In this famous American novel we follow Ishmael as he documents Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the infamous white whale, Moby Dick — a creature as mysterious as the depths of the sea.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In John Masefield’s poem “Sea Fever,” the speaker discusses his desire to return to the sea.
Introduce “Sea Fever” after students read Chapter 1, in order to familiarize them with historical attitudes towards the sea. Ask students to compare Ishmael’s attitude toward the sea to that of the speaker in the poem — what draws both of them to the sea, and what can readers infer about their personalities as a result? Ask students to discuss the sea as a place of exploration: do they think the sea can be colonized like the land?
William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) was an English poet, critic, and editor. His best known poem is “Invictus,” published in 1875, which he wrote just following the amputation of his foot due to tuberculosis.
Have students read “Invictus” after reading Chapter 37 to focus on the themes of fate and free will. Ask students to compare the tone of the poem to Captain Ahab; how does Ahab manipulate the idea of fate to convince his crew to hunt Moby Dick? How does he use the doubloon to further this cause? Do Ahab’s crew members believe they are the masters of their fates, or the captains of their souls? Does Ahab believe he is the master of his fate? What reasons would you give to support your answer?
In “What Fear Can Teach Us,” Karen Thompson Walker discusses the effects that fear has on decision-making and invokes a true story about the sailors of the Essex to illustrate her argument.
Have students read “What Fear Can Teach Us” after reading Chapter 42 in order to help them focus on the theme of fear, as well as introduce them to some historical background on the events that inspired the novel. Using Walker’s argument on what fear can teach us, ask students to investigate Ishmael’s description of whiteness as something to be feared. What could Ishmael learn about his own fear from this article? Teachers may alternatively choose to assign this text at the end of the novel if they are either a) concerned about revealing information that hints at the story’s ending or, b) if they wish to draw a comparison between the true and fictitious events.
In Walt Whitman’s poem “World Below the Brine,” the speaker explores the world under the sea.
Introduce “World Below the Brine” to students after they have read Chapter 59, in order to focus on the symbolism within the novel. Ask students to compare the message of the poem to Chapters 55-59 and Ismael’s discussions regarding the surface versus the depths of the ocean. What does Ishmael believe about the human soul in the context of the depths of the sea? In the context of both the poem and the novel, why is it significant that the whale lives mostly beneath the surface of the sea? What does this say about man’s ability to understand the whale? How much do we really understand about the world we live in?
In “The Most Dangerous Game,” a big game hunter falls off his yacht and is rescued by a mysterious general who claims to hunt only the most dangerous game.
Introduce this text to students before they read Chapter 61, in order to help them examine the human impulse and desire to hunt. Ask students to discuss whether or not they believe that, up to this point in the novel, whales have been treated like the world’s most dangerous game. Ask them to draw on Connell’s short story as they read chapter 61 in Moby Dick, and consider the motivation to hunt — particularly the desire to hunt dangerous animals.
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a piece of philosophy explaining the importance of knowledge in society and for the human soul.
Introduce this text to students after they have read Chapter 105, in order to focus on Ishmael’s inability to accurately describe, and understand, the whale. Ask students to interpret Plato’s allegory and use its concept to examine whether they believe Ishmael has succeeded or failed in his attempt to enlighten himself with his thoughts and reflections on the whale. Has the narrator seen the light of the sun and failed to accurately enlighten his disciples (the readers) or has he failed to see beyond the shadows in Plato’s cave? Teachers may alternatively choose to introduce this text before beginning the novel, in order to encourage students to generally consider these questions as they read.
This poem explores the mystery of life after death through descriptions of the peaceful depths of the ocean.
Introduce the “The Ocean” after students have completed the novel, in order to examine the themes of death present at the end of the book. While death has been foreshadowed and predicted throughout the novel, most of the human death in the book occurs in the final chapters. Ask students to discuss how the sea in the novel serves as a final grave for Pequod’s crew, in comparison to the seamen the speaker refers to in Hawthorne’s poem. Does a calm grave at the bottom of the sea make up for violent deaths above the surface of the ocean?