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Dr. Campbell
Reading Questions on Moby-Dick
(Page numbers refer to the Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition.)

Chapters 1-16
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. What is the function of the extracts included prior to Chapter 1? What themes do they suggest for reading what follows? Why does Melville introduce the "pale consumptive usher" and the "poor devil of a sub-sub" librarian?

2. Why does the book begin with "Call me Ishmael"? What relationship to the reader does this introduction establish?

3. Explore the multiple meanings of "Loomings," the title of the first chapter. In what ways does the first chapter introduce the reader to key motifs that will resonate throughout the rest of the work? Think about these concepts, many of which will turn up later on:

4. On p. 21 (ch. 1), Ismael asks, "Who aint [sic] a slave? Tell me that." How does his vision of obedience, power relationships, and the "universal thump" being "passed round" prepare the reader to understand Ahab?

5. What are the underlying values or attitudes Melville has attached to land and sea respectively in the first 16 chapters?

6. What's the significance of the picture that he finds at the Spouter Inn? What sort of fellowship does he find here? What sort of hospitality does Peter Coffin offer?

7. What is the function of the Whaleman's chapel sequence and the sermon? What is the message of Father Mapple's sermon? What is his text? How is it appropriate? In what ways does it reflect or refute the tenets of traditional Puritan ideology?

8. What is the nature of Ishmael's "heart's honeymoon" with Queequeg? What are we to understand by it? Why does he juxtapose the marriage with the recollection of his stepmother's punishment?

9. Why does Melville introduce Peleg and Bildad, and why does he make them Quakers? As you read further, compare this characterization of belief or religion with that displayed by other characters (Queequeg; Fedallah; Gabriel, the "Niskayuna Shaker; and so forth).
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

Chapters 17-36

1. What's the function of "The Lee Shore"? Why is this a memorial to Bulkington? In what ways does he serve as a foil for Ishmael? Why isn't his story told?

2. What function does Chapter 32, "Cetology," serve?

3. In what ways does Ishmael begin to establish a context of race and class in this section?

4. Interpret Stubb's dream.

5. In what ways does Ahab's entrance set the stage for what is to come? How does Melville create him as a larger-than-life figure? Why does he have an artifical leg of whalebone? With what mythic or historical figures is he associated? What does Melville's use of those figures establish about Ahab as a character?

6. This section introduces the first of the dramatic chapters in the novel (29, 36-40, 108, 119-22, 127, 129). Why does Melville temporarily abandon his use of first person in these sections? What function do they serve?

7. In what ways does Melville challenge or question American transcendentalism? See especially Chapter 35 ("The Mast-Head") and the first chapter of Emerson's Nature.

8. Why does Ahab throw away his pipe?

9. Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, along with their "squires" Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, represent differing philosophies of life. What are those philosophies?

Chapters 37-53
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. What reasons does Ahab give for seeking the White Whale? How rational or logical are they? How does he convince the crew? Do his stated reasons agree with those given in his soliloquy a chapter later?

2. Explain the ceremony in "The Quarter-Deck." What symbols does Ahab appropriate for his own purposes?

3. What is Ishmael's interpretation of the terror that Moby-Dick inspires?

4. By this point in the novel, Moby-Dick (the whale himself) has begun to be the subject of myth, legend, symbolism, and almost a kind of religious awe; he accumulates these as he accumulates harpoons. He strikes terror, yet he also represents beauty (155, ch.41)--two elements that Burke said were necessary for the sublime. Explore and explain the associations that Ishmael and others have toward the white whale.

5. What genre is Moby-Dick? Epic? Tragedy? Quest-Romance? Anatomy? Can you defend one of these more convincingly than another? Or is it all of them? Why does the point of view shift from first person to dramatic just after the communion scene?

6. Is Ahab crazy? Or is his monomania justifiable because of his experiences with Moby-Dick?

7. What purpose does the Egyptian theme serve here? For example, Ahab is said to have an "Egyptian chest" and several articles are said to have "hieroglyphics" inscribed upon them. How are we to read or interpret them?

8. What part do the root metaphors of earth, air, fire, water play here?

9. Ishmael interprets the activity of weaving a sword-mat as a commentary on "chance, free will, and necessity" (179, ch. 47). Are his observations borne out by what we've seen happening thus far?

10. Note the alliteration and poetic language on p. 192 (ch. 51, "The Spirit-Spout"). Is this another departure for Ishmael's narrative voice?

11. Note the instances of failed communication: the trumpet falling into the sea (195, ch. 52), the gam (198, ch. 53), and the moldy letter (254, ch. 71). How do these occurrences reflect on the themes of the book?

Chapters 54-77
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. In what ways do the Town-Ho's story and the Jereboam's story reflect on the situation aboard the Pequod? What part does Moby-Dick play in this exchange? In what ways do the Dons' responses reflect on our own response to the larger work?

2. Chapter 58, "Brit," returns to the opposition between land and sea first seen in the first chapter of the book. How does this chapter relate not only to chapter 1 but to other chapters, such as "The Try-Works" and "The Mast-Head"?

3. Ishmael describes the "universal cannibalism of the sea" (225, ch. 58)  and says "Cannibals? who is not a cannibal?" (242, ch. 65). Yet between these two descriptions Fleece gives a sermon to the sharks whose message is "govern the shark in you," a message that, to judge by the shark massacre, they fail to heed. In what way is the idea of cannibalism/savagery explored in this book? What cultural associations would it have had for sailors in Melville's time, especially given the circumstances surrounding the Essex? In what way does this (failed) sermon parallel Father Mapple's? How does it fit in with other instances of failed communication that we have discussed? What other associations with killing, cutting, and eating operate here?

4. When Stubb kills a whale, the line moves so fast around the loggerhead that blue smoke arises (231, ch. 61). In this set of chapters, Ishmael discourses on two differing and seemingly contradictory types of lines: the whale line ("All men live enveloped in whale-lines") (229, ch. 60) and the monkey-rope (255, ch. 72). Are these two images distinct? What do they suggest about the themes of community and isolation that occur elsewhere in the book? How does the ability to hold both in his mind (a kind of negative capability?) move Ishmael toward the revelations of a later chapter, "A Squeeze of the Hand"?

5. Ahab asks the whale's head to prophesy (249, ch. 70); in what other sections does the question of interpretation and prophecy become significant?

6. Ishmael concludes his "reading" of the hieroglyphs of the whale's skin with an admonition to live as the whale does: "Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it" (247, ch. 68). Compare this reading of the whale with other such readings of the whale's body parts: the head, eyes, and so forth.

Chapters 78-97
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. What is the distinction between a "fast-fish" and a "loose-fish" (308, ch. 89)? In what ways does this distinction apply not only to whales but to the crew aboard the Pequod?

2. The chapters in this section rely frequently on sexual, obstetrical, and maternal images; "Cistern and Buckets," for example, tells of Tashtego's delivery from the head of the whale. In what ways do these concepts culminate in "A Squeeze of the Hand"?

3. The head of the whale, seen as embodying a mystery or set of undecipherable hieroglyphics in previous chapters, here becomes the site of great beauty yet great danger. Ishmael challenges the reader to "Read it if you can" (275, ch. 79). Can we?

4. The death of the old whale (p. 282, ch. 81) occurs before a sequence of historical chapters in which whaling is likened to elevated myths both classical (Perseus) and English (St. George and the Dragon). Comment on the juxtaposition of chapters here and justify the inclusion of the old whale's death scene. Could this be called sentimental?

5. "A Squeeze of the Hand" represents a turning point in Ishmael's quest. Examine how far he has traveled in his philosophy from the "I, Ishmael" who was "one of that crew" who vows to follow Ahab. What has he learned? How has he learned it? In what ways does this signal his rebirth?

6. Contrast Ishmael's pleasure in "A Squeeze of the Hand" with his dread of the same action (albeit "supernatural") in chapter 4.

7. How do the pictures of whales seen in this section differ from the "erroneous" pictures gathered previously? From what perspective are the whales viewed here? How does the experience of "The Grand Armada," with its peaceful inner circle and highly organized social order, change Ishmael's and our perspectives?

8. The encounters with two ships, the Jungfrau and the Rosebud, are filled with Ishmael's characteristic humor. What is his sense of humor, and how does it function in these chapters?

9. "The Try-Works" repeats some of the injunctions of "The Mast-Head," but this time the element involved (fire) is still more deadly. Explain Melville's ideas of enchantment, inversion, the confusion between false light and true. What is the "wisdom that is woe"? The "woe that is madness"? Does Ishmael negate or intensify the warning by his story of the Catskill eagle?

10. The necessity of but also the dangers of immersion--in fire, in water, in woe--unify these chapters. There is a sense in which man must be immersed (as we are in the information about whales) to comprehend but also a sense in which immersion can prove fatal--or, worse, can lead to insanity. In what ways is Pip's "wisdom" a culmination of these continuing ideas (321, ch. 93)?

Chapters 98-123
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. Chapter 99, "The Doubloon," addresses directly the questions of reading and interpretation raised in the book. How does each man interpret the doubloon? In what way does each interpretation epitomize or signify the character's personality? What are we to make of Pip's simple conjugation of the verb "look"? What does the chapter suggest about the possibility of multiple interpretations? about the possibility of interpreting Moby-Dick, the whale? and Moby-Dick, the book?

2. The gam with the Samuel Enderby, like those with the Jereboam and other ships, provides Ahab's crew and us as readers with an alternative to Ahab's actions. What is the captain's response to his own dismemberment by Moby-Dick?

3. "A Bower in the Arsacides" and the succeeding chapters give Ishmael the chance to measure the whale from a different perspective and to contemplate the paradox of life enfolding death/death caging life. What new information do these chapters provide?

4. Compare the section beginning "The weaver-god, he weaves" (345, ch. 102) with other meditations on looms, weaving, and understanding fate's workings.

5. "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme" (349, ch. 104), says Ishmael before describing the fossil whale. Has Ishmael chosen a mighty theme? What is it--or perhaps more accurately, what are they?

6. What significance does Ahab's artificial leg have for the novel? Why does Melville make a point of having him splinter it at this point in the story? What does it mean that Ahab must depend upon the bone of a whale to stand upright as a human being? What is his colloquy with the carpenter designed to show about him? In what ways is the carpenter a foil for Ahab? How does this scene fit in with the book's exploration of interdependence? In what sense could you argue that Ahab is a "mechanical man"?

7. If in the previous section we saw Ishmael move toward a greater acceptance of the human community, in this section we see Ahab moving further away from it. Discuss this idea as it appears in chapters 111, 113, 114, and especially 118 ("The Quadrant").

8. This section sets up several elements that become critically important at the end of the novel: Queequeg's coffin, Starbuck's near-disobedience, Ahab's tempering of the lance in blood, and especially Fedallah's prophecy (377, ch. 117). What events can you predict based upon this degree of foreshadowing?

9. Why does Starbuck fail to act (388-389, ch. 123)?

10. In "The Candles," what is Ahab's response to the storm? In what ways does he manipulate the situation for his own benefit? Has he become a fire-worshipper?

Chapters 124-135
Chapters 1-16 Chapters 17-36 Chapters 37-53 Chapters 54-77 Chapters 78-97 Chapters 98-123 Chapters 124-135

1. In what ways does Moby-Dick himself become the "weaver-god" here? How is the death of Ahab connected to the book's dualistic conception of lines and ropes, its metaphors of weaving, and its meditations on fate?

2. The idea of orphans also culminates in this section of the book, notably in the encounter with the Rachel but also in Ahab's and Starbuck's reflections on their families. In Ishmael's mind, is it possible for man to be other than an orphan? By what means would such a transformation be effected?

3. This section features a number of reversals, most notably that of the ship's needle. What other reversals occur here, and what is their purpose?

4. The relationship between Ahab and Starbuck, and also that between Pip and Ahab, deepens in this section. What kinds of changes does this signal in Ahab? Is there a point of no return past which Ahab cannot give up his quest?

5. Ahab asks, "Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?" (406, ch. 132). Later, he says, "Ahab is forever Ahab" (418, ch. 134). Is he right to blame his own nature? Or is he merely evading the responsibility conferred by free will?

6. In what ways are the various portents and omens fulfilled in this section? What paradoxical events occur here?

7. Was the first picture of Moby-Dick what you expected? Why or why not? In what ways has his appearance been anticipated by other incidents and figures such as the squid (ch. 59)?

8. Why did Melville choose to save Ishmael instead of another member of the crew? In what way does his interpretive ability save him?

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