Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: Literary Genres in “Moby-Dick”

Created June 8, 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.

Moby-Dick stands as a remarkably complex novel, one that takes its reader on many excursions over the course of its plot. As much as readers set sail for the South Pacific on the Pequod, they also travel through many literary genres interspersed throughout the text. With Moby-Dick, Melville makes manifest his belief that “It is better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation.” Melville does not settle for an imitative work that strictly adheres to the expected traditional forms of the genre of the novel. He pushes these boundaries by using other forms of writing to incorporate multiple voices in his text while still retaining the dependability of his narrator.

Students investigate chapters from Moby-Dick that rely most heavily on other types of writing. Teachers will be leading the class through an investigation of the hymn genre, modeling the process that students will later use in small groups to analyze other genres—science writing, drama, or a sermon. They use their analysis to build a stylistic profile for their genre and present their findings to the class. The concluding whole class discussion will expose connections between the different genres of writing.

This lesson is one part of a three-lesson unit on Moby-Dick. The three lessons may be taught in sequence, or this lesson can stand on its own. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, College and Career Readiness standards and Background. Lesson 3 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the main characteristics of several different genres of writing—sermon, science writing, hymn, and drama—that Melville integrated within Moby-Dick
  • Compare the different genres in Moby-Dick to determine their impact on the story

Preparation and Resources

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

Readings from the following selections:

  • “The Sermon,” chapter 9
  • “Cetology,” chapter 32
  • “Midnight, Forecastle,” chapter 40

Worksheet 5

Worksheet 5 (teacher version)

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Modeling a Stylistic Investigation

If necessary, define and discuss with students the term genre.

Explain that though Moby-Dick is a fictional work primarily written in prose, it also contains additional styles of writing. Tell students they will explore several different literary genres and examine how they function in this novel.

Lead students through a stylistic investigation of the literary genre, hymn, in “The Sermon,” chapter 9, which begins “The ribs and terrors in the whale …” Model the process they will go through later in small groups as they analyze their respective genres.

Have students read the hymn aloud. Then ask them the following questions to analyze the stylistic elements of it. Throughout the discussion, encourage use of the text of the hymn as evidence to support their ideas. This hymn is a version of Psalm 18. It tells a story reminiscent of the Biblical story of Jonah, who was trapped in the belly of a whale and then escaped.

  • What do you first notice about the hymn, just by looking at it?

The hymn, unlike the novel’s prose, is written in verse. It has intentional line and stanza breaks.

  • What is the topic of the hymn?

The hymn largely deals with the glory of God. It tells the Biblical story of Jonah—a man trapped in a whale, who God saves from the whale’s stomach. The God in this hymn is merciful and powerful.

  • What do you notice about the lines themselves? Are there any discernable patterns to them?

In most stanzas, the second and fourth lines rhyme. Most lines have eight syllables and a rhythm to them. Some of the lines have inverted syntax in order to make the rhymes work.

  • Are there any clues in the text surrounding the hymn that help you understand its purpose or effect?

Ishmael recounts that the hymn is sung joyfully by the entire congregation. He also notes that there is a shift in the tone of the preacher from “solemn” to “pealing exultation and joy.” That matches the tone shift in the content of the hymn (the man is solemn when trapped and joyful once saved).

  • If this hymn is representative of all hymns, what would you expect other hymns to look like?

Other hymns will likely also be written in lines and stanzas with rhyme and rhythm. They will likely praise God in some way. Students may also expect that hymns will present content similar to the one in Moby-Dick by presenting a human problem that God solves. Emphasize that they should focus on the style of the piece rather than the content.

  • Together, using the hymn in the text as evidence, write a working definition of a hymn on the board.

A religious piece written in verse, often sung, that praises God.

Actvity 2. Group Stylistic Investigations

Break students into groups of three or four. Assign each group a genre and chapter from the list below.

Distribute Worksheet 5 and have students complete the worksheet in their groups. (A teacher version of Worksheet 5 with suggested answers is available).

Group 1. Sermon: “The Sermon,” chapter 9, the paragraph that begins “And now behold Jonah …”

Group 2. Scientific writing: “Cetology,” chapter 32, the paragraph that describes the sperm whale. “—This whale, among the English of old vaguely known as the Trumpa Whale …”

Group 3. Dramatic writing: “Midnight, Forecastle,” chapter 40, the entire chapter.

Depending on the size of your class, you may have multiple groups working on the same genre. If you do, assign each group a difference section of the chapter. They will be able to compare their analysis when the class reconvenes after completing the worksheets.

After each group has finished its worksheet, bring the class together to discuss their findings. Have each group briefly present on their genre.

Lead students in a follow-up discussion of the presence of these different forms of writing within Moby-Dick.


  • None of these forms of writing is in Ishmael’s voice. Compare each to Ishmael’s narrative voice.

The sermon is more formal and didactic than Ishmael’s narrative voice. The science writing is also more formal than Ishmael and far less conversational than his narration. The dramatic writing includes the voices of many different characters instead of only including a single perspective.

  • Why do you think Melville includes different forms of writing within the novel?

Answers will vary.


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

  • Novels often conform to a single style of writing. What are some of the benefits of including many different styles and genres of writing in a single text? What are some of the drawbacks? In the end, does this inclusion detract from Ishmael’s narrative voice in Moby-Dick? Be as specific as possible, citing evidence from the text to support your assertions.

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)


Activity Worksheets