Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Dramatic Perspective in “Moby-Dick”

Created June 4, 2015


The Lesson



Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick: Volume I, page 273, 1930. linecut on paper.

Credit: Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton to Plattsburgh State University.

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. Ishmael sets out for his sea adventure by joining a band of men in an attempt to ease his land-bound troubles. Ahab is driven to take on a quest for revenge against the whale that stole his leg, which he symbolically replaces 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.

Students examine two chapters of Moby-Dick to investigate points at which Melville shifts the narrative voice. The major change in perspective comes as Ahab enters the scene, quite literally, in chapters that Melville has written in the form of a drama. As he does this, Melville divorces Ishmael’s perspective from a short segment of the novel, giving his readers unencumbered access to the mind of his narrator’s foil, Captain Ahab.

This lesson offers a close reading of Melville’s introduction of Captain Ahab in “Sunset,” chapter 37, which highlights the use of dramatic perspective. Students explore the impact of this shift from a first-person account to a dramatic monologue and examine how this new perspective enhances the telling of the story as a whole.

Lesson 2 is one part of a three lesson unit on Moby-Dick. The lesson builds on the first lesson of the unit. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, College and Career Readiness standards and Background. Lesson 2 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.3.

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze how Melville shifts from Ishmael’s first-person narrative begun in “Loomings,” chapter 1, to Ahab’s dramatic monologue in “Sunset,” chapter 37
  • Examine the how the character of Captain Ahab acts as a foil to the narrator Ishmael

Preparation and Resources

Project Gutenberg’s free online text of Moby-Dick is the edition referenced in this unit.

Lesson readings the following selection:

  •  “Sunset,” chapter 37

Whiteboard, chalkboard, or large piece of paper

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Understanding Literary Terms

Reference the EDSITEment Literary glossary for definitions and examples for the terms used in this lesson.

Introduce or review with students the basic distinction between the perspectives offered in a first-person narrative and the way perspective may be presented in dramatic writing.

  • Convey to students that a first-person narrative uses first-person pronouns to provide an account of an event. The story, therefore, is colored by the narrator’s views and personality.
  • A drama might not have a narrator at all. In many plays, audience members or readers interpret the actions and words of the characters on their own instead of having the story filtered through the narrator.

Introduce or review the term soliloquy, a dramatic technique by which a character can directly reveal the inner working of his mind and heart to the audience or reader.

  • Writers use a soliloquy not only to develop the play but also to provide an opportunity to see hidden motivations of a certain character.

Introduce or review the idea of a foil, a literary device whereby a character shows qualities that are in direct contrast to the qualities of another character. This serves to highlight the traits of each. 

Writers use the literary device of a foil to show the development of two characters’ personalities and also their roles in the story.

Activity 2. Comparing Perspectives

Have students assess Ishmael’s main character traits. (Having each student summarize their paragraph from Lesson 1 would accomplish this well.) Make a list of Ishmael’s most dominant character traits on the board or large paper. Write them in a single column so students can later record the dominant character traits of Ahab in a column next to them.

Tell students that they will now analyze the other major character of the book, Captain Ahab, by reading a scene from his point of view. Have students read “Sunset,” chapter 37 and complete Worksheet 3 in pairs or individually. Suggested answers are provided in Worksheet 3 (teacher version).

  • Note to students that for this chapter Melville has shifted into first-person narration, telling the story from Ahab’s perspective. Discuss how this shift can be thought of as a soliloquy. The temporary movement from fictional narrative to dramatic monologue is necessary at this point to lay out in inner workings of Ahab’s mind for readers.
  • When students have completed the worksheet, review the answers together. Then guide them in a discussion of Melville’s characterizations of Ishmael and Ahab and the perspective from which he introduces each character.
  • Ask students to share the descriptive adjectives they wrote for Captain Ahab. Record this on the board next to those about Ishmael.
  • Once students have examined both characters, have them compare the content of both first-person introductions using Worksheet 4. Remind students they must support their answers with textual evidence from chapters 1 and 37. (Worksheet 4. teacher version is available with suggested answers.)

Extending The Lesson

Have students write a well-supported paragraph that responds to the following prompt:

  • Analyze how Ahab serves as a foil for Ishmael. Considering for this exercise that Ahab is Ishmael’s foil, what character trait or belief does Melville highlight by playing off each character against the other in the novel? Use specific evidence from chapters 1 and 37 to support your analysis.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

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
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Marybeth Duckett (CT)