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The Sperm Whale Expertise of Herman Melville in His Novel Moby Dick

Updated on July 26, 2019
Schatzie Speaks profile image

Schatzie has bachelor's degrees in animal science and English. She has a master's in education and is a certified teacher.


The novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville meticulously describes behavioral and anatomical characteristics of the sperm whale, characteristics Melville learned through the study of scientific compositions. One of the main contributors to Melville's novel in this aspect, The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale, came into Melville's possession while writing Moby Dick. Through restoration of the original marginalia present in a copy owned by Melville, direct correlation to facts from Beale's work can be seen throughout Moby Dick, although modified and greatly embellished to suit Melville's goals of metaphor and thematic relevance.

Melville read numerous factual studies of whales and whaling to give his novel an underlying basis in fact, and "one of Melville's major aesthetic struggles consisted in the creation of imaginative literature from known facts about sperm whales and about the whaling industry." Melville's personal copy of The Natural History of the Sperm Whale contains Melville's extensive handwritten notes and markings, proving he underwent a rigorous study and close reading of Beale's work: "Melville's notations in Natural History consist of front flyleaf and title page inscriptions, an index of the book's line drawings, marginal annotations, and rear endpaper notes." While The Natural History of the Sperm Whale was a factual study, Melville sometimes distorted these facts by using them as guidelines to further plots and motives in his novel. Consequently, his allusions to Beale's work in Moby Dick are sometimes at odds with the facts.

The plot behind Melville's novel depends upon the ferocity and murderous nature of the white sperm whale Moby Dick. Melville used information provided by Beale to substantiate and develop this characterization of a sperm whale, but consciously misrepresented the factual data Beale supplied. This can be directly traced to the intro of Natural History, where Thomas Beale sites the naturalists Olassen and Povelsen as inaccurately depicting sperm whales as savage animals who roam the seas in quest for the blood of fish and the flesh of man, and that "seized, and upset with their jaws, a boat which contained some seamen, whom they speedily devoured." Beale refutes these claims of a murderous nature and appetite of whales, stating that "the sperm whale has been quietly searching the ocean depths for his food, and avoiding with the greatest care and timidity the slightest danger or rencontre of any kind," depicting sperm whales as shyly avoiding human contact rather than maliciously initiating it. Shortly thereafter, Beale quotes another naturalist, Baron Cuvier, who also depicts the sperm whale as a menace to all marine life and a terror of the deep, concluding:

From such accounts as these, we might be led to believe that there is no

animal in the creation more monstrously ferocious than the sperm whale;

only is his true character of being a quiet and inoffensive animal

taken from him, but he is represented on the same page, as the greedy and

cruel pursuer of all kinds of marine animals.

Beale reiterates the inaccuracies of the depictions of these naturalists, and in the introduction of his work he tries to dissuade the reader from adopting such baseless views. Melville, upon reading the introduction of Natural History, uses the very same quotations of the naturalists referred to by Beale to explain the superstitions overshadowing the whaling industry in Moby Dick:

We find that some book naturalists-Olassen and Povelsen-declaring the

Sperm Whale not only to be a consternation to every other creature in the

sea, but also to be so incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst

for human blood. [...] the Baron himself affirms that at sight of the

Sperm Whale, all fish (sharks included) are ‘struck with the more lively

terror' (Melville 154).

Melville sites these sources as an example of superstition that can be refuted upon actual experience. Initially, he appears to be working with Beale to negate superstition and instead give a factual image of the Sperm Whale, stating that the remarkable events underlying superstition, such as the appearance of Moby Dick in multiple places at the same time in his novel, is explainable by science yet beyond reach: "the currents in the seas have never yet been divulged, even to the most erudite research; so the hidden ways of the Sperm Whale when beneath the surface remain, in great part, unaccountable to his pursuers" (154).

However, Melville also employs these superstitious, and what Beale deems "inaccurate," allusions to the naturalists to depict Moby Dick, a sperm whale Melville creates in the image fashioned by Olassen, Povelsen, and Baron rather than the true image shown by Beale. Contradictory, Melville creates Moby Dick, a whale that "even stripped of these supernatural surmising there was enough in the earthly make and incontestable character of the monster to strike the imagination with unwonted power" (155), and whose "infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent" (156). Melville borrows sources from Beale to ultimately further the motifs and characterizations in his novel, consciously promoting fictitious beliefs in the interest of dramatization. Melville's sensational depictions of the sperm whale through Moby Dick tend to refute the former claim that superstitions are entirely baseless, as demonstrated by his presentation as a particularly intelligent and ferocious monster, with mental and violent capabilities surpassing normal capacity-almost a suggestion of being supernatural in nature.


Expanding upon the misrepresentation of the sperm whale's behavior to further demonize Moby Dick, the act of tail sweeping is described by Beale as a behavior which "consists in moving the tail slowly from side to side on the surface of the water, as if feeling for the boat or any other object that may be in the neighbourhood." This again reinforces the shy and avoidant character of the sperm whale, as with its tail it slowly and unobtrusively surveying its surroundings. In contrast, Melville uses this behavior to fit in with his characterization of Moby Dick, and instead of being a method to feel out the surroundings, Moby Dick uses the method to seek out and destroy all that comes in contact with his mighty tail: "whenever a stray oar, bit of plant, the least chip or crumb of the boats touched his skin, his tail swiftly drew back, and came sideways smiting the sea" (417).

Another habit of the sperm whale that Melville uses to describe actions of destruction by Moby Dick is the common position sperm whales undertake in order to calmly survey their surroundings. Beale describes this position:

A perpendicular posture, with the head only above the water, presenting

in this position a most extraordinary appearance when seen from a

distance, resembling large black rocks in the midst of the ocean; this

posture they seem to assume for the purpose of surveying more perfectly,

or more easily, the surrounding expanse.

Melville changes intent from a defensive surveillance of the whale's surroundings to a position undertaken for aggression by Moby Dick upon smashing a boat: "Ripplingly withdrawing from his prey, Moby Dick now lay at a little distance, vertically thrusting his oblong white head up and down in the billows; and at the same time slowly revolving his whole spindled body" (410).

In addition to utilizing Beale's Natural History as a reference to the Sperm Whale's behavior, Melville also used it as a reference for anatomical representations. In chapter 74 of Moby Dick, the physiology of the sperm whale's head is accurately detailed in ways that directly correlate to descriptions by Beale. Melville describes the thick juncture of the head and body: "where his head and body seem to join, there, in that very place, is the thickest part of him" (248), the small size and location of the whale's eyes: "a lashless eye, which you would fancy to be a young colt's eye; so out of all proportion is it to the magnitude of the head" (262), and the extremely small and uncovered ears of the sperm whale: "The ear has no external leaf whatever; and into the hole itself you can hardly insert a quill, so wondrously minute is it" (263). Whereas the previous descriptions of neck and eye correlate to descriptions present in Natural History, the devices used by Melville to depict the ear of the whale is the same to that used by Beale: "At a short distance behind the eyes, are the external openings of the ears, of size sufficient to admit a small quill, and unprovided with any external auricular appendage." Both describe the ear in relation to a quill, a repetition that farther proves the relevance and influence Beadle's work had upon such descriptive passages in Moby Dick.

However, although Melville agrees with basic anatomy such as those listed above, he also goes beyond the descriptions of Beale again for exaggerated dramatization. Beale states "in the lower jaw are forty two teeth, of a formidable size, but conical shape; there are none, however in the upper." The word choice used here depicts the teeth as large but far from jagged; "of a formidable size, but conical shape." Melville however, states that upon examination of a dead whale's mouth there exist "rows of teeth, it seems a terrific portcullis: "and such, alas! It proves to many a poor wight in the fishery, upon whom these spikes fall with impaling force" (264). The massive but conical shape of the actual teeth of a sperm whale becomes distorted by Melville in his novel to appear spike-like and capable of impaling. The fact that the upper jaw lacks teeth has also been omitted from Melville's work as it further diminishes the ferocious image of the whale's jaws, which along with his misrepresentation of the whale's temperament completes the monstrosity a sperm whale such as Moby Dick represents.

In addition to anatomical exaggerations in the novel Moby Dick, Melville's deliberate tendency to consciously distort the facts given by Beale are epitomized by his actual marginalia in his copy of Natural History and consequent descriptions in later manuscripts:

In the margins of his source Melville marked dimensions of the sperm

whale's mature length, its tail and blubber, and bones. Then, in

manuscript composition, he systematically enlarged upon what he had

marked, adding six feet to the length of the sperm whale, and nearly four

to its circumference, six feet to the width of the tail, more than two

feet to the span of its largest rib, an inch to the thickness of its

blubber, and half an inch to the width of its terminal vertebra.

The reason for these distortions appears in chapter 104 of Moby Dick. In this chapter, Melville describes an author's need to write upon a subject with presence and massive import, such as the whale: "From his mighty bulk the whale affords a most congenial theme whereon to enlarge, amplify, and generally expatiate. Would you, you could not compress him" (348). In these passages Melville admits to enlarging or exaggerating upon the whale for effect of literary value, and to magnify and illuminate certain themes, exclaiming: "Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea" (349). Melville equates the importance and ability to recognize motifs with the size and presence of that which represents them. In such a minute animal as a flea no great work or theme can be created, as it lacks size and presence.

However, although facts become the victim of literary intrigue and are modified to promote plot and an imposing caricature of a malevolent sperm whale, facts appear throughout Melville's novel in true as well as altered form. In chapter 104 of Moby Dick, Melville suggests the necessity of such distortions to reach the goals of an author, and to aid the author in the presentation of important themes. Still, Melville aimed to ultimately base his novel on fact, as shown in a letter he addressed to Richard Henry Dana while in the process of writing Moby Dick:

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.

In conclusion, Melville sought scientific studies on whales and whaling to give an underlying theme of reality and realistic depictions in his novel Moby Dick. However, facts became selectively distorted to further Melville's intent as an author and to enlarge and magnify certain aspects of the sperm whale for thematic purpose. Rather than rendering his novel entirely unreliable and fantastical, Melville uses a chapter in his novel to explain how such extrapolation is necessary in great literary creations. Although factual value is lost, value is gained through such distortions which magnify themes that otherwise could not be so prominently presented to the audience. Melville allows readers to understand that although based on fact and scientific research, his novel is often factually fallible and should not be taken for face value. Its true importance lies not in its agreement with reality, but rather with its themes and motifs which can be readily recognized as a result of distortion.



1. Steven Olsen-Smith. "Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale," Boise State University. 2006. <>

2. Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Van Voorst. 1839. London: The Holland Press. 1973: 10.

2. Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Van Voorst. 1839. London: The Holland Press. 1973: 11.

3. Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Van Voorst. 1839. London: The Holland Press. 1973: 46.

4. Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Van Voorst. 1839. London: The Holland Press. 1973: 47.

5. Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Van Voorst. 1839. London: The Holland Press. 1973: 23.

6. Olsen-Smith, Steven. "Melville's Poetic Use of Thomas Beale's Natural History of the Sperm Whale" excerpted and adapted in Moby-Dick: 585-586


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    • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Schatzie Speaks 

      6 years ago

      Hi Oldthunder,

      That is a good question to ask! Thanks for sharing that quote, as well as for stopping by and commenting!


    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Where is the key-question: what is known about the behavior of an old bull when disturbed or attacked by men? At least Thomas Beale could be quoted: "The large whales such, as make eighty or more barrels, not being as nearly so active, and probably not fealing so acutely, are generally, by expert whalers, easily killed, and with less damage to those employed than the smaller ones. But these enormous creatures are sometimes known to turn upon their persecutors with unbounded fury , destroying everything that meets them in their course -- sometimes by the powerful blows of their flukes, and sometimes attacking with the jaw and head."

    • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Schatzie Speaks 

      7 years ago

      Thank you for reading, Gabi kamal!

    • profile image

      Gabi kamal 

      8 years ago

      Interesting facts ... 10x :)

    • Schatzie Speaks profile imageAUTHOR

      Schatzie Speaks 

      8 years ago

      Thank you SweetiePie and Bob for your comments! :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      that is so kool

    • SweetiePie profile image


      11 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Interesting overview of the novel. Thanks for sharing.


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