Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Melville’s “Moby-Dick”: Shifts in Narrative Voice and Literary Genres (3 Lessons)

Created June 8, 2015

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The Unit

Overview

Moby-Dick

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Melville shift the focus of narrative voice from Ishmael to Ahab in Moby-Dick?
  • How does the narrative voice shift impact the reader’s understanding of Ishmael’s journey and of Ahab’s quest for the White Whale?
  • How does Melville use a variety of literary genres within the novel, Moby-Dick? Why does he make these genre shifts? What function do they serve?

College and Career Readiness Standards

Anchor Standard
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.2
    Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
Grade level standards
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3
    Analyze the impact of the author's choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5
    Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.9
    Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.

Background

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.

Assessment

Narrative Voice Assessment

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.

Literary Genre Assessment

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.

Several possibilities:

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.)

Extending the Unit

  • Have students write a passage analysis for one chapter of Moby-Dick that is used in the unit. Students should focus their analysis around a driving claim as expressed in a thesis statement. They should support their assertions with quotations from the chapter.
  • Have students write their own autobiographical “Call me _________.” piece.

    Their writing should emulate Melville’s opening chapter by invoking a higher force that the student believes in. Suggest to students that this force can but need not be spiritual (i.e., love, friendship, or gravity and the laws of physics would all work). Students should also describe a physical place or state that offers them comfort in the same way Ishmael describes the sea.
  • Have students rewrite a scene from a favorite novel they have read or previously studied, as a dramatic script. They will think critically about the perspective from which the chosen scene is told in the novel and work to remove any bias that this perspective may give the text. Then they will write a reflection detailing their rationale for making the choices they did in terms of staging, action, and characters’ lines.
  • Have students look for connection between elements discussed in the unit to uncover the integrity of Melville’s Moby-Dick. For example: Connect “Fates as stage managers” (which is related to the thematic issue of free will that runs throughout the novel) with Melville’s shift into dramatic genre form in chapters 36 through 40.
  • Consider the “radical” nature of the novel. Melville’s letter to his confidant and fellow-writer Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to it as “the scripture of the age.” Have students write an essay discussing the remarkable, inventive structure Melville wrought in Moby-Dick and how he broke new ground for the novel form.

EDSITEment Features

EDSITEment-reviewed websites

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1: Narrative Voice in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 4, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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.

  • Lesson 2: Dramatic Perspective in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 4, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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 3: Literary Genres in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 8, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Literature and Language Arts
Skills
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Lesson 3: Literary Genres in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 8, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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: Dramatic Perspective in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 4, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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: Narrative Voice in “Moby-Dick”

    Created June 4, 2015
    Moby-Dick

    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.

    Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
    Curriculum Unit

    Why Expressionism? “The Glass Menagerie”: A Common Core Exemplar (3 Lessons)

    Created March 31, 2015

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    The Unit

    Overview

    Tennessee Williams

    Tennessee Williams at 20th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie opening.

    Credit: Fernandez, Orlando, photographer, 1965.  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.

    Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.

    —Tennessee Williams’ production notes to The Glass Menagerie

    Tennessee Williams’ classic play, The Glass Menagerie, was an extension of the expressionism that came out of Europe in the early 20th century. In essence, Expressionism interprets the world through the artist’s internal, subjective lens, not as an objective reflection of reality.

    The expressionist movement was marked by certain characteristics: a rejection of realism in favor of dreamlike states; non-linear, often disjointed structures; a utilization of imagery and symbolism in the place of naturalism; a focus on abstract concepts and ideas. Artists in this movement paid witness to the alienation of the individual which they saw as a main characteristic of modern life. Expressionism conveys angst in the knowledge that our spiritual needs will not be met through modern societal constructs. It rails against the dehumanization of man in the modern, urban landscape.

    In The Glass Menagerie, Williams used expressionistic techniques to develop several of the play’s themes:

    • to show reality as subjective;
    • to find value in the nebulous experience of “memory”;
    • to expose the dehumanization and grotesqueness brought about by modern urban culture;
    • to present the modern angst of life in mid-20th-century America.

    In Lesson 1, students identify what Expressionism in theatre is and explicate Williams’ application of expressionist techniques in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 2, they analyze how those techniques create meaning in the play, i.e., how they help develop the play’s themes. And in Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay. In the summative assessment, students write and annotate an expressionist scene of their own based on the play.

    Common Core State Standards English Language Arts and Literacy lists The Glass Menagerieas a Grades 9–10 Text Exemplar for Drama. (See Appendix B.)

    Guiding Questions

    • How is The Glass Menagerie an example of expressionist theatre?
    • How does Williams’ application of expressionistic techniques develop the play’s themes?

    College and Career Readiness Standards

    Anchor Standard for Reading
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
    Individual Grade Standard
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2: 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.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.9-10.4: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
    • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

    Background

    The expressionist movement in literature had its roots in Germany in the 1910s and in the work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Unifying features included rebellion against artistic and social conventions of the day, and bold innovation. The overall aim of expressionism was to offer a total spiritual renewal by confronting the darkest aspects of reality. The movement influenced a number of artists, writers, and poets around the world, including James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Among them were 20th-century American writers who questioned widely-accepted beliefs. They opened new psychological and emotional dimensions within their works. In the 1920s, expressionism found an outlet on the American stage through experimentalists from the Theatre Guild and Provincetown Players such as Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill. Starting in the 1940s Tennessee Williams adopted expressionist techniques and incorporated them through dialogue, action, sound, setting, stage design, and lighting into his dramatic works such as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Camino Real (1953).

    The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Production Aspects for Expressionist Theatre provides background context on the movement related to theatre.

    Certain theatrical techniques can be classified as expressionist. See Modern Theatre in Context: Expressionism from Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture for a detailed description. A synopsis is noted below:

    • Dramatic characters are usually social or spiritual archetypes;
    • Space/time categories are symbolic and suggestive of abstract places such as "the world," "a church," "a graveyard";
    • Highly visual staging involves atmospheric lighting to express the emotional nuances of the play and various expansion devices, (i.e. staircases) to make the stage space more suggestive and symbolic;
    • New style of acting rejects realistic communication in favor of expressive movements.

    Tennessee Williams adopted such expressionistic techniques and integrated them into The Glass Menagerie as a way to present several of his themes. He used them to highlight reality as subjective, expose the dehumanization and grotesqueness effected by modern urban culture, and express the resulting angst over that condition. This drama is characterized by dreamlike states rather than realism, and imagery and symbolism rather than naturalism.

    For more information on the Expressionist techniques of Tennessee Williams, click here (PDF).

    Tennessee Williams’ oeuvre has always been difficult for critics to categorize. In the seven decades since The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway, this play has been diversely classified as idealist, naturalist, symbolic, poetic, and romantic, among others. Indeed, in this and other plays Williams often combines different elements in pursuit of what critic John Gassner calls “a fusion of naturalistic detail with symbolism and poetic sensibility.” According to drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Williams achieves a new kind of romanticism “not pale or scented but earthy and robust, the product of a mind vitally infected with the rhythms of human speech.” His subject is the often “terrifyingly ambiguous” human nature as he observed it—brilliantly rendered into dramatic form. Nancy Tischler sums it up:

    This play, unique among Williams’ dramas, combines poetic and unrealistic techniques with grim naturalism to achieve a gossamer effect of compassion, fragility, and frustration typical of Tennessee Williams at his most sensitive and natural best.

    A detailed biography of this author’s life and work is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation, which offers myriad assessments of Tennessee Williams’s dramatic techniques by lead scholars and critics.

    Assessment

    Students compose and annotate an original, additional scene for The Glass Menagerie using expressionist techniques to advance one of the play’s themes. They will treat a theme from the play that they have traced through the unit’s activities. Students should annotate their work to clarify their intentions and illustrate their understanding of this theatrical technique and the rich themes Williams infuses into his drama.

    Distribute and review the Summative Assessment Rubric document with students before they begin their compositions, as a guide to ensure that they understand the criteria and as a tool to assess their work.

    Extending the Unit

    • Encourage students to cast, direct, stage, perform and/or film their expressionist scenes from the Summative Assessment. Then ask the class as a whole to identify and discuss the effects of expressionist form on the content.
    • Have students represent a scene graphically—e.g., in a comic strip—to illustrate the interplay of form and content in a scene from The Glass Menagerie.
    • Have students compare the following reviews from the first two productions of The Glass Menagerie in the 1940s with the reviews of the play from two productions mounted in 2013. Discuss how elements of expressionist techniques and theatrical devices used in each production may transcend or be influenced by the social milieu of that time.

    Reviews of original productions:

    The New York Times review of the play’s original 1944 production in Chicago;

    The New York Times review of the play’s subsequent 1945 debut on Broadway.

    Reviews of contemporary productions:

    The review “Wounded by Broken Memories” of the 2013 Broadway production at the Booth Theater;

    The review “The Shape of Memory, Both Fragile and Fierce” of the 2013 production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

    • View one of the many films versions of the play and have students write a review of the film performance. Discuss the additional challenges and/or benefits of producing a film based on a stage-play.
    • Have students read Tennessee Williams’ essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” which describes the fallout of the overnight success of The Glass Menagerie. Then have them use the Launchpad to complete an analysis of this informational text.

    The Lessons

    The Basics

    Grade Level

    9-12

    Subject Areas
    • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
    • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
    • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Drama
    • Literature and Language Arts
    Skills
    • Critical thinking
    • Essay writing
    • Literary analysis
    • Textual analysis
    • Writing skills
  • Lesson 3: “The Glass Menagerie”: Impact of Expressionism

    Created March 31, 2015
    Tennessee Williams

    Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay.

  • Lesson 2: “The Glass Menagerie”: Key Themes

    Created March 31, 2015
    Tennessee Williams

    Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 2, they analyze how those techniques create meaning in the play.

  • Lesson 1: “The Glass Menagerie” as Expressionist Theatre

    Created March 31, 2015
    Tennessee Williams

    Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 1, students identify and explicate Williams’ expressionist techniques.

    Mark Twain playing with a Tesla electrical experiment

    November's Literary Lions

    This page features resources relating to famous authors who were born in November, and presents information about William Blake, Washington Irving, Mark Twain, and Jonathan Swift.