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.
By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
Students examine the theory Man vs. Superman as it is revealed in several scenes within the novel and tackle the larger questions it bring up: Are humans really divided into two distinct categories, the ordinary and the extraordinary? Is this division a figment created by an overactive intellect? What did Dostoevsky think? Then they learn the theory differs radically from Dostoyevsky’s fictional reality—and reader’s—uncover yet another split in the world of the novel, one between intellect and emotion/instinct.
Students examine the novel’s societal setting, which is also fraught with division. Crime and Punishment is more than just a demonstration of the idea that crime does not pay, it is a vivid depiction of societal injustice. For example, Dostoyevsky’s mid-nineteenth century Russia offered women narrowly circumscribed roles, most often resulting in their dependence on men and/or a life of poverty. The negative effects of several other societal divisions raise additional questions.
Portrait of the Writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Credit: 1872, Vasily Perov
In Dostoevsky there were things unbelievable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev. ― Ernest Hemingway
Today Fyodor Dostoevsky is universally viewed as one of the nineteenth century’s greatest and most influential writers. Dostoevsky’s experiences were broad—including brushes with death, the loss of loved ones, political oppression, and years spent in a hard labor camp. His observations of those around him, as well as his own reactions and emotions, are reflected in his fiction, giving it great psychological depth.
Crime and Punishment, first published in 1866 in serial form, is a complex text with a riveting and troubling story line about a young man who steps outside the boundaries of legality and decency and pays a great price for it. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it is a superb choice for college-bound juniors and seniors, especially those in Advanced Placement, honors, and International Baccalaureate programs. Several translations are available, including the long-favored one by Constance Garnett, a popular one by David McDuff, and the highly acclaimed one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhansky. Translations vary slightly with some characters' names (for example, Dounia, Dunia, Dunechka). The worksheets included in this unit use Garnett’s interpretations but can be altered, if necessary.
The first lesson focuses on Dostoevsky’s view of human nature and delves into the character Raskolnikov, whose name derives from the Russian word for "schism" or "split." Throughout the text he, as well as other characters, displays a dualistic nature that draws in conflicting directions. The second lesson deals with the theoretical division of human beings into those who are ordinary and the other few who are not bound by limits that affect everyone else. This motif, a split between logic/reason and emotion/instinct, is analyzed to determine the difference between theory and Rakskolnikov's actual experience. The third lesson demonstrates that the societal setting in the novel is also characterized by splits and divisions. Students are challenged to learn from Dostoevsky, as thinkers as diverse as Hemingway and Einstein did, and to articulate what they learn in both classroom discussion and assessment essays.
Each lesson requires students to go beyond character analysis to comprehend Dostoyevsky's underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky shows his readers that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize key supporting details and ideas.
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).
Summative Assessment: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1
Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
Crime and Punishment demonstrates Dostoevsky's keen awareness of the society in which he lived. He knew well the chasm between the many have-nots and the few wealthy, as well as the tensions between the Westernizers (who wanted Russia to become more European) and the Slavophiles (who thought the best path for Russia was a return to its Slavic roots.). He had firsthand knowledge of what his character, Raskolnikov, would have experienced being sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia. Dostoevsky also discovered increasing radicalism among young people, including the rise of a political movement popularly called "nihilism," which was based on utilitarian thinking and rejection of religious faith. In its most radical form, Russian nihilism rejected all institutions and laws—it was a complete abrogation of everything that Russian people had believed and practiced for centuries. The novel reflects both the appeal and the limitations of this way of thinking. It shows us the tremendous injustice in 19th-century Russian society, while also suggesting that the rejection of every aspect of this social structure is not the way to create justice.
This is a complex and lengthy literary work about a young man torn in conflicting directions. On one hand instinctively compassionate and kind, Raskolnikov is also coldly intellectual and aloof. The crime he seems to have been contemplating for a long time occurs at the end of Part 1. Punishment fills the rest of the novel; although his mind insists that the old woman he killed was barely human and the world was better off without her, he is wretchedly unhappy and caught in what he sees as a kind of cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. His confession, conviction, and deportation to Siberia comes as a relief, and the novel’s conclusion implies but does not fully explain his redemption as a human being.
The three lessons in this unit stress the polarizations that dominate the novel: characters torn by opposing tendencies; theories that separate ordinary people from the extraordinary; disconnects between intellect and emotion; societal divides that formed the fermenting mixture that led to revolution half a century later.
For information on the life of Dostoyevsky as contextual background to teaching the novel see PDF #1.
For tips on how to handle Russian names and notes on Russian culture in the 19th-century see PDF #2.
Choose a topic about which Dostoevsky demonstrates polarization or division in Crime and Punishment. Write an essay to demonstrate how the author's treatment of the topic underpins a theme or central idea of his novel. Provide specific textual evidence, including carefully chosen quotations from the text, to support your analysis.
Worksheet 8. Final Assessment Rubric provides a tool for both student writing and teacher evaluation.
Translations for Crime and Punishment
(Random House), has been a classroom staple. It is also available online;
Film adaptations of Crime and Punishment
Several recent film adaptations of the novel are available, some more useful than others. Selected clips from one or more versions can be more useful than showing an entire film.
Students examine the divided nature of Raskolnikov’s character and personality. Then they uncover the divided natures of other characters—a fact that becomes increasingly evident as the novel progresses to go beyond character analysis to comprehend Dostoyevsky’s underlying themes. What does the novel imply about human nature? Dostoevsky clearly perceived that people are neither simple nor easily classified; they are often torn in opposite directions by forces both inside of and outside of themselves, sometimes with catastrophic results.