The demand for superior nonfiction texts has never been stronger than it is today in K-12 education. Add to that the challenge of fostering a life-long love of reading through books that children will want to return to—even when school is out.
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.