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What is Moby-Dick?

Updated on June 11, 2012

Moby-Dick is not just any whale

Nine men standing on beached sperm whale at Leith Harbour, South Georgia, 1913
Nine men standing on beached sperm whale at Leith Harbour, South Georgia, 1913 | Source

Everyone thinks that they know the answer: Moby-Dick is a novel about a huge whale and the hunt to kill it. Sure this is one answer; but like the whale,we can go much deeper.

Moby-Dick is not just any whale. Moby-Dick is Physter macrocephalus, the sperm whale. On average, an adult male like Moby-Dick will be between forty and fifty feet (12-15 meters) long,weighing anything up to forty-five tins. All that bulk needs a ton of foos a day, made up of squid, octopus, and fish. A whale like Moby-Dick doesn't reach maturity until he has lived in the oceans for ten years or more. The family groups are almost always made up of females and calves. The males join family groups only for a brief time and a sole purpose: to breed.

Moby-Dick (1851) is the title of the sixth book by Herman Merville. Melville's youthwas every bit as adventurous as his novels. He was born in New York City in 1819 and sailed for the first time as a cabin boy on a merchant ship at the age of nineteen. The year long voyage left a lasting impression,and when money became scarce just over a year later he returned to the sea, this time on a whaling ship. During the voyage, Melville was marooned on a Polynesian Island, where he lived with the local cannibals. Later, he served in the U.S. Navy. All these experiences were used by Melville in a series of novels including Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) and white-jacket or The World in an man of War (1850).

Herman Melville (1819-1891)  Moby Dick was not very popular when it was first published,something that may have contributed to Melville giving up writing as a profession
Herman Melville (1819-1891) Moby Dick was not very popular when it was first published,something that may have contributed to Melville giving up writing as a profession
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of the book Moby Dick directed by John Huston
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in a 1956 film adaptation of the book Moby Dick directed by John Huston
A gold doubloon is equivalent to 4 dollars in US Currency during the 19th century
A gold doubloon is equivalent to 4 dollars in US Currency during the 19th century

A Lost World

The novel Moby-Dick is 135 chapters long. Although it has grown in fame and popularity since the death of it's author in 1891, many readers find it difficult and tedious in places. The novel is set against a highly -detailed account of life on a whaling ship, the Pequod. The narrator, Ishmael, signs up for a voyage with a chance companion, a South Sea Harpooner named Queequeg. At the end of the novel, the Pequod is smashed and sunk, with the loss of all aboard except Ishmael.

Moby-Dick provides an insight into form of whaling that had already passed its peak when it was written. The great sailing ships of the whaling fleets were relics of a pre-industrial age; the products derived from the whales were increasingly replaced by artificial chemicals. By 1880,whaling as described in Moby-Dick is was dead.

In the novel, Moby-Dick the sperm whale,sought after by Captain Ahab,who seeks revenge for being maimed by this huge white whale. Ahab uses terror and bribery to drive the crew beyond the limits of endurance in the hunt. He offers a gold doubloon,which he literally nails to the mast, for the first man to sight the whale, Ahab has a special harpoon created to kill Moby-Dick, which is "baptized" in the blood of the ship's harpooners.

Critics of the novel have sometimes reinterpreted it as an allegory of the twentieth-century: the Pequod represents society and the Ahab the despot who is prepared to inflict any cost to acheive the extreme end. It could be argued that Moby-Dick warns of the fate that awaits societies that surrender their democratic values. In the early twenty-first century, this idea has been recast in an ecological light, and Moby-Dick has been potrayed as an allegory for the consequences of environmental destruction. Today's Sperm-whale population is approximately 360,000,which is perhaps less than a third of the levels before commercial whaling

Ambergris

Did you know that..

  • Sperm whales were particularly prized for a clear oil called Spermaceti and the waxy substance called ambergris, which form in the whale's gut around undigested squid beaks and is used to making perfume.
  • Sperm whales are found in every ocean across the glove. The Females and calves stick to warmer waters, but males like Moby-Dick head north or south into colder climes.
  • The name Moby-Dick has no certain origin. The most likely link is to an article that appeared in New York's The Knickerbocker magazine in 1839. It told of Mocha Dick, a white whale that attacked whaling ships and crews.

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  • jolinabetts profile image
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    Sunshine Diaz 5 years ago from Wichita, Kansas

    Thank you very much :) i aim to make things more interesting as possible.

  • clairemy profile image

    Claire 5 years ago

    Interesting Hub, and with good extra info about the Sperm Whale.

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