10 Quotes that Illustrate Moby Dick

Moby Dick is not a page turner. It moves slowly on like a whaler lumbering through the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, it is one of the most profound novels I have ever read. In both its details and larger story, it explores the depths of the human consciousness in unparalleled ways. Melville explains every aspect of whaling in the 19th century and connects it to a broad range of human experiences, philosophies, and challenges.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from this marvelous book. Some have deeper meanings. Others are humorous. Others are just intriguing ways of expressing sentiments.

1. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (3.44).

2. “I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. . . . and Heaven have mercy on us all–Presbyterians and Pagans alike–for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending” (17.96).

3. “The whale has no famous author; and whaling no famous chronicler, you will say” (24.120).

4. “I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty” (32.140).

5. “Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness, he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperation . . . all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest has been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it” (41.186).

6. “But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demonic phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed” (52, 235).

7. “You is sharks, satin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned.”
“‘Well done, old Fleece!’ cried Stubb, ‘that’s Christianity; go on’” (64.290).

8. “It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own” (68.303).

9. “One often hears of writers that rise and swell with their subject, though it may seem but an ordinary one. . . . Such and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it” (104.432).

10. Queequeg carved a copy of his tattoos on the canoe that was going to carry his dead body out to sea. “And this tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining the truth: so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the lying parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last” (110.456).


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