Ten Reasons to Teach Moby Dick
Ahoy, landlubbers! Call me excited. This list is going to be appropriately whale-sized in comparison to my other “reasons to teach” lists. Most people probably wouldn’t equate Moby Dick with fun, but it’s honestly my favorite work to teach. That’s no small statement either. I teach five different preps with everything from the Odyssey to 1984, yet Moby Dick defeats them all for teaching enjoyment and literary impact. Students are drawn to the story, fascinated by the historical detail, and receptive to discussing the deeper meanings of the story. It’s literary gold! If I haven’t sold it enough for you, here are ten reasons (not just five) to teach Moby Dick!
- On the surface it’s an action story. You might not have noticed, but teenagers love action! Moby Dick and the physical action of whale-hunting fascinates them and draws them into the story. I mean, whalemen in wooden boats were literally stabbing pointy poles into a creature the size of a school bus! Whale hunting is brutal to our modern sensibilities, but it always draws a huge reaction. It doesn’t hurt that Thor…I mean, Chris Hemsworth recently starred in The Heart of the Sea, an adaptation of one of the best non-fiction books of all-time. (Seriously, check it out on Amazon. It’s a must read.)
- On a deeper level it’s a reflection on the meaning of life. Moby Dick has one of the most philosophical narrators of all-time: Ishmael (no last name…and that probably isn’t his real first name either). He connects everything that he witnesses upon the Pequod with the deeper mysteries of life. A safety rope that connects two crewmen together isn’t just a rope: It’s a symbol for the invisible bond that connects all human beings. "We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us to our fellow man." Herman Melville could have been a life coach!
- Captain Ahab is the ultimate tragic hero. Moby Dick is also a tragedy, and its tragic hero is Captain Ahab. The book describes him as a man who is both godless and godlike. According to legend, he survived a lightning strike and has sunk his harpoons into larger and more mysterious things than whales (Cthulhu maybe?). He seems pretty straightforward at first: A crazed man determined to kill a whale that bit his leg off. Yet whenever he allows his humanity to break through, you really feel for the guy. He’s doomed, but he doesn’t want to be. Tragic!
- Queequeg is the ultimate superhero. When I ask my students to name their favorite character, Queequeg, the tattooed, tomahawk-pipe-smoking, cannibal harpooneer tops the list. Why? He’s one of literature’s superheroes—strong, fast, brave—and ready to save others at the drop of a hat. He’s also a walking representation of how we view those who are different than us. At first we are frightened and resort to stereotypes—just as Ishmael is at first terrified of Queequeg. Then slowly we begin to see a fellow human beneath those differences. Ultimately, Queequeg, a cannibal, restores Ishmael’s faith in humanity. That’s no small statement!
- It’s a fascinating look at the whaling industry. All the disgusting details of the whaling industry are on display in Moby Dick, which Melville wrote to be part-whaling-encyclopedia. Horrific images of sperm whales blowing gallons of blood from their blowholes to the slimy process of removing the blubber and boiling it down into whale oil, there are plenty of gross-out moments. At one point a crewman falls down into the 15-foot-deep hole his crewmates have cut into a whale’s head. The industry itself is captivating as well. It still blows my mind that before the discovery of crude oil, whale oil lubricated the machinery of the world.
- Moby Dick is biggest symbol of all-time (literally and figuratively). We English teachers love our symbolism, don’t we? No symbol is as famous as the white whale himself. Apart from determining what Moby Dick’s true nature is within the story (a real whale or some supernatural being), what does he represent outside the story? God? Our obsessions in life? The American Dream? I smell a term paper!
- You could teach every literary term ever using this story. Seriously, I can’t think of a literary term that couldn’t be covered with Melville’s rich prose. There’s definitely jargon a-plenty (all the parts of the ship and whaling terminology), almost everything in the story is a metaphor for something else, and there’s no less than ten tons worth of foreshadowing.
- Life lessons a-plenty: You can’t throw a harpoon without hitting a life lesson in Moby Dick. As Ahab’s crazed pursuit of the white whale continues, Ishmael goes on a parallel quest to determine the meaning of life. He learns about friendship and sacrifice from his friend Queequeg. He learns about the mysteries of life from the strange and mysterious sea. In Ahab he sees the folly in being monomaniacal. Ultimately, he learns the danger of following an unworthy leader…the hard way.
- The Pequod is a symbol of the United States. If musings on the meaning of life weren’t enough, Melville was also commenting on the state of his country. The hierarchy of the crewmembers aboard the Pequod places the minorities on the bottom rung. Melville castigates this injustice and even causes Pip, the young, black cabin boy to lose his mind after he is treated like a commodity and told that a whale is worth far more than he is. Like a supreme ruler and dictator, Ahab lords over the crew, and their blind devotion to a mad captain is a comment on people’s willingness to follow unfit leaders.
- The book is referenced everywhere from Star Trek to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan gives its villain, Khan, an Ahab-like vendetta—even lifting some lines from the novel verbatim. Starbucks, which was going to be named Pequod coffee, references the ship’s first mate. JAWS is a modern reworking of the novel’s plot. In Jeff Smith’s wonderful comic book Bone, the titular character’s favorite book is Moby Dick, and he often imagines himself in the action of the novel. I’ve even seen Candace on Phineas and Ferb taking on the role of Ahab. It’s just…classic!
In my own classroom we read a script-story adaptation of the novel, which presents the story in a high-school-friendly format without glossing over the deeper issues of the text. For information about purchasing this adaptation, click here. You can also read the first part of the adaptation for free!