57 votes
Accepted

Why is there so much technical detail of whaling included in Moby-Dick?

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 ...
  • 15.5k
14 votes
Accepted

What did Melville mean by the "Pythagorean Maxim" in "Moby Dick"?

By “the Pythagorean maxim” Melville means the forbidding of eating beans, which was believed in antiquity to have been one of the rules of the Pythagorean cult. Plato then asserts that we should ...
  • 44.2k
12 votes
Accepted

Why does Melville call Washington "General" rather than "President"

Checking the Google Ngrams viewer, from 1770 to 1900: We can see that "General Washington" was by far the most common appellation during the years Moby Dick was written and published. I am not ...
  • 6,694
10 votes
Accepted

Melville's chain of thought in the "great democratic God" passage in "Moby-Dick"

TLDR: Starbuck is a great man because he has worked hard to elevate himself. Hard work is the ultimate democratic quality because anyone can do it, and it comes from God. If the author should spend a ...
  • 15.5k
9 votes
Accepted

Does "call me Ishmael" imply that that might not be his real name?

Yes, there is an implication that Ishmael might not be the narrator's real name. However, it is also possible to read the sentence as merely a friendly greeting - perhaps an introduction via a ...
  • 15.5k
9 votes
Accepted

Is calling Queequeg a "cannibal" meant to imply he literally consumed human flesh?

Queequeg was indeed a consumer of human flesh. The relevant passage comes from Chapter 17, which describes Queequeg's religious fasting. I then asked Queequeg whether he himself was ever troubled ...
  • 1,064
8 votes
Accepted

What is the meaning of the rescue of Tashtego?

The metaphor is wider than Ishmael allows in the book. Birth, at the time the novel was written, was a dangerous business. The passage in question makes clear that this birth is equally dangerous to ...
  • 15.5k
8 votes
Accepted

Is there any significance to the races of mates and harpooners in Moby Dick?

Yes. The mixture is a metaphor allowing Melville to explore the unequal relationship between whites and non-whites in Melville's time. It is worth noting that throughout the book, whiteness, in ...
  • 15.5k
7 votes

Melville's chain of thought in the "great democratic God" passage in "Moby-Dick"

Matt Thrower has explained the overall shape of the passage, so I will content myself with elucidating Melville’s references to three men who overcame hardship and achieved fame. who didst not refuse ...
  • 44.2k
7 votes
Accepted

Is there a math mistake in Moby Dick Chapter 99?

The analysis in Cliffsnotes assumes that this is intended to portray the character's lack of mathematical proficiency: Others see things they value as they peruse the coin, but they don't see ...
  • 2,777
6 votes
Accepted

Why is Ishmael sometimes seen as an unreliable narrator? Does he ever actually lie in the text?

There are a number of reasons why Ishmael might be considered unreliable, although none of them is conclusive. In most cases, there is an alternative explanation for Ishmael's seeming duplicity. It ...
  • 15.5k
3 votes

Does "call me Ishmael" imply that that might not be his real name?

Ishmael may actually be Ahab. This is more of an extension to Matt Thrower's broader answer, but I found this theory and the evidence for it so interesting that I felt it should be written down, and ...
  • 66.2k
3 votes
Accepted

What are "deadly voids and unbidden infidelities" in "Moby-Dick"?

This sentence is far from easy even for native English speakers! But we can get at its meaning if we pay attention to the context, and take it word by word. Ishmael is attending the Sunday morning ...
  • 44.2k
3 votes

Why there are no annotations in Penguin English Library edition of "Moby-Dick"?

Although the Penguin English Library Imprint was originally introduced to issue ‘critical editions’ of works as a sister series to ‘Penguin Classics’ which at that time only dealt in translated works, ...
  • 16.3k
2 votes

Why was "a world" used in this sentence of Melville?

Since this question was moved over from English Language stack, I'll repost my answer from there, for posterity, if not vanity. All the answers [there] so far focus on the meaning of the word "...
2 votes

What did Melville mean by the "Pythagorean Maxim" in "Moby Dick"?

The "Pythagorean maxim" bit has several meanings. First, it's a poetic way of saying that you are much more likely to encounter hardships (headwinds) than ease and comfort (winds from astern)...
2 votes

Why is Ishmael sometimes seen as an unreliable narrator? Does he ever actually lie in the text?

Read the opening paragraphs closely. It seems to me that he's blowing a LOT of smoke. He never gives a concrete explanation for why he wants to go to sea for three years. Take that in context with him ...
2 votes
Accepted

Bewilderment at "not the smallest atom stirs ..." in "Moby-Dick"

This passage in Moby-Dick is a paraphrase of Swedenborg†: It has been given me to know from much experience, that in the natural world, and in its three kingdoms‡, there is not the smallest thing ...
  • 44.2k
1 vote

What did Melville mean by the "Pythagorean Maxim" in "Moby Dick"?

In my opinion this passage suggests the author is making a double entendre, not only a joke. First, it is clear that a headwind will go against direction which the ship wants to travel and a wind from ...
  • 11
1 vote

Why is Ishmael sometimes seen as an unreliable narrator? Does he ever actually lie in the text?

Look at a map or Google Earth. "From Corlears' Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward." Going north on Whitehall takes you away from the water. By the way, Corlears' ...
1 vote

Why does Melville call Washington "General" rather than "President"

I am quite far removed from my studies of early American History, so I am sure there are many nuances to the politics that I am forgetting, but one of the major reasons that Washington was considered ...
  • 109
1 vote

Why is there so much technical detail of whaling included in Moby-Dick?

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 ...
1 vote

Why is there so much technical detail of whaling included in Moby-Dick?

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 ...

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