Mastering the Mighty Melville

Leverage historical and cultural context to get the most out of Melville's complex masterpieces.

By Elijah Ammen


Moby Dick book cover

Anything written by Herman Melville can feel intimidating to the average reader. Best known for the ponderous novel Moby-Dick, Melville has a reputation for complex themes using elaborate symbols, metaphors, and allusions to the Old Testament. While Moby-Dick is his best-known work, he also wrote many other novels and poetry. Melville's attention to detail and historical accuracy can slow down many readers, but he sheds fascinating insight into an historical era from a man who lived his writing.

Melville's Background

Your developing readers are more likely to be invested in a book if they understand the author and his motivations. Melville's writings, novels and short stories alike, usually came from his experiences as a sailor. He sailed as a young man on various ships in the mid-1800s (including whalers), lived with different native tribes in the Pacific Islands, and even participated in a ship's mutiny. Even though he was popular for a short time, he never made enough money from his writing to live. He even gave up writing novels for thirty years, writing only poetry (including Clarel--the longest poem in American literature). It wasn't until the "Melville Revival" in 1920 that he became renowned. Melville's first-hand experience adds a level of credibility to his writing that grounds his expansive symbolism in reality.

Cultural Context

While Melville's work is fiction, it's important for your classes to understand the influence of Melville's world on his writing. If the reader does not have a clear grasp of the historical context of the 1840s, a world without electricity or modern technology, they will be lost. Students need to be able to visualize the true isolation of being on a ship in those days in order to understand the fear of mutiny in Billy Budd, or the crazed obsession of Ahab as he pursues the white whale, dooming his entire crew. From a social standpoint, Melville's attitude toward other races is remarkably ahead of his time. In his first three semi-autobiographical novels, Typee, Omoo, and Mardi, as well as Moby-Dick, Melville has positive portrayals of Pacific Islanders, at a time in America where race-based slavery was still legal. Melville's use of first-person is also reflective of the common practice of journaling in his time. This lesson has classes investigate the cultural context of Moby-Dick through modeling journal entries from other examples of journals from the 19th century.

Literary Concepts

Melville's writing is heavily layered with allusions to Shakespeare and the Old Testament, as well as symbols and elaborate metaphors. Pupils should already be familiar with these concepts before reading something like Moby-Dick, or they might not be able to follow the themes of the book. Another useful concept is the Aristotelian and Shakespearean concept of the tragic hero. In this lesson, students debate whether or not Captain Ahab was a tragic hero in the Aristotelian definition.

Billy Budd, Melville's unfinished novella that was published posthumously, is another insight into human character. The various potentially unreliable narrators give enough ambiguity for multiple interpretations of the text. This allows classes to exercise higher-level thinking as they take a stand for one interpretation or another, and defend it with evidence from the text. If your class is not at this level of analysis yet, you can scaffold up by helping them visualize the scenarios and perform the parts of the novella as if it were a movie. This is especially useful as a differentiation for students' multiple intelligences.

Finally, Melville's best-known short story, and one of his few writings not set on a boat, is "Bartleby the Scrivner." This New York Times blog has some great suggestions to help learners translate the short story into a modern context, as well as several interdisciplinary tie-ins at the end of the article. The lesson uses another New York Times article as a companion text to show how "Bartleby the Scrivner" was essentially the forerunner of The Office sitcom.  


Billy Budd Movie Report

Have your class cast, illustrate, and perform their own versions of Billy Budd. Useful as a practice for multiple intelligences.

Moby Dick Cultural Research

While Melville was ahead of his time, his stories are grounded in real-life experiences. This lesson sets learners up for an inquiry-based exploration of the mid-1800s, including other journals from Melville's day.

Bartleby the Scrivner

An exploration of Melville's lighter side using an existential office comedy. This blog makes interdisciplinary connections, as well as linking "Bartleby" to Melville's other works and his historical context.

Ahab as a Tragic Hero

Mix up your Shakespearean tragedies with another exploration of the Aristotelian tragic hero. This prompts investigation of the definition of a tragic hero, and then has pupils choose and debate Ahab's status as a tragic hero by using evidence from Moby-Dick.