Christiansen American Lit
Study questions on Melville, MOBY DICK English 267 A
Questions on the 1st half (Chapters 1-54)
1. Why is Ishmael chosen as narrator, rather than Starbuck or Ahab or an omniscient author? What kind of person is Ishmael? How does he perceive the world? How will Ishmael's perspective affect the style and format of the book?
2. How does Ishmael account for the universal appeal of the sea? For what reasons --expressed and implied--does Ishmael go to sea? Is he running from something or is he seeking something or both? Explain. Interpret the lines that follow the tale of Narcissu in Chapter 1, "But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all."
3. What does Melville achieve by having Ishmael form a friendship with Queequeg rather than say another American youth? What qualities does Ishmael admire in Queequeg? What do you make of the marriage imagery used in "The Counterpane?" Why is the chapter "Wheelbarrow" included?
4. Although Ishmael is at first depressed by the tablets in the chapel, what philosophic conclusion does he reach? Interpret the line from the "The Chapel" which ends " ... for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot."
5. How does Father mapple define true repentance? What is the significance of his sermon?
6. Newton Arvin speaks of Melville's form as exemplifying what Coleridge meant when he spoke of the imagination as revealing itself in the "balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities." What dualities have been presented in the book thus far? Are they indeed reconciled? What philosophical comment is being made through them?
7. As a specific example of juxtaposed opposites, contrast and compare the imagery used in describing the Spouter Inn and the Tripot. What imagery dominates the first floor of the Spouter Inn? How does this contrast with the imagery of what takes place upstairs? What is the imagery of the first flood of the tripot? How does what happens on the second floor of the tropot become a reversal of what happens at the Spouter?
8. Even before the Pequod sails, there is a certain amount of foreshadowing that heightens the suspense in the novel. Find some examples. What forebodings does Ishmael have before sailing? What is the significance of the meetings with Elijah?
9. How does Melville prepare the stage for the appearance of Ahab?
10. In what ways does Melville suggest the Pequod might be taken as a microcosm (a miniature of the whole world)?
11. Analyze Chapter 31, "Queen Mab," for what it tells about Stubb and about Ahab's power over his subordinates. (Bear in mind what happens in Chapter 29.) Is it plain why Stubb's subconscious should conjure up the dream it does?
12. Why are the chapters on "Cetology" included in the novel? Do they add, detract, or complement the basic philosophies presented in the book? How?
13. What contradictory moods or views are captured in "The Mast-Head"? What comment does it make on transcendentalism?
14. Why is Ahab's intense emotional excitement is the quarter-deck scene so contagious? What shocks Starbuck in Ahab's plan for vengeance? Ahab's reply to Starbuck suggests what it is that drives him so relentlessly. Can you put his purpose into your own words? Not that twice he uses the expresses "the little lower layer." What does he mean by it?
15. What is noteworthy about the form the writing takes in chapters 36-40? How does it reach its extreme in chapter 40? What effect does this form have on content?
16. How does Ishmael account for the "sympathetical feeling" that he has for Ahab and his "quenchless feud"? What does he mean by the sentence about "the sub-terranean mimer that works in us all"? Do you at any point in these chapters admire or pity Ahab? Where and why?
17. In chapter 42, "The whiteness of the Whale," Ishmael argues that the color white possesses a mysterious power to terrify. State as clearly as you can Ishmael's speculative explanation of why white is so scary.
18. "The town Ho's Story"--1. Note the contrasting moods in chapter 47 and explain the metaphor of "The Mat-Maker."
19. What symbolic role does Fedallah play in his relationship to Ahab?
20. How does the chapter "The Hyena" clarify Ishmael's use of humor in his view of the world?
21. What symbolic meaning do you find in the Pequod's encounter with the Goney and its gem with the Town-Ho? How does the Town-Ho's story relate to the larger story?
Questions on last half (chapter 55 - Epilogue)
1. At the end of chapter 58, "Brit," Ishmael discovers what he believes to be an analogy between the proportions of earth to sea and proportions of sanity to other states of mind on the human soul. Spell out what this analogy tells us.
2. Do the non-white members of the Pequod's crew form a significant set in the novel--the harpooners Queequeg, Tashtego, Dagoo, Fleece the cook and Pip the cabin-boy? Are they essentially like each other and different from the white characters? Does Melville see anything of the Noble Savage in them? Is he a racist?
3. Consider chapters 93, "The Castaway," and 94 "A Squeeze of the Hand," as a single unit discussing a single subject. What is the single subject, and what does Melville seem to be saying about it?
4. Chapter 96, "The Try Works," is a kind of miniature sermon on what is the best way to look at life, the best emotional level to seek. What is the best outlook or mood, in this chapter? Where does Ahab fit into the picture? Where does Ishmael fit?
5. In chapter 99, "The Doubloon," several characters interpret the symbolism of the coin in ways that reveal more about themselves than about the coin. Choose the one interpretation which most interests you and discuss what it reveals about the character who thought it up.
6. Describe Ahab's relationship with Pip as presented in chapters 125, "The Log and Line," and 129, "The Cabin." Why does Ahab accept Pip in ch. 125 and turn his back on him in ch. 129? How might their relationship be likened or contrasted to that of Ishmael and Queenqueg?
7. Look closely at the white whale's behavior in the chase scenes. Whose idea of his true nature seems most accurate? Is he merely a dumb brute beast, as Starbuck says? Or is he an agent of evil, as Ahab says? Or is he something else entirely? Pay close attention to Ishmale's descriptive terms in forming your opinion.
8. Back in chapter 23, "The Lee Shore," Ishmael used the expression "The mortally intolerable truth." Elsewhere, too, he referred to truths or aspects of knowledge which he seems to feel are dangerous for men to encounter. What sort of truth do you think he has in mind? Base your answer as much as possible on actual comments found in the novel and not pure free-style speculation.