Considered one of the great American novels, Moby-Dick is a sea adventure based on the author’s own experiences, research and the real-life sinking of a whaling boat, the Essex, by a sperm whale in 1820. Moby-Dick, Melville’s magnum opus, is a compelling eight-hundred-plus-page tale about destiny, the nature of good and evil, and the power and mystery of the ocean.


An epic novel full of humour and philosophy, Moby-Dick includes elements of stage-play, poetry and song. It tells the story of Ahab, a whaling captain who is obsessed with a mythical white sperm whale that had bitten off his leg in a previous encounter. The narrator is Ishmael, who joins Ahab’s whaling boat the Pequod, and discovers that this is no ordinary voyage

“I, Ishmail, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs [...] A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned of the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge.”

“Io, Ismaele, ero uno di quest’equipaggio: le mie grida s’erano levate con quelle degli altri, il mio giuramento s’era confuso col loro […] Un mistico, sfrenato sentimento di simpatia era in me; l’odio inestinguibile di Achab pareva fatto mio. Con avide orecchie ascoltai la storia del mostro assassino contro il quale io e tutti gli altri avevamo prestato giuramento di violenza e di vendetta.”


For three years the Pequod journeys in pursuit of the “murderous monster” Moby Dick. Meanwhile, Ishmail describes life at sea and the larger-than-life characters on board the whaling ship. He explains their fears and superstitions, and the crew’s belief in the supernatural power of the whales they hunt:

“[I]n maritime life, far more than in that of terra firma, wild rumors abound, wherever there is any adequate reality for them to cling to. And as the sea surpasses the land in this matter, so the whale fishery surpasses every other sort of maritime life, in the wonderfulness and fearfulness of the rumors which sometimes circulate there.”

“[N]ella vita di mare, molto più che in quella di terra, le voci stravaganti abbondano tutte le volte che una qualche adeguata realtà si presta al loro attecchire. E come il mare supera la terra in questo, così la baleneria supera ogni altro genere di vita marinara nelle voci meravigliose e terrificanti che talvolta vi circolano.”


Moby-Dick is filled with detailed descriptions of whaling and cetology. Ishmail describes creatures that are sensitive and intelligent, though also dangerous. He has great respect for life beneath the surface of the water. However, brutally slaughtered, the whales become a product whose blubber helps to fuel the industrial revolution back home:

“Every sailor a butcher [...] the hook is inserted, and the main body of the crew striking up a wild chorus, now commence heaving... as the blubber envelops the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so it is stripped off from the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it.”

“[…] si pianta il gancio, e il grosso dell’equipaggio, intonando un coro spaventoso, comincia a issare, tutto affollato all’argano. Ora, siccome il grasso avvolge la balena precisamente nel modo che la buccia avvolge un arancio, così lo si stacca dal corpo precisamente come qualche volta si sbuccia un arancio: a spirale.”


Melville describes the final chase and deadly battle between the harpoons of the humans and the power and ferocity of the whale. Driven by Ahab’s madness, there is no turning back, as the whale surfaces and the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion:

“‘Aye, breach your last to the sun, Moby Dick!’ cried Ahab, ‘thy hour and thy harpoon are at hand!–Down! down all of ye, but one man at the fore. The boats!–stand by! [...] As if to strike a quick terror into them... Moby Dick had turned, and was now coming for the three crews.”

“«Sì, fa’ il tuo ultimo salto nel sole, Moby Dick!» esclamò Achab. «La tua ora e il tuo rampone sono vicini! Abbasso! tutti abbasso, solo un uomo al trinchetto. Pronti alle lance!» […] Come per incuter loro un vivo terrore, […] Moby Dick s’era voltato e venne alla volta dei tre equipaggi.”


Melville’s first two books, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), established his reputation as an adventure travel writer. Moby-Dick, however, confused critics with its scale, biblical symbolism and cross-genre style. His books sold badly and in his final years Melville turned to writing poetry. He died in 1891, and it took until the 20th century for his ambition and genius to be recognised. Moby-Dick has since been adapted for screen many times, most famously in 1956 in a John Huston film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. 

Traduzione di Cesare Pavese, Frassinelli, Torino, 1963.