It has been said that if you read every other chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, it’s a rip-roaring adventure tale. The puzzle, of course, is what to make of all the other chapters.

Easily a contender to be the Great American Novel and hence one of the Great Novels simply, Moby Dick (1851) is a staggering work of the literary imagination. At its core is the strange being pointed to by the title and subtitle: a whale by the name of Moby Dick. But what exactly is a whale? As Melville teaches us or reminds us, the Bible has one answer to that question, Thomas Hobbes (among others) quite another. Melville seeks to recapture for his readers the awe-filled wonder of the natural world, the world constituted by sea, land, and sky. Such wonder might well lead one, in attempting to understand the world, either to “the divine Plato” or to the divine simply. In short, Melville’s novel is an attempt to reopen and explore the fundamental human question of the nature and existence of God in and through the story of Ishmael’s encounter with Captain Ahab and his nemesis.

Over six sessions, fellows will read the full text, paying particular attention to the most important themes that tie together the several parts of this bountiful novel.

Image: Sperm Whale, 1935

Prof. Bartlett on Aristotle's guide to the good life


Robert C. Bartlett

Robert C. Bartlett is the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College. His principal area of research is classical political philosophy, with particular attention to the thinkers of ancient Hellas, including Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle. He is the co-translator of a new edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • “Etymology,” “Extracts,” Chs. 1-19

Discussion Questions:

  1. What motive or motives lead Ishmael to take to the sea?
  2. What might Ishmael mean by “the ungraspable phantom of life,” which he also calls “the key to it all” (Ch. 1)?
  3. What are we to make of the rather mysterious Bulkington (p. 17; consider also Ch.23)?


  • Chs. 20-42

Discussion Questions:

  1. Any thoughts on the sermon of Father Mapple (Ch. 9)?
  2. What are we to make of the strange friendship between Ishmael and Qeequeg?
  3. Write a brief treatment of the character of Starbuck (Ch. 26).
  4. Ch. 41 bears the same title as the book: what do we learn about “the whale” from this chapter?


  • Chs. 43-60

Discussion Questions:

  1. Comment on the discussion of “chance, free will, and necessity” in Ch. 47.
  2. What are we to make of Fedallah (e.g., Ch. 50)?
  3. What does the Town-Ho’s story (Ch. 54) add to the narrative?
  4. What as Melville presents it is a chief characteristic of one who is “a philosopher” (Ch. 60)?


  • Chs. 61-90

Discussion Questions:

  1. Sharks appear in several chapters in this section of the novel: what are we to glean from their appearances (or mentions) here, from things “sharkish”?
  2. What is the “interregnum in Providence” Ishmael perceives (Ch. 72)?
  3. John Locke and Immanuel Kant make a rather surprising appearance in Ch. 73 (not to mention Spinoza and Plato in Ch. 75 [also Ch. 78]): what is Ishmael or for that matter Melville up to here?
  4. Analyze Melville’s presentation (in Ch. 83) of the story of Jonah.
  5. Comment on the “divine intuitions” mentioned in Ch. 85.


  • Chs. 91-106

Discussion Questions:

  1. Comment on the character of Pip and his alleged madness (Ch. 93).
  2. Comment on the import of “the doubloon” (Ch. 99).
  3. What in context does Ishmael mean when he says that he has “undertaken to manhandle this Leviathan” (Ch. 104)?
  4. What information does Ch. 106, entitled “Ahab’s Leg,” give us about the captain’s view of the world? And what might be the relation of that information to the man’s interest in, not to say obsession with, the whale?


  • Chs. 107-135, “Epilogue”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Comment on the end of Queequeg (Ch. 110).
  2. Can you shed any light on the rather enigmatic Ch. 122 (um, um, um!).
  3. Comment on the “fatal pride” of Captain Ahab (Ch. 124).
  4. What if anything do we learn about Ishmael—apart of course from his fate—in the “Epilogue”?

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