Course Hero Logo

Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

Get the eBook on Amazon to study offline.

Buy on Amazon Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Moby-Dick Study Guide." Course Hero. 13 Oct. 2016. Web. 2 Dec. 2022. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2016, October 13). Moby-Dick Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 2, 2022, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2016)



Course Hero. "Moby-Dick Study Guide." October 13, 2016. Accessed December 2, 2022.


Course Hero, "Moby-Dick Study Guide," October 13, 2016, accessed December 2, 2022,


Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick | Themes


Authority and Obedience

The Pequod is owned by Captain Bildad and Captain Peleg. But it is Captain Ahab who is the ultimate authority on board the ship when it is at sea. Ahab expects total obedience, and among the crew there are higher-ranking and lower-ranking positions. Hierarchy is important aboard the ship, as is obedience, and so this theme is inherent in the setting of the novel. The relationship between master and slave is also historically relevant at the time of the novel's publication, 10 years before the beginning of the Civil War. Yet the novel asks bigger, spiritual questions about authority and obedience:

  • Does a man have the authority to take vengeance on nature for an injury?
  • Do humans have the authority to dominate forces God has decreed to be beyond human comprehension?
  • What will happen to a man who arrogantly sets himself above the noblest and most powerful of God's creatures?

Father Mapple preaches that Jonah tried to disobey God and ended up repenting from the belly of a giant fish—God's instrument. Old Fleece, who was born in the slave-owning state of Virginia, "preaches" to the sharks and recognizes that man will reject God's commandment to love one another. Unrepentant Ahab pays the ultimate price for his "fatal pride" at the hands of the same instrument God uses with Jonah.

Destiny and Fate

Prophesies, fate, and superstition overshadow the events of the novel from the beginning. Ishmael notices warnings of death before he even boards the Pequod—in the innkeeper's name and in the memorial stones at the Whaleman's Chapel. Then a prophetic man named Elijah speaks confusing yet ominous words to Ishmael about the upcoming voyage. On board the ship, Ahab's and Ishmael's thoughts turn to the working of fate quite often. Ahab believes his fate is wrapped up in the hunt for Moby Dick, and Ishmael ponders the three intertwined elements of a man's destiny—free will, chance, and necessity. Pip, Fedallah, and Gabriel all make prophetic statements that eventually come true. And even at the end, after Ahab has apparently followed his own will rather than the will of fate or God, he says he is an agent of fate who must obey orders. Conflicts and tensions among necessity, free will, and chance as they apply to events of the story are not resolved by the novel, leaving plenty of room for debate.

Unity and Division

From Ishmael and Queequeg's unexpected friendship to the ethnic and religious diversity among the crew of the Pequod, the novel explores the many ways people are separated by race, nationality, rank, intelligence, and various other categories. These divisions are not downplayed. Ishmael makes fun of the French and German whalemen, while elevating American ones. Stubb treats the darker-skinned crew with disrespect. White men hold all the highest ranks on board. This is set in time against the backdrop of slavery in the United States, which was being hotly debated at the time of the novel's publication.

Yet the Pequod is a community, and all men must work together to stay alive. An extra layer of unity is provided when most of the crew enthusiastically embraces Ahab's insane mission.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Moby-Dick? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!