Moby Dick as American Allegory

Moby Dick as American Allegory
Since America's founding, Americans hoped to rival the literary and artistic achievements of Europe, but
it wasn’t until the United States emerged as an economic global power in the 19th century, with
seemingly endless resources and ambition, that her literature began to take on a distinctly American
voice. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is considered by many to be one of the greatest works of American
Length of Lesson: 1-2 Days
Objective: To examine the whaling industry as the source of great literature and as an allegory of
American identity in the 19th century in the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
Tasks: As a class or individually, research the questions below using the resource links of maps,
timelines, and other tools.
Part 1: Melville’s Life
1. Watch Into The Deep chapters 6 (Essex, pt2) and 10 (Herman Melville). Then read the biography of
Herman Melville and answer the following questions:
 Melville was onboard whaleships during the industry's golden years. Describe the three years
Melville spent at sea and the specific adventures and islands that he visited. What positions did
he hold on the ships? What experiences did Melville have on board that taught him the
principles of democratic equality?
 By the time Melville went to sea he was already familiar with the tale of the Essex. When the
son of one of the few survivors of the whaleship hands him a complete copy of his father’s
narrative, Melville is transfixed. What happened to the whaleship Essex in 1821 and how did the
story influence Moby Dick?
 Watch chapter 12 of Into The Deep (Moby Dick). Much of Melville’s first novel, Typee, came out
of his experience of jumping ship for the Marquesas Islands and being captured by cannibals,
the very thing that the crew of the Essex refused to do. What do you think Melville was saying?
 Melville completed Moby Dick in 1851 when he was 32 years old. Why did it sink into obscurity?
What was the current obsession in the United States? Watch chapter 14 of Into The Deep (The
Grand Armada). When was Moby Dick "rediscovered"?
2. Research the description of life on a whaleship at the New Bedford whaling museum website. Then
answer the following questions:
 What kind of people worked on whaleships in 1821? In 1851?
Part 2: The rise of distinctly American literature
1. Discuss as a class what makes a country’s literature unique. Is it the unique experiences of its people?
Is it something that grows with a nation as it forms?
2. As industrialization grew, so did its depiction in novels. What was the response in literature to the
challenges and dangers of westward expansion and increased industrialization? Did writers fear for the
loss of individualism?
3. Choose one of the following writers and poets of the 19th century who wrote about their
observations and experiences: James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Nathaniel Hawthorne,
Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Jack
London, and others. What did they write about? Choose one of their books and present a book report to
the class. What does the book say about America during the 19th century?
Part 3: The subject matter of Moby Dick
1. Watch chapter 10 of Into The Deep (Herman Melville). What were the characteristics of whaling that
made it such a good subject for a novel?
2. “Call me Ishmael” is one of the most famous openings to any work of literature. Watch chapter 12 of
Into The Deep (Moby Dick) and discuss how the choices the crew of the Essex made influenced the voice
of Ishmael in the novel Moby Dick.
3. An allegory is a figurative mode of representation conveying meaning other than the literal. It teaches
a lesson through symbolism. Melville would see Moby Dick as an allegory of the human condition and a
parable of the recklessly expanding American republic. Others would see the ship Pequod as a
representation of the U.S. heading for disaster. Do you think that Moby Dick can also be read as a
prophetic allegory of America in the 21st century?
4. How did Melville’s story of a powerful and driven Quaker captain of a whaling vessel obsessed with
seeking revenge in his search for the great white whale that had once maimed him become an
uncomfortable metaphor for 19th century America? What was the duality of the American nature that
troubled Melville?
5. Watch chapter 14 of Into The Deep (The Grand Armada) and listen to the reading of the chapter of
Moby Dick titled “The Grand Armada.” Herman Melville expressed concern about the extermination of
the whale. How did Moby Dick transform the way people understood their relationship to other living
creatures and to the earth?
6. Read the New York Times article "The Ahab Parallax" and then read the summary of the novel Moby
Dick. How does Melville use symbolism in the novel?
Summary Discussion: Great literature is relevant regardless of the time in which it was written. Why
is Moby Dick so timeless? What other books do you consider "great?" What literature of today will
continue to be read in the future?
EXTENSION IDEAS: The New Bedford Whaling Museum sponsors a Moby Dick marathon every year. Pick
up a copy at your library or go to Google Books and read aloud excerpts from Moby Dick. What do you
think the following characters represent?
 Ishmael
 Moby Dick
 Ahab
 Starbuck
 Queequeg, Tashtego, and Dagoo
 Pip