Essay Questions For Melvilles Novels

  • 1

    Trace the use of color in "Benito Cereno", from the gray skies of the tale's opening through the descriptions of the characters - black, white and mixed - to the bright sun and the blue skies at the close of the tale. What does Melville suggest with these colors? Is irony at play?

  • 2

    Discuss Captain Delano's attitude toward blacks in "Benito Cereno". What does he admire about Babo, about the African women, about Atufal? What do you think Melville's position might have been with regard to Captain Delano's attitude?

  • 3

    "Benito Cereno" was written as the United States prepared for the Civil War. Although the tale is set long before Melville's own era, how might it be a comment upon the events of the Civil War?

  • 4

    Who is the hero of "Benito Cereno"? The title character? Captain Delano? Babo? Nobody? How might any of these characters be seen as heroic, or unheroic?

  • 5

    Consider the perspective of "Benito Cereno". From whose vantage do we see the action? From whose don't we? Who does Melville silence and who does he allow to speak, and to what effect?

  • 6

    "Benito Cereno" is full of performance. On nearly any page of the book, one can find instances of characters taking on parts, performing roles, speaking lines, being coached, or otherwise trying to communicate while conscious of an audience. What does "Benito Cereno" suggest about the nature of performance? What is the line between performance and reality? Who are the great actors in "Benito Cereno"?

  • 7

    Discuss the religious subtext of "Benito Cereno". From the beginning of the story to the end, monasticism, Catholicism, messianicism, the Inquisition and other religious imagery help to communicate Melville's message. What purpose does any one strain of this imagery serve in "Benito Cereno"? For instance, follow Christ images throughout the tale, or references to the Black Friars, a.k.a. the Dominicans.

  • 8

    A major image in "Benito Cereno" is the stern-piece of the San Dominick: "a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked." Follow the echos of this image throughout the tale. At given points in the narrative, whose foot is on whose throat? What is the significance of the masks on the figures in the image, and how do masks relate to the tale as a whole?

  • 9

    Why does Benito Cereno die at the end of his tale? Why doesn't Captain Delano?

  • 10

    Reflect on the violence in "Benito Cereno". Who commits the atrocities in the story, and what does Melville suggest about barbarity? Consider three key images: the skeletal remains of Don Aranda, the battle between the sailors of the Bachelor's Delight and the slave mutineers aboard the San Dominick, and the image of Babo's head on a pike at the end of the tale.

  • Moby-Dick (Melville)

    Page 4 of 4

    Discussion Questions
    (Below are two sets of questions: one from Penguin Group USA and other other from Random House Publishing Group.)

    1. Why does the novel's narrator begin his story with "Call me Ishmael"?

    2. How does Ishmael's relationship to Queequeg change from the time they meet to the sailing of the Pequod?

    3. Why does Melville include stage directions in some chapters (e.g., "The Quarter-Deck")?

    4. Why does Ahab pursue Moby Dick so single-mindedly?

    5. Why does Melville have Fedallah offer a prophesy that Ahab interprets in his favor, but which turns out otherwise?

    6. Why does Starbuck decide against killing Ahab, despite believing that it is the only way to "survive to hug his wife and child again"? Why does Starbuck fail to convince Ahab to give up his pursuit of Moby Dick ("The Symphony")?

    7. Why does Ahab offer the doubloon to the first member of the crew to spot Moby Dick?

    8. Why does Ishmael digress from his story to meditate on the meaning of whiteness ("The Whiteness of the Whale")?

    9. Why does Melville begin the novel by adhering to the conventions and limitations of a first-person narrator, but violate them later?

    10. Why is Ishmael so concerned with past efforts to represent whales, in writing as well as other media, and the extent to which these efforts have succeeded or failed?

    11. Why does Ishmael include in his story so many details about life and work aboard a whaling ship?

    12. Does the novel support or undermine Ishmael's contention that "some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth"?

    13. Why does the coffin prepared for Queequeg become Ishmael's life buoy once the Pequod sinks?

    14. Who or what is primarily responsible for the destruction of the Pequod and, except for Ishmael, her crew?"

    15. Why does the Rachel rescue Ishmael?

    16. How has his experience aboard the Pequod affected Ishmael?

    17. On what basis should we determine the point at which ambition turns into obsession?

    18. Is knowledge always at least partly harmful, either in its application or the cost of acquiring it?
    (Questions issued by Penguin.)

    1. What is the significance of the whale? What do you think Melville intends in developing such a vicious antagonism between Ahab and the whale?

    2. How does the presence of Queequeg, particularly his status as a "savage," inform the novel? How does Melville depict this cultural clash?

    3. How does whaling as an industry function metaphorically throughout the novel? Where does man fit in in this scenario?

    4. Melville explores the divide between evil and virtue, justice and vengeance throughout the novel. What, ultimately, is his conclusion? What is Ahab's?

    5. What do you think of the role, if any, played by religion in the novel? Do you think religious conventions are replaced or subverted in some way? Discuss.

    6. Discuss the novel's philosophical subtext. How does this contribute to the basic plot involving Ahab's search for the whale? Is this Ishmael's purpose in the novel?

    7. Discuss the role of women in the novel. What does their conspicuous absence mean in the overall context of the novel?
    (Questions issued by Random House.)

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