Title page, first American edition of Moby-Dick
|Genre||Novel Adventure fiction, Epic, Sea story|
Richard Bentley (Britain)|
Harper & Brothers (U.S.)
October 18, 1851 (Britain)|
November 14, 1851 (U.S.)
927 (British first edition, 3 vols.)|
635 (U.S. first edition)
|Followed by||Pierre: or, The Ambiguities|
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) is a novel by Herman Melville, in which Ishmael narrates the monomaniacal quest of Ahab, captain of the whaler Pequod, for revenge on the albino sperm whale Moby Dick, which on a previous voyage destroyed Ahab's ship and severed his leg at the knee. A commercial failure and out of print at the time of the author's death in 1891, its reputation grew immensely during the twentieth century. D.H. Lawrence called it "one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world," and "the greatest book of the sea ever written." Moby-Dick is considered a Great American Novel and an outstanding work of the Romantic period in America and the American Renaissance. "Call me Ishmael," is one of world literature's most famous opening sentences.
The product of a year and a half of writing, the book is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, "in token of my admiration for his genius," and draws on Melville's experience at sea, on his reading in whaling literature, and on literary inspirations such as Shakespeare and the Bible. The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and of extracting whale oil, as well as life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew, are mixed with exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides.
The author changed the title at the very last moment in September 1851. The work first appeared as The Whale in London in October 1851, and then under its definitive title Moby-Dick in New York in November. The whale, however, appears in both the London and New York editions as "Moby Dick," with no hyphen. The British edition of five hundred copies was not reprinted during the author's life, the American of almost three thousand was reprinted three times at approximately 250 copies, the last reprinting in 1871. These figures are exaggerated because three hundred copies were destroyed in a fire at Harper's; only 3,200 copies were actually sold during the author's life.
- 1 Plot
- 2 Structure
- 3 Themes
- 4 Style
- 5 Background
- 6 Publication history
- 7 Reception
- 8 Adaptations
- 9 Editions
- 10 Footnotes
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Ishmael explains his need to go to sea and travels from Manhattan Island to New Bedford. The inn is crowded and he must share a bed with the tattooed Polynesian, Queequeg, a harpooneer whose father was king of the (imaginary) 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 to him: "He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man" who nevertheless "has his humanities" (Ch. 16, "The Ship"). 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.
Chapters discourse on the Cetology, or zoological classification and natural history of the whale, and describe 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, Martha's Vineyard; the third mate is Flask, from Martha's Vineyard, short, stout, whose harpooner is Daggoo, a tall African, now a resident of Nantucket.
When Ahab finally appears on the quarter-deck, 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 hammers to the mast. Starbuck objects that he has not come for vengeance but for profit. 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").
Ahab's purpose exercises a mysterious spell on Ishmael: 'Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine' (Ch. 41, "Moby Dick"). 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,"(Ch. 47, "The Mat-Maker"), Tashtego sights a sperm whale. Immediately five hidden figures appear who 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. (Ch. 53 "The Gam”). 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” (Ch. 54 “The Town-Ho’s Story”) 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.
Chapters 55-60 discuss pictures of whales, brit (microscopic sea creatures on which whales feed), squid, and—after four boats lowered in vain because Daggoo mistook a 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 who 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. (Ch. 64 "Stubb's Supper") 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 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. Ishmael now essays on how to dart lances in a harpooned whale, and the spouts and tails of whales. When the Pequod reaches Sunda Strait, Ahab wants to pass through it on his way to the Philippines and the Japanese coast. An armada of whales passe through the strait as well.
The Pequod's next gam is with the French whaler Bouton de Rose, whose crew is ignorant of the ambergris in the head of the diseased whale in their possession. Stubb talks them out of it, but Ahab orders him away. Days later a harpooned whale throws Pip, a little Negro cabin-boy from Alabama, 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 whaleboat, 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 sea-chest, which is later caulked and pitched to replace the Pequod's lifebuoy.
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 race-horse shoe-nail 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 Gardener 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 forty 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 in order 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, and so Moby Dick turns out to be the hearse Fedallah prophesied. "Possessed by all the fallen angels," (Ch. 135) Ahab plants his harpoon in the whale's flank. Moby Dick smites the whaleboat, tossing its men into the sea. Only Ishmael survives. The whale now fatally attacks the Pequod. Ahab then realizes that the destroyed ship is the hearse made of American wood in Feddallah'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.
In the words of scholars John Bryant and Haskell S. Springer, "Moby-Dick is a classic because it defies classification." It is “both drama and meditation: it is a tragedy and comedy, a stage play and a prose poem," they say, and add that it is "essay, myth, and encyclopedia.”  The structure is accordingly complex, comprising both narrative and non-narrative elements. Melville's skillful handling of chapters in Moby-Dick, says Warner Berthoff, is a measure of his "manner of mastery as a writer,"
Lawrence Buell observes that the “narrative architecture” is an “idiosyncratic variant of the bi-polar 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."
The narrative opens with one of the most well-known sentences in Western literature, “Call me Ishmael,” seeming to signal that Ishmael will be the central actor, and he is soon joined by Queequeg. But after the Pequod sets sail, the story of these two shipmates is “upstaged,” says Buell, by Ahab’s monomaniacal quest.  Bryant and Springer go on to show how 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, Ishamel's is "to understand what to make of both whale and hunt."
The arrangement of the non-narrative chapters, Buell explains, is 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") and 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.
One of the most distinctive features of the book is the variety of genres. Bezanson mentions sermons, dreams, travel account, autobiography, Elizabethan plays, epic poetry. He calls Ishmael's explanatory footnotes to establish the documentary genre "a Nabokovian touch." Some scholars have tried to identify a single basic genre. Charles Olson saw the Elizabethan play as a likely model, but when he tried to divide the book into acts he found that the chapters resisted this arrangement. F.O. Matthiessen joined in this enterprise, only to admit that some two hundred central pages delay the forward movement of the drama. Northrop Frye found the book to be the best illustration of the "romance-anatomy," but Bezanson cautions us not to forget that the book's "deepest anxieties" stem not from whales but from the Bible and Shakespeare. [clarification needed] Newton Arvin tried to link the book to the heroic poem or epic, but found that the book does not fit into epic form.
Chief among the thematic content are Melville's epistemological views. The American edition has Ahab "discover no sign" (Ch, 133) of the whale when he is staring in 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. This theme pervades the whole book, perhaps never so emphatically as in "The Doubloon" (Ch. 99), where each crewmember perceives the coin in a way shaped by his own personality.
While it may be rare for a mid-nineteenth century American book to feature black characters in a non-slavery 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!'"
All races are represented among the crew members of the Pequod. 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 some incidents where 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."
"Above all," say the scholars Bryant and Springer, Moby-Dick is language: "nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial,archaic, and unceasingly allusive.” Melville can stretch grammar, quote a range of well-known or obscure sources, or swing 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...").
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. There were three black men in the crew, two seaman and the cook. Fleece, the cook of the Pequod, was also black, and therefore probably modeled on this Philadelphia-born William Maiden, who was 38 years old when he signed for the Acushnet.
Only eleven 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 it was rammed by an enraged sperm whale 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 twenty 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 Galapagos 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 eighteen months he spent as an ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841–42, and one incident in particular, now served as inspiration. It was during a mid-ocean "gam" (rendezvous at sea between ships) that 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. Knowing that Melville was looking for it, his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, managed to find a copy and buy it for him. When Melville received it, he fell to it almost immediately, heavily annotating it.
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 there had been a successful earlier novel about Nantucket whalers, 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. Early Romantics also proposed that fiction was the exemplary way to describe and record history, so Melville wanted to craft something educational and definitive.
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 too 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. 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 seventeenth 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 there was not the usual hurry about getting the English publication to precede the American. 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.
Melville's revisions and British editorial revisions
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 nineteen 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 sixty single words lacking in the American edition. In addition, there are about thirty-five changes that 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."
British censorship and missing "Epilogue"
One or more British revisers purged the book of any material that might give offense. These 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," and 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 there was nothing objectionable in it, most likely it was somehow lost by Bentley's printer when the "Etymology" and "Extracts" were moved.
Last-minute change of title
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."
Sales and earnings
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 there were still enough sheets 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 eleven 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 one hundred dollars 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.
ContemporaryMelville was acclaimed for his earlier works Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847). Moby-Dick was to be his magnum opus, and he was shocked and bewildered at the scathing reviews it received. Instead of bringing literary acclaim, this masterwork started a slide toward literary obscurity. This was partially because the book was first published in England, and the American literary establishment took note of what the English critics said, especially critics who wrote in the more prestigious journals. Many reviews praised Moby-Dick for its unique style, interesting characters, and poetic language, but others agreed with a 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.
The unfavorable reviews from across the ocean made American readers skittish. Still, a handful of American critics saw value in it. Hawthorne said of the book:
What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones.
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."
Another problem was that by the time the book was published, whaling and maritime adventuring were no longer of topical interest for the American public. The Gold Rush had shifted their interest to the West, and lengthy novel with long factual passages dealing with the brutal technology of the whaling industry seemed less relevant to the author's American audience.
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.
Then came World War I and its consequences, particularly the shaking or destruction of faith in so many aspects of Western civilization, all of which caused people concerned with culture and its potential redemptive value to experiment with new aesthetic techniques. The stage was set for Melville's legacy to find its place.
With the burgeoning of Modernist aesthetics (see Modernism and American modernism) and the war that tore everything apart still so fresh in memory, Moby-Dick began to seem increasingly relevant. Many of Melville's techniques echo those of Modernism: kaleidoscopic, hybrid in genre and tone, monumentally ambitious in trying to unite so many disparate elements and loose ends.
In the 1920s, British literary critics began to take notice. In his idiosyncratic but landmark Studies in Classic American Literature, novelist, poet, and short story writer D. H. Lawrence directed Americans' attention to the great originality and value of many American authors, among them Melville. Perhaps most surprising is that Lawrence saw Moby-Dick as a work of the first order despite his using the original English edition.
The next great wave of Moby-Dick appraisal came with the publication of F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Published in 1941, the book proposed that Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville were the most prominent figures of a flowering of conflicted (and mostly pre-Civil War) literature important for its promulgation of democracy and the exploration of its possibilities, successes, and failures. Matthiessen's book came out shortly before the entry of the U.S. into World War II; critic Nick Selby argues that
... Moby-Dick was now read as a text that reflected the power struggles of a world concerned to uphold democracy, and of a country seeking an identity for itself within that world.
In 2014 new evidence of the book's standing is scholar Lawrence Buell's study of The Dream of the Great American Novel. Though the author does not indicate a preference for any candidate, the cover illustration of a whale leaves no doubt what book is meant. The Times Literary Supplement review concluded that "it is clear that Moby-Dick is the most likely contender, being a novel that needs 'no defense.'"
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."
- Melville, H. The Whale. London: Richard Bentley, 1851 3 vols. (viii, 312; iv, 303; iv, 328 pp.) Published October 18, 1851.
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- 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.
- Moby-Dick (Norton Critical Editions), Edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: W.W. Norton, 2nd ed. 2002. ISBN 978-0-393-97283-2
- 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
- Lawrence (1923), 168
- Tanselle (1988) "Editorial Appendix," pp. 810-812
- Bryant and Springer (2007), xiv
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- Reynolds, J.N., "Mocha Dick: or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal," The Knickerbocker, or New-York Monthly Magazine. 13.5, May 1839, pp. 377–392.
- Whipple, Addison Beecher Colvin (1954). Yankee whalers in the South Seas. Doubleday. ISBN 0-8048-1057-5., 66–79
- Report of the Commissioner By United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries, p115
- Melville's Reflections, a page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville
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- Beaver, 17.
- Mary K. Bercaw, "A Fine, Boisterous Something": Nantucket in Moby-Dick, Historic Nantucket, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Fall 1991); Philip Armstrong, What animals mean in the fiction of modernity, Routledge, 2008, p.132
- Walter E. Bezanson, "Moby-Dick: Document, Drama, Dream", in John Bryant (ed.), A Companion to Melville Studies, Greenwoord Press, 1986, 176–180.
- Melville (1993), 160
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- Buell (2014), 364
- Bryant and Springer, (2007), ix
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- Cheever, Susan. (2006). American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. Large Print ed. Detroit: Thorndike. 174. ISBN 0-7862-9521-X.
- Miller (1991), 312
- Springer and Bryant (2007), xi
- Melville (1993), 191
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- Milder (1977), 215
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- Cited in Tanselle (1988), 679
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- Selby 53
- Sarah Graham, "What is the Great American Noivel?" The Times Literary Supplement, 16 July 2014. Retrieved on 2 September 2014
- IMDb link
- Bryant and Springer (2007), xxiii-xxv.
- Moby Dick (1956) at Rotten Tomatoes
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- Moby-Dick at Project Gutenberg
- The Big Read at http://www.mobydickbigread.com
- "Versions of Moby-Dick" at Melville Electronic Library. Side by side versions of the British and American 1851 first editions, with differences highlighted.