Herman Melville’s iconic 1851 novel Moby Dick is an undisputed American classic. Since it was first published, it’s been translated into 22 languages and received international acclaim, with more than 50 million copies sold worldwide.
For those who don’t know, this epic maritime tale follows Captain Ahad on an obsessive mission for revenge. His target is a giant white whale, who bit off his leg on a previous voyage. The story is told from the perspective of a sailor named Ishmael, who watches on in awe at the captain’s erratic quest to dominate nature.
If you’ve not read Moby Dick, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. In this article, I’ll just give you a little teaser in the form of the opening and closing lines of the book. I’ll also throw in some fun facts about this classic tale that even fans of the book might not know about.
The Opening Line of Moby Dick
“Call me Ishmael”…
There are some lines from literature that have entered the public zeitgeist and become icons in their own right, and this famous opening line of Moby Dick is certainly one of them.
This instantly recognizable quote is short and simple, but these three little words do a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the story. This attention-grabbing line creates an air of intimacy, as well as gentle authority, as we’re immediately acquainted with our narrator. We’re left wanting to know more about this mysterious Ishmael character and the tales he has to tell us.
The placement of this short sentence also adds to its power, so to give you a little context, here is the full opening paragraph of the first chapter of Moby Dick; Loomings.
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”
This first paragraph reveals an awful lot about Ishmael. Immediately he implies that he’s not from wealth or aristocracy, “having little or no money in my purse.” He also peppers in a little dry humor, with lines like “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” That humor takes on a darker theme when he talks of “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet.“
Within just a few sentences, it’s clear that our narrator is prone to bouts of the blues and that his way of combating them is to set out on an adventure at sea.
The lines “This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” are his tongue in cheek way of sharing his tendency to suicidal thoughts that can only be alleviated by escaping his life on land and heading out onto the open ocean.
By introducing this morbid theme so early on, Melville sets the scene for the rest of the story. As anyone who has read Moby Dick can attest, the book is filled with dark, melancholy descriptions and metaphors about the grim reality of madness and obsession.
For all intents and purposes, “Call me Ishmael” is the opening line of Moby Dick. But the pedants out there might argue otherwise, and technically, they’d be right.
That’s because Chapter 1, “Loomings,” actually follows two previous introductory chapters, entitled “Etymology” and “Extracts.” These sections introduce us to cetology, the study of whales, through a pair of fictional scientific researchers. Though these chapters aren’t really considered to be part of the story, they’re still an integral component of the book, and they provide an essential foundational basis for the rest of the novel.
And so technically, the real opening line of Moby Dick isn’t “Call me Ishmael.” It’s “The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now.“
I don’t know about you, but I think the more famous of the two lines packs a little more punch.
The Closing Line of Moby Dick
“It was the devious-cruising Rachel that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”
For the sake of those who haven’t yet read the book, I won’t give too much away in terms of this famous closing line, except to say that Rachel is a ship. Named after the biblical mother of Joseph, this grand vessel and its smaller whaling boats become intertwined in the pursuit of the elusive Moby Dick. And by the time we reach the last chapter, the ship has played an integral part in Ishmael’s journey.
Moby Dick’s Surprising Struggle for Success
Today, the classic story of Moby Dick is revered by readers around the world. But did you know that when Melville first published his influential novel, it was seen as a flop rather than a success?
The book reached British shores before it hit the American market, and the majority of the readership across the pond dismissed it immediately.
One review from the London Spectator said, “it repels the reader instead of attracting him,” and that Ahab’s monologues “induce weariness or skipping.“
Around the same time, a critic for the London Athenaeum wrote, “The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English, and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.“
Critics in America were slightly more generous with their praise, with many reviews complimenting the author’s originality in storytelling. But even so, Moby Dick was still less successful than any of Melville’s five previous books, and estimates suggest that it sold less than 3,750 copies during his lifetime.
After critics slammed the novel, his reputation took a nosedive. Though he still continued writing, the once-revered author eventually returned to his native New York, where he took up a ‘regular job’ as a customs inspector in order to pay the bills.
Some literary historians say that part of the problem was due to the expectations from his readership. Most of Melville’s earlier novels had been about exotic exploits in far-off tropical lands, like his successful book Typee, based on his adventures in Polynesia. But unlike those earlier titles, the story of Moby Dick is filled with dark and complex metaphors about the human psychological condition, and many readers just weren’t ready for this kind of unsettling inward exploration.
But obviously, public opinion has shifted dramatically since then. So what changed?
By the time Herman Melville died in 1891, all of his books had gone out of print. But his New York Times obituary, citing him as the author of behind Moby Dick, drew fresh attention, and a new interest in his work began to bubble up. Moby Dick was reprinted, and it finally gained some of the critical respect it deserved.
Then, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and critic Carl Clinton Van Doren came across a copy in a second-hand book store and immediately fell in love with the story. He called it “one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world“.
Eventually, over the space of 20 to 30 years, Moby Dick had come to be considered a classic, and it still is to this day.
So poor old Herman Melville never got the credit he deserved for his literary masterpiece, but hopefully, he’s up there somewhere, saying, “I told you so.“
5 Facts About Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
#1. The British edition of Moby Dick was heavily edited.
When the book was first published in Britain, a month before its American debut, the UK editors made a significant amount of edits to the manuscript without consent from Melville.
The original British and American versions contained a whopping 600 differences, and many of them were pretty substantial. For example, British editors completely removed the epilogue, which contained some crucial elements of the tale. They also omitted a further 35 passages from various parts of the book.
Perhaps this goes some way towards explaining why it was such a flop when it was first published across the pond.
#2. In the same year that Moby Dick was published, there was a real-life sperm whale attack.
On August 20th, in 1851, shortly before Moby Dick was published, a Massachusetts whaling vessel called the Ann Alexander was coincidentally sunk by a giant sperm whale, echoing a key part of Melville’s fictional tale.
According to reports at the time, the Whale smashed into the vessel, carving out a huge hole in the hull, which quickly filled with water and dragged the ship under the waves.
Herman Melville commented on the synchronicity of the events in a letter to his friend Evert Duyckinck, saying, “For some days past being engaged in the woods with axe, wedge, & beetle, the Whale had almost completely slipped me for the time (& I was the merrier for it) when Crash! Comes Moby Dick himself (as you justly say) & reminds me of what I have been about for part of the last year or two.“
It is really & truly a surprising coincidence — to say the least. I make no doubt it is Moby Dick himself, for there is no account of his capture after the sad fate of the Pequod about fourteen years ago. — Ye Gods! What a commentator is this Ann Alexander whale. What he has to say is short & pithy & very much to the point. I wonder if my evil art has raised this monster.”
#3. Melville dedicated his book to author Nathanial Hawthorne
By 1950, Herman Melville had all but completed Moby Dick. But when he met fellow literary great Nathanial Hawthorne in that same year, he was inspired to go back to the drawing board and rewrite much of the manuscript.
Melville deeply admired the Scarlet Letter author and even compared him with the legendary William Shakespeare. Many literary historians believe that the story of Moby Dick would have been quite different if it wasn’t for Hawthorne’s impact on Melville.
#4. Moby Dick’s character was inspired by a real-life whale
The story’s famous marine giant was named after a 70-foot long albino sperm whale called Mocha Dick. This real-life Whale takes his name from the island of Mocha, off the coast of Chile, where terrified mariners first spotted him.
Mocha’s demeanor was said to be calm, and he’d often swim gently alongside whaling boats. But each time the harpoons were released, his natural instincts to defend himself kicked in, and he’d attempt to destroy the vessels. By the time he was finally captured and sadly killed in 1839, he had a staggering 19 harpoons impaled in his body from previous attacks.
#5. Starbucks Coffee takes its name from Melville’s book.
America’s most famous coffee chain named its iconic brand after Captian Ahab’s pragmatic first mate, Mr. Starbuck.
Interestingly, one of the company founders, Gordon Bowker, initially preferred ‘Pequod,’ the name of Captian Ahabs’s vessel, but his business partner Terry Hackler talked him out of it. “No one’s going to drink a cup of Pee-quod,” he argued. Personally, I think he was probably right.
The opening and closing lines of a story are so important, and with work as revered as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, they deserve to be shared and celebrated.
If you haven’t read this American classic yet, then what are you waiting for?! If you have, do you have any favorite quotes or passages you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them; drop me a comment in the box below.