Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick: Volume I, page 273, 1930. linecut on paper.
Credit: Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton to Plattsburgh State University.
The novel is an encyclopedia of forms, a narrative chowder that combines dictionary, whaling manual, comedy, tragedy, epic, prophecy, sermon, soliloquy, drama, bawdy humor, and tales within tales. … Melville looks at the whale, with relish, from an exuberant assortment of literary angles, encompassing them all into one mighty compendium and in so doing breaking the boundaries of what it means to be a book. —Elizabeth Renker, Introduction to Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, is widely recognized as one of the centerpieces of the American Renaissance. This text is more than a chronicle of Ahab’s quest for the great white whale, the novel offers insight into the whaling industry that shaped the New England seacoast in the 19th century. Melville himself spent time at sea and fashioned many of the details in Moby-Dick after his own experiences traveling aboard a whaling vessel in the South Pacific. Though seldom praised during Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick remains relevant today, as it helps builds our perceptions of America’s unique literary culture.
This unit is a study of the shifts in narrative voice and literary genres that Melville makes throughout Moby-Dick. It serves to introduce students to several unique features of the novel without demanding as much class time as would reading the entire text. The lessons comprise a series of close readings of passages from the novel.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understand the perspective of other characters.
The next two lessons serve to orient students to several of the genres in this novel. Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading dramatic script as it surfaces in chapter 37 to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives on character that this chapter elicits within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist—the multifarious character of Captain Ahab.
Lesson 3 guides students through examples of Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—hymn, sermon, scientific writing, and drama into the novel. It moves into an analytical discussion of Moby-Dick as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Moby-Dick stands as a testament to Melville’s ingenuity and timelessness. The text remains relevant today, both in its characterization and its form. Melville brings us into the world of New England whaling, but he has us navigate more than just the high seas. Melville leads us through different literary genres in the same way as the Pequod chases the whale, bringing us on a literary journey to parallel the physical and psychological ones of his characters. This unit explores these characters and literary genres using several key excerpts from Moby-Dick selected to expose the variety and life of the text.
The two main characters of the novel, Ishmael and Ahab, represent different facets of Melville’s belief in the importance of freedom in American society. As Ishmael sets out to sea, and he joins up with a band of men to ease his land-bound troubles. Ahab sets out on a quest for revenge against the whale that stole his leg, which Ahab symbolically replaced with an ivory prosthesis. Ishmael is the democratic everyman foil to Ahab’s elite and dictatorial captaincy. The story of Moby-Dick—of Ahab’s hunt for the elusive whale—remains primarily Ishmael’s story because of his first-person narration. The shifts in point of view—a preacher’s sermon, scientific notes on whales, soliloquies, dramatic script—allow Melville to transcend the limitations of the novel, and even perhaps fiction.
Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, believes in the power of the sea and is drawn to it whenever his life on land depresses him. He believes in the power of the common man and does not want to be in an authoritative role. Melville creates a character with whom contemporary readers could easily relate: a humble man who does not position himself above the reader or as better than any man within the text. Melville’s references to Christianity and the Romans, the universal call to the sea, and a penchant for adventure combine to make Ishmael seem both educated and relatable to the reader. Ishmael also describes the sea as a panacea for his troubles as he idealizes its power. Though it would be dangerous to assume Ishmael is a mouthpiece of Melville, the narrator conveys aspects of the story that must have been personal to Melville, a common sailor in his day.
This unit introduces students to the expansiveness of the novel’s scope through the eyes of Melville’s most relatable sailor. They will also discover the ingenuity of his masterful narration and sample the variety of perspectives to be found throughout this maritime journey and hunt for whales.
The extended background provides additional context on topics covered in this unit: Melville’s Whaling World, Allusions and Literary Genres.
Have students write a short piece using the narrative voice of either Ahab or Ishmael. “Call Me Ahab” would be written from the perspective of the character Captain Ahab. “I, Ishmael” would be written from the perspective of the crew member Ishmael.
While students include the content about their character gleaned from one chapter, they should write in the style of the other chapter. Students will use evidence drawn from “Loomings,” chapter 1 or “Sunset,” chapter 37 as appropriate.
The “Call me Ahab” piece will draw on the content about Captain Ahab found in “Sunset,” chapter 37, but will be written in the style of “Loomings,”chapter 1 as a first-person narrative. The account will be narrated by Ahab.
The “I, Ishmael” scene will draw on the content about crew member Ishmael found in “Looming,” chapter 1, but will be written in the style of “Sunset,” chapter 37 as a dramatic soliloquy. The scene will be expressed from Ishmael’s perspective.
In a follow-up paragraph, students will then defend the choices they made regarding character traits in an explication using evidence from the text.
Have students take a different chapter in Moby-Dick, one not discussed in class, and analyze how well it operates as a literary genre. You may have students use genres already researched and discussed in Lesson 3 of this unit, or you may challenge them to tackle a chapter where Melville uses a literary genre you did not cover in class.
Have them use the questions posed in Worksheet 5 from Lesson 3 to build an understanding about their chapter and genre. Be sure to have them include what function the shift to a new literary genre has on the novel. Also have them discuss what impact it will have on the reader. Students must defend their choices in a follow-up explanation using evidence from the text.
A student assessment sheet and rubric has been provided to introduce students to the options for composition and offer self-evaluation opportunities using the assessment criteria. (A teacher version of the rubric is available for your own assessment of the students’ work.)
Lesson 3 guides students through Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, scientific writing, drama, and hymn—and moves into an analytical discussion of "Moby-Dick" as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading of one genre, dramatic script, in Chapter 37, to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives that this chapter provokes within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist – the multifarious character of Captain Ahab. Finally, this lesson addresses the impact this drastic shift has on the reader.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of Chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understanding the perspective of other characters.
Students survey works of art derived from many different eras and schools based on myths from The Metamorphoses. They compare the imagery in the artworks with the passages detailing Ovid’s original tales to understand the artists’ frame of reference and choices.
Students compare two versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. Ovid’s version in (Bk X: 1–85) tells the story primarily from an androcentric point of view through the character, Orpheus. In the version expressed by 20th –century a poet H.D. offers the story from a woman’s point of view and articulates the emotions of a broken-hearted, and downright angry, Eurydice.
Students compare the stories of creation as told by Ovid in Book I. of The Metamorphoses with the Biblical narrative of creation as told in Genesis: 1–2. They identify the significance of those elements and the emphasis placed on them.
Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Apollo and Daphne
Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
The Metamorphoses by Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) is considered one of the most influential books in the Western canon and an extremely important source for classical mythology. Since the Middle Ages, writers, painters, and sculptors have been drawing on Ovid’s stories of the passions, adventures, and battles of the gods and heroes for inspiration. Even modern filmmakers use these myths as the foundation for their screenplays (i.e. the portrayal of Achilles in Troy and the 1930s-style retelling of Odysseus’ wanderings in O Brother Where Art Thou?) Despite his popularity in his own lifetime, this Latin author was exiled from Rome in 8 CE by the Emperor Augustus. Thanks to Ovid’s imaginative rendering of these mythological figures and events, the stories still continue to have meaning for us today.
The lessons in this unit comprise a series of comparisons. The first lesson compares similarities between Genesis and The Metamorphoses. Students consider the creative elements within two stories of creation and the destructive elements within two stories of a great flood that all but obliterated humankind. The second lesson has students consider the story of Orpheus, the lover who tries to rescue his beloved wife from death itself. They then compare Ovid’s mythic passages with the poem entitled “Eurydice” by H.D., a twentieth-century poet. In the third lesson, students turn from Ovid’s legacy in literature to visual art. They explore great art works that drew inspiration from Ovid and compare how the same story can be rendered in two different mediums.
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Grade level standards:
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare).
Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts" and Breughel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus).
Born near Rome in 43 BCE, Ovid studied rhetoric to prepare for a career in politics but abandoned his studies to pursue poetry. His early works were collections of poems that were both passionate and erotic. His major text, the one for which he is best known, was The Metamorphoses (literally, “the changes”), in which he set down tales of the Roman divinities and heroes from creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. Frequently, those stories entail physical changes: a god changing into a swan; a girl changing into a heifer; a nymph becoming a tree. For a reason unknown to history, Ovid was exiled in 8 CE by the Emperor Augustus and was forced to live away from Rome until his death in 17 CE. Ovid’s Metamorphoses continued to be very popular, however, and his stories continued to inspire writers and artists from the Middle Ages to the present.
The Metamorphoses appears on the Common Core State Standards in Appendix B as a grade 9–10 Text Exemplar under the category: “Stories.” The unit maybe adapted for different grade and ability levels.
Read more background about The Metamorphoses of Ovid including the structure and significance of the poem and the influence Greece had on this work.
Have students write an essay using the following prompt:
Select another short work of literature: a poem, a painting, a musical work, or a film that interprets a myth found in Ovid. Write a report which covers (a) general information about the author/artist; (b) a description of the tale(s) from Ovid that the author/artist used as inspiration; and (c) a discussion of how the author/artist shaped those ideas to create a work that is distinctively his or her own.
For item (d), your teacher may suggest a work of art or sculpture, or you can locate one yourself using websites such as:
EDSITEment-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, which has a feature devoted to Ovid’s Metamorphosis with a number of works derived from it.
EDSITEment-reviewed National Gallery of Art has a remarkable array of works derived from classical literature. The collection is particularly rich in imagery from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses—the stirring stories of Midas, Orpheus and Eurydice, Narcissus, Pomona, Phaeton, Philemon and Baucis, and Cupid and Psyche are found in paintings, sculptures, ceramics, prints, and drawings. Here are five examples:
Worksheet 5. Rubric for Final Assessment provides a tool for both student writing and teacher evaluation.
1. Analyze the hero’s journey archetype as described by an American mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Campbell refers to a “monomyth” (a word he borrowed from James Joyce), a universal pattern that he sees as the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture. This appears in his seminal work in comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) but there are many online sources that disseminate Campbell’s monomyth.
Veteran journalist Bill Moyers sat down with Campbell in 1988 for a series of six PBS interviews entitled The Power of Myth. In “Episode 1: The Hero's Adventure” Campbell explains this archetype and offers examples of it in mythology, literature and film. The Power of Myth videos and its companion text are widely available in libraries, though the full episodes are not online.
Students may analyze one of Ovid’s hero stories to see to how well it fits Campbell’s formula (i.e. Perseus, Jason, Theseus, and Hercules.)
2. Analyze the interpretation of the Orpheus myth as it appears in the 1959 classic film Black Orpheus (originally Orfeu Negro) directed and with screenplay by Albert Camus. It was filmed largely in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and uses their annual pre-Lenten Carnival as a backdrop for a modern retelling of the classic myth. Have students compare Ovid’s telling of the myth in The Metamorphoses with the film version. They may look for similarities and differences between the two versions of the stories told through different mediums.
3. Ovid’s collection of letters in his Heroides represent 15 aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology who address their heroic lovers. One letter is written in the voice of Penelope to her husband Ulysses, long overdue from the Trojan War. Contemporary Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood’s novella, the Penelopia retells the story of the long-suffering wife, from Penelope’s perspective. Have students read both Ovid’s letter poem and Atwood’s short novel to compare and contrast the two versions.