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NA402612 - MELVILLE, H.: Moby Dick (Abridged)

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

Moby Dick


At the age of twenty, dissatisfied with his prospects as a schoolteacher, Herman Melville joined a whaling ship as a harpooner bound for the Pacific whaling grounds. He was away for four years and experienced mutiny, being left ashore on Polynesian islands to live amongst cannibals, as well as service on other vessels. Many of these real-life perilous experiences became the material for his masterpiece Moby Dick.


In Moby Dick, the outcast Ishmael, like Melville himself, enlists on a whaling voyage and finds himself on a ship rapidly dominated by the brooding presence of Ahab who seeks nothing but the destruction of the mythical white whale of the Southern fishing grounds. Through Ishmael’s eyes, we watch the wild and reckless crew gradually subdued and finally almost hypnotized by Ahab’s towering sense of purpose and implacable revenge.


Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York into a family of Dutch descent. Debt haunted his parents and as a young man Melville took to sea. After his return, he wrote a series of successful ‘sea romances’ based on his experiences in the Pacific. Moby Dick was the most ambitious. It was long, digressive and crammed with whaling knowledge and whale-fishery lore but it was not an immediate success.


Moby Dick explored ‘the power of Blackness’, the darker side of human nature and fate, primarily through the figure of Ahab — a marked man. In an age of optimism, such vistas proved unsettling for readers. Just as the novel form was becoming characterized by psychological realism, naturalism and coherence of plot, Melville produced a book with few concessions to these expectations.

It is only in the 20th century that the book has become acknowledged for its unique qualities. Moby Dick, perhaps, anticipates some of the concerns of many modern writers: fragmented plot, a malign or indifferent universe, and experimentation with form.


The two major figures are Ishmael and Ahab. Both are outcasts — Ishmael is tired of a petty city life, and Ahab is alienated by his embittered need for vengeance. Both confront the ‘monsters of the deep’ in the oceans and in themselves: Ishmael watches and speculates; Ahab acts on his beliefs. These two perspectives provide an ever-shifting focus and an immense richness.

After Moby Dick, which did much to undermine his literary reputation at the time, Melville once again broached new ground: he published Pierre, a novel exploring incest which effectively ended his career as a writer. For the remainder of his life, this man, who had hunted whales through many of the dangers described in Moby Dick, worked as an inspector for the New York customs and died largely forgotten in 1891. In 1924, Billy Budd, a manuscript that was discovered in his desk after his death, was published. Since then Melville’s reputation has steadily increased so that he is now widely regarded as one of the giants of American literature.


Notes by Sonia Davenport.



Bill Bailey


Bill Bailey was born and raised in North Carolina, and moved to the UK more than 20 years ago. He has appeared many times in London’s West End and with the National Theatre. Bailey's recent television credits include such classic English series as Poirot, Jeeves and Wooster, Drop the Dead Donkey, Yes Prime Minister, and as a regular in the BBC 2 series Tygo Road. His feature films both in the UK and Hollywood include Superman II, Yanks, The Omen, Ishtar, Reds and Haunted Honeymoon.

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