ₤150 and "half profits", that is, half the profits that remained after the expenses of production and advertising. On 20 July, Melville accepted, after which Bentley drew up a contract on 13 August. Melville signed and returned the contract in early September, and then went to New York with the proof sheets, made from the finished plates, which he sent to London by his brother Allan on 10 September. For over a month, these proofs had been in Melville's possession, and because the book would be set anew in England, he could devote all his time to correcting and revising them. He still had no American publisher, so the usual hurry about getting the English publication to precede the American was not present. Only on 12 September was the Harper publishing contract signed. Bentley received the proof sheets with Melville's corrections and revisions marked on them on September 24. He published the book less than four weeks later.
On 18 October, the English edition, The Whale, was published in a printing of only 500 copies, fewer than Melville's previous books. Their slow sales had convinced Bentley that a smaller number was more realistic. The London Morning Herald on October 20 printed the earliest known review. On 14 November, the American edition, Moby-Dick, was published and the same day reviewed in both the Albany Argus and the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer. On 19 November, Washington received the copy to be deposited for copyright purposes. The first American printing of 2,915 copies was almost the same as the first of Mardi, but the first printing of Melville's other three Harper books had been a thousand copies more.
The English edition, set by Bentley's printers from the American page proofs with Melville's revisions and corrections, differs from the American edition in over 700 wordings and thousands of punctuation and spelling changes.
Excluding the preliminaries and the one extract, the three volumes of the English edition came to 927 pages and the single American volume to 635 pages. Accordingly, the dedication to Hawthorne in the American edition — "this book is inscribed to"— became "these volumes are inscribed to" in the English. The table of contents in the English edition generally follows the actual chapter titles in the American edition, but 19 titles in the American table of contents differ from the titles above the chapters themselves. This list was probably drawn up by Melville himself: the titles of chapters describing encounters of the Pequod with other ships had—apparently to stress the parallelisms between these chapters—been standardized to "The Pequod meets the...," with the exception of the already published 'The Town-Ho's Story'. For unknown reasons, the "Etymology" and "Extracts" were moved to the end of the third volume. An epigraph from Paradise Lost, taken from the second of the two quotations from that work in the American edition, appears on the title page of each of the three English volumes. Melville's involvement with this rearrangement is not clear: if it was Bentley's gesture toward accommodating Melville, as Tanselle suggests, its selection put an emphasis on the quotation Melville may not have agreed with.
The largest of Melville's revisions is the addition to the English edition of a 139-word footnote in Chapter 87 explaining the word "gally". The edition also contains six short phrases and some 60 single words lacking in the American edition. In addition, about 35 changes produce genuine improvements, as opposed to mere corrections: "Melville may not have made every one of the changes in this category, but it seems certain that he was responsible for the great majority of them."
The British publisher hired one or more revisers who were, in the evaluation of scholar Steven Olsen-Smith, responsible for "unauthorized changes ranging from typographical errors and omissions to acts of outright censorship". The expurgations fall into four categories, ranked according to the apparent priorities of the censor:
- Sacrilegious passages, more than 1200 words: Attributing human failures to God was grounds for excision or revision, as was comparing human shortcomings to divine ones. For example, in chapter 28, "Ahab", Ahab stands with "a crucifixion" in his face" was revised to "an apparently eternal anguish";
- Sexual matters, including the sex life of whales and even Ishmael's worried anticipation of the nature of Queequeg's underwear, as well as allusions to fornication or harlots, and "our hearts' honeymoon" (in relation to Ishmael and Queequeg) Chapter 95, however, "The Cassock", referring to the whale's genital organ, was untouched, perhaps because of Melville's indirect language.
- Remarks "belittling royalty or implying a criticism of the British": This meant the exclusion of the complete chapter 25, a "Postscript" on the use of sperm oil at coronations;
- Perceived grammatical or stylistic anomalies were treated with "a highly conservative interpretation of rules of 'correctness'".
These expurgations also meant that any corrections or revisions Melville may have marked upon these passages are now lost.
The final difference in the material not already plated is that the "Epilogue", thus Ishmael's miraculous survival, is omitted from the British edition. Obviously, the epilogue was not an afterthought supplied too late for the English edition, for it is referred to in "The Castaway": "in the sequel of the narrative, it will then be seen what like abandonment befell myself." Why the "Epilogue" is missing is unknown. Since nothing objectionable was in it, most likely it was somehow lost by Bentley's printer when the "Etymology" and "Extracts" were moved.
After the sheets had been sent, Melville changed the title. Probably late in September, Allan sent Bentley two pages of proof with a letter of which only a draft survives which informed him that Melville "has determined upon a new title & dedication—Enclosed you have proof of both—It is thought here that the new title will be a better selling title". After expressing his hope that Bentley would receive this change in time, Allan said that "Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book, being the name given to a particular whale who if I may so express myself is the hero of the volume". Biographer Hershel Parker suggests that the reason for the change was that Harper's had two years earlier published a book with a similar title, The Whale and His Captors.
Changing the title was not a problem for the American edition, since the running heads throughout the book only showed the titles of the chapters, and the title page, which would include the publisher's name, could not be printed until a publisher was found. In October Harper's New Monthly Magazine printed chapter 54, "The Town-Ho's Story", with a footnote saying: "From The Whale. The title of a new work by Mr. Melville". The one surviving leaf of proof, "a 'trial' page bearing the title 'The Whale' and the Harper imprint," shows that at this point, after the publisher had been found, the original title still stood. When Allan's letter arrived, no sooner than early October, Bentley had already announced The Whale in both the Athenaem and the Spectator of 4 and 11 October. Probably to accommodate Melville, Bentley inserted a half-title page in the first volume only, which reads "The Whale; or, Moby Dick".
The British printing of 500 copies sold fewer than 300 within the first four months. In 1852, some remaining sheets were bound in a cheaper casing, and in 1853, enough sheets were still left to issue a cheap edition in one volume. Bentley lost half on Melville's advance of ₤150. Harper's first printing was 2,915 copies, including the standard 125 review copies. The selling price was $1.50, about a fifth of the price of the British three-volume edition. About 1,500 copies were sold within 11 days, and then sales slowed down to less than 300 the next year. After three years, the first edition was still available, almost 300 copies of which were lost when a fire broke out at the firm in December 1853. In 1855, a second printing of 250 copies was issued, in 1863, a third of 253 copies, and finally in 1871, a fourth printing of 277 copies, which sold so slowly that no new printing was ordered. Moby-Dick was out of print during the last four years of Melville's life, having sold 2,300 in its first year and a half and on average 27 copies a year for the next 34 years, totaling 3,215 copies.
Melville's earnings from the book add up to $1,260: the ₤150 advance from Bentley was equivalent to $703, and the American printings earned him $556, which was $100 less than he earned from any of his five previous books. Melville's widow received another $81 when the United States Book Company issued the book and sold almost 1,800 copies between 1892 and 1898.
The reception of The Whale in Britain and of Moby-Dick in the United States differed in two ways, according to Parker. First, British literary criticism was more sophisticated and developed than in the still young republic, with British reviewing done by "professional literary men and women" who were "experienced critics and trenchant prose stylists", while American reviewing on the contrary mostly delegated to "newspaper staffers" or else by "amateur contributors more noted for religious piety than critical acumen." Second, the differences between the two editions caused "two distinct critical receptions."
Twenty-one reviews appeared in London, and later one in Dublin. The British reviewers mostly regarded The Whale as "a phenomenal literary work, a philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic romance". The Morning Advertiser for October 24 was in awe of Melville's learning, of his "dramatic ability for producing a prose poem", and of the whale adventures which were "powerful in their cumulated horrors." To its surprise, John Bull found "philosophy in whales" and "poetry in blubber", and concluded that few books that claimed to be either philosophical or literary works "contain as much true philosophy and as much genuine poetry as the tale of the Pequod's whaling expedition", making it a work "far beyond the level of an ordinary work of fiction". The Morning Post found it "one of the cleverest, wittiest, and most amusing of modern books", and predicted that it was a book "which will do great things for the literary reputation of its author".
Melville himself never saw these reviews, and Parker calls it a "bitter irony" that the reception overseas was "all he could possibly have hoped for, short of a few conspicuous proclamations that the distance between him and Shakespeare was by no means immeasurable."
The review in the highly regarded London Athenaeum, which described it as
[A]n ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.
One problem was that since the English edition omitted the epilogue, British reviewers read a book with a first-person narrator who apparently did not survive to tell the tale. The reviewer in the Spectator objected that "nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish." The Dublin University Magazine asked "how does it happen that the author is alive to tell the story?" and the Literary Gazette declared that how the writer, "who appears to have been drowned with the rest, communicated his notes for publication to Mr. Bentley is not explained". A few other reviewers, who did not comment upon the apparent impossibility of Ishmael telling the story, pointed out violations of narrative conventions in other passages.
Other reviewers were fascinated enough with the book to accept its flaws. John Bull praised the author for making literature out of unlikely and even unattractive matter, and the Morning Post found that delight far oustripped the improbable character of events.
Some sixty reviews appeared in America, the criterion for counting as a review being more than two lines of comment. Though Moby-Dick did contain the Epilogue and so accounted for Ishmael's survival, the British reviews influenced the American reception. The earliest Amercan review, in the Boston Post for November 20, quoted the London Athenaeum's scornful review, not realizing that the criticism did not pertain to Moby-Dick. The New York North American Miscellany for December summarized the verdict in the Athenaeum. The reviewer of the December New York Eclectic Magazine had actually read Moby-Dick in full, and was puzzled why the Athenaeum was so scornful of the ending. The attack on The Whale by the Spectator was reprinted in the December New York International Magazine, which inaugurated the influence of another unfavorable review. Rounding off what American readers were told about the British reception, in January Harper's Monthly Magazine attempted some damage control, and wrote that the book had "excited a general interest" among the London magazines.
The weekly magazine Literary World, which had printed Melville's "Mosses" essay the preceding year, ran an anonymous review in two installments, on 15 and 22 November. The reviewer described Moby-Dick as three books rolled into one: he was pleased with the book as far as it was a thorough account of the sperm whale, less so with it as far as the adventures of the Pequod crew were considered, perceiving the characters as unrealistic and expressing inappropriate opinions on religions, and condemned the essayistic rhapsodizing and moralizing with what he thought was little respect of what "must be to the world the most sacred associations of life violated and defaced."
In a letter to Evert Duyckinck—identified by scholars as the reviewer—of December 1, Hawthorne praised the book and criticized the review:
What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points.
Within a year after Melville's death, Moby-Dick, along with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, was reprinted by Harper & Brothers, giving it a chance to be rediscovered. However, only New York's literary underground seemed to take much interest, just enough to keep Melville's name circulating for the next 25 years in the capital of American publishing. During this time, a few critics were willing to devote time, space, and a modicum of praise to Melville and his works, or at least those that could still be fairly easily obtained or remembered. Other works, especially the poetry, went largely forgotten.
In 1917, American author Carl Van Doren became the first of this period to proselytize about Melville's value. His 1921 study, The American Novel, called Moby-Dick a pinnacle of American Romanticism.
In his 1923 idiosyncratic but influential Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence celebrated the originality and value of American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps surprisingly, Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the expurgated original English edition which also lacked the epilogue.
The Modern Library brought out Moby-Dick in 1926 and the Lakeside Press in Chicago commissioned Rockwell Kent to design and illustrate a striking three-volume edition which appeared in 1930. Random House then issued a one-volume trade version of Kent's edition, which in 1943 they reprinted as a less expensive Modern Library Giant.
The novel has been adapted or represented in art, film, books, cartoons, television, and more than a dozen versions in comic-book format. The first adaptation was the 1926 silent movie The Sea Beast, starring John Barrymore, in which Ahab kills the whale and returns to marry his fiancée. The most famous adaptation was the John Huston 1956 film produced from a screenplay by author Ray Bradbury. The long list of adaptations, as Bryant and Springer put it, demonstrates that "the iconic image of an angry embittered American slaying a mythic beast seemed to capture the popular imagination", showing how "different readers in different periods of popular culture have rewritten Moby-Dick" to make it a "true cultural icon".
American author Ralph Ellison wrote a tribute to the book in the prologue of his 1952 novel Invisible Man. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, the character of the narrator "resembles no one else in previous fiction so much as he resembles Ishmael of Moby-Dick". Ellison acknowledges his debt in the prologue to the novel, where the narrator remembers a moment of truth under the influence of marijuana, and evocates a church service: "Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the 'Blackness of Blackness.' And the congregation answers: 'That blackness is most black, brother, most black ...'" In this scene Ellison "reprises a moment in the second chapter of Moby-Dick", where Ishmael wanders around New Bedford looking for a place to spend the night, and momentarily joins a congregation: "It was a negro church; and the preacher's text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there." According to Rampersad, it was Melville who "empowered Ellison to insist on a place in the American literary tradition" by his example of "representing the complexity of race and racism so acutely and generously in his text".Melville, H. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851.
Melville, H., Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1851. xxiii, 635 pages. Published probably on November 14, 1851.
Melville, H., Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Edited by Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent. New York: Hendricks House, 1952. Includes a 25-page Introduction and over 250 pages of Explanatory Notes with an Index.
Melville, H., Moby-Dick; or, The Whale: An Authoritative Text, Reviews and Letters by Melville, Analogues and Sources, Criticism. A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1967. ISBN 039309670X
Melville, H. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville 6. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern U. Press, 1988. A critical text with appendices on the history and reception of the book. The text is in the public domain.
Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford (eds). (2001). Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. A Norton Critical Edition. Second Edition, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393972832
Moby-Dick: A Longman Critical Edition, Edited by John Bryant and Haskell Springer. New York: Longman, 2007 and 2009. ISBN 978-0-321-22800-0