Moby-Dick; or, The Whale is an 1851 novel by American writer Herman Melville. The book is the sailor Ishmael’s narrative of the obsessive quest of Ahab, captain of the whaling ship Pequod, for revenge on Moby Dick, the giant white sperm whale that on the ship’s previous voyage bit off Ahab’s leg at the knee. A contribution to the literature of the American Renaissance, the work’s genre classifications range from late Romantic to early Symbolist. Moby-Dick was published to mixed reviews, was a commercial failure, and was out of print at the time of the author’s death in 1891. Its reputation as a “Great American Novel” was established only in the 20th century, after the centennial of its author’s birth. William Faulkner said he wished he had written the book himself, and D. H. Lawrence called it “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written”. Its opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, is among world literature’s most famous.
Melville began writing Moby-Dick in February 1850, and finished 18 months later, a year longer than he had anticipated. Writing was interrupted by his meeting Nathaniel Hawthorne in August 1850, and by the creation of the “Mosses from an Old Manse” essay as a result of that friendship. The book is dedicated to Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius”.
The basis for the work is Melville’s four-year stint as a sailor on whaling vessels, which began in 1841. The novel also draws on whaling literature, and on literary inspirations such as Shakespeare and the Bible. The white whale is modeled on the notoriously hard-to-catch albino whale Mocha Dick, and the book’s ending is based on the sinking of the whaleship Essex in 1820. The detailed and realistic descriptions of whale hunting and of extracting whale oil, as well as life aboard ship among a culturally diverse crew, are mixed with exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides.