One of the peculiarities of Moby-Dick is that it includes large quantities of information about the science of whales and the practice of whaling. Whole chapters are dedicated to describing the technicalities of life aboard a whaling vessel in the most minute detail.

These make the novel read oddly: they interrupt the telling of the tale and many readers find them boring. What was Melville's reason for including so many technical chapters and going into such detail?

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    You've answered your own question, but it's worth pointing out that Moby Dick is hardly alone in incorporating large chunks of seemingly irrelevant matter that does not advance the narrative. This appears to be a feature of several epic novels: Les Miserables and Tom Jones are examples.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 18:13
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    Personally I was always annoyed by the constant intrusion of essays and soliloquies on the subjects of whiteness, surfaces vs depths, intolerance of evil, the limits of knowledge, the deceptiveness of fate, etc. etc. - I found the science and practice of whaling to be the interesting part. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 21:38
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    "Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better." Truer words to live by have never been sung or spoken. This technical detail is anything but irrelevant! Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 0:31
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    For me, those detailed explanations of whales, ships, and the equipment were the best parts of the novel (maybe because I never saw a whale). "Moby Dick" to me is similar to Arthur Hailey's works, which explain, how a particular organization (airport, bank, etc.) works. Or Eliyahu Goldratt's fiction books about the theory of constraints.
    – user431
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 3:51
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    Keep in mind, published in 1851. Intended audience segments were probably thought to be interested in details of one of the most adventurous lifestyles possible. Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 4:49

3 Answers 3


There are multiple purposes behind the novel structure of Moby-Dick.

In the first instance the author was himself a whaleman, having spent 18 months as an ordinary seaman aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841–42. In his experience the literature of the day, such as Miriam Coffin or The Whale-Fisherman by Joseph Hart, did not portray whaling accurately but rather sensationalised it. He wished to provide his readers with a more realistic account.

In doing so, he also gave the reader the information necessary to better understand and appreciate the passages of whaling described in the novel. With the reader forewarned, he is able to keep the narrative passages tense and exciting. It is interesting that, early in the novel, the Pequod meets virutally no whales and that the chases become longer and more involved as the story progresses. This may be because Melville felt he needed to give the reader more and more technical information before they could fully appreicate these encounters, but understood the science would need to be spaced out among the narrative.

In describing it to the reader, the science also serves another useful narrative function. It indicates that on whaling voyages, long periods of time pass when nothing much happens at all. By padding out of the story with scientific digressions serves as a useful narrative metaphor for waiting.

The level of detail provided also mirrors one of the novel's central themes: obsession. Although Ishmael is the narrator and Ahab the obvious obsessive, the amount of science indicates that Ishmael is also an obsessive. His obsession is the business of whaling itself.

Finally, Melville made good use of these passages in serving as metaphors for other themes of the novel where he felt it appropriate. For example in the chapter The Line, which describes how the whale line is stored and used in the boat, it ends by using the line as a metaphor.

"All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life."

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    "Acushnet" sounds like the name of an Indian ISP. Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 17:40
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    "Purposes" assumes that Melville actually thought out and designed the structure of the novel in some detail. "Effects" or "Benefits" might be more correct. With the enormous body of literature that has now accumulated, and the available analysis of structure and courses of "how to write", a modern novelist might well think out in advance and in detail the structure of their work. Melville may have, at most, done this intuitively. We speculate.
    – user450
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 13:15
  • As much as Matt's answer makes me want to re-read the book, I do agree with @mickeyf. My glib answer before today would have been "because he didn't have an editor" and I still speculate that a lot of this is about changes in the way novels are authored and edited/published (or rejected) now vs. then.
    – Eric Hirst
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 20:44
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    You mentioned that your "answer is a distillation of three essays on the subject that I read." Can you link to or cite those essays? That would make your (already great) answer (even) better, and would only be fair to the authors of those works if they were explicitly cited in this answer.
    – Shokhet
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 16:22
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    I second this: I would very much like to know what essays this answer was based on (I'm thinking about reading Melville again, and any academic sources would be helpful). Also, please always cite the source of your ideas/information when you write answers: these citations are extremely helpful for future readers.
    – user111
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 22:36

That’s not a “peculiarity”. To most who enjoy the genre that's much, if not most of the point.

Melville's reason for including so much technicality was simply to show realism. Consider why Hollywood did much the same in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby_Dick_(1956_film), the major difference being simply the time taken to watch a movie or to read a book…

Isn’t the real Question, to what genre does Moby Dick belong? Adventure? Seafaring? Whaling? What?

For a quite separate, singular example consider Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiography of TE Lawrence (of Arabia) who at one point spends three pages describing nothing more “interesting” than the different kinds of gravel found along the sides of a valley.

Still, Seven Pillars was called the best adventure story ever written in English by both Sir Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, both military heroes, literary giants and political masters.

Consider CS Forrester’s Hornblower; Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin; Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe. Go back 100 years to Talbot Mundy’s Tros.

All those, and many others, simply would not work without their technical details. Any good writer could translate exactly the same stories into current or future fiction, except that the technical details you ask about would need to be re-invented. All those stories could be switched to Star Trek and I suggest the reason that hasn’t happened is not the Copyright fees, but the technical details…

Jame T Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard need only to say “Set course…” or “Make it so…” because the writers want the audience not to concentrate on details they couldn't possibly understand because basically, those "details" are nonsense.

Horatio Hornblower or Richard Sharpe need to explain what’s required not only to their men but also to their readers because the technicalities will seem strange… who doesn't see the difference?

In Moby Dick every reader has and in Star Trek almost no-one has an opportunity to study the technicalities.

What’s vitally interesting to one reader is boring to another and why would the other finish reading the work, including you?


Had excellent literature professor who reasoned that the technical sections gave the reader the option of exhaling following the intense pressure of Melville’s narrative. The reader could choose to read as much or little as deemed necessary.

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