Moby Dick (First Edition) by Herman Melville



2015-06-26 10:40:58

Moby Dick, or, The Whale is a novel by Herman Melville (1819-1891). The first edition of this work was published under the title ‘The Whale’ in 1851 by Richard Bentley, London. The American first edition was published under the title Moby Dick a month later by Harper and Brothers.


The novel was inspired by two real events. Firstly the sinking of a Nantucket ship called Essex in 1820 after it was rammed by a large sperm whale, and secondly, the killing of the albino sperm whale Mocha Dick. This whale was notorious for its battles with fisherman, was said to carry off dozens of harpoons in its back without dying, and actively attacked hunters.

Melville had also had various sailing experiences himself, which he drew on for this novel. He also believed that most tales of whaling as an industry were exaggerated and sensationalised. Many paragraphs of Moby Dick discuss the real fascination with whaling that Melville had keenly felt, and his intent also seemed to be somewhat educational.

At its time of publication, Melville was vastly proud of the novel, considering it his magnum opus. However, it received quite unfavourable reviews, and began a regrettable slide into obscurity. A great problem was that the English publication omitted the explanatory epilogue, which allows for the survival of the narrator, and thus caused misunderstandings. It remained little known or appreciated until the ‘Melville Revival’ of the 1920s. Today, it is considered a Great American Novel, and a world literary treasure.

Plot, Characters, Themes

The narrator, Ishmael, has experience as a merchant marine, and decides to join a whaling crew. He wanders round Massachusetts, gloomy and depressed, his wish to go to sea invoked by a feeling of alienation from society. He befriends a Polynesian harpooner with many tattoos. They sign on with a whaling ship with a fearsome captain, whose missing leg has been replaced with a sperm whale’s jawbone.

The captain declares that his secret plan has been to hunt down the notorious whale Moby Dick, the whale that took his leg. There are murmurs of dissent, but all eventually submit. They meet various other ships and confer, asking if they have seen the white whale. The other whaling vessels warn them not to tangle with Moby Dick, but the captain has a terrible thirst for revenge.

They eventually meet the whale, who rises up to show them one of their crew members tied to him by all the harpoon ropes of the weapons stuck in his back. It becomes clear that the whale is not interested in attacking them. The captain ignores this fact and pursues the whale. The three smaller harpoon boats sent out are damaged by Moby Dick, who then rams the main ship. The captain harpoons the whale, but gets caught in the harpoon line, and he is dragged into the sea. Nearly all of the crew are dragged down into the resultant whirlpool, with Ishmael, the narrator, surviving.

The characters are all carefully examined ‘types’ of personality. It has been suggested that through all the varying characteristics, Melville tried to encapsulate the entirety of America into the whaling ship.


Herman Melville wrote several novels, usually in the travel and adventure vein. His popularity declined due to Moby Dick, yet it is now considered a classic American novel.

Notable auction sales and collecting tips

It is significant to note whether the a copy is the English first edition or the American. The English Richard Bentley edition, titled ‘The Whale’ preceded the American Harper and Brothers’ ‘Moby Dick’ by a month. It tragically omitted thirty five passages, including the epilogue, and to some extent was responsible for the initial bad reviews of the novel in England. Both are valuable, as can be observed in the figures below:

First English edition (The Whale, 1851, Richard Bentley, London) was sold for:

  • $53,775 in June 2008 by Heritage Auctions

  • $57,000 in April 2004 and $51,000 in April 2005 by Sothebys

  • $43,750 in December 2009, $74,000 in May 1995 and $75,100 in December 1993 by Christie’s

First American edition (Moby Dick, 1851, Harper and Brothers, New York) was sold for:

  • $29,875 in April 2011 by Heritage Auctions
  • $30,500 in June 2009 by Bonhams

  • $36,000 in December 2006, and $54,000 in June 2005 by Christie’s

  • $74,500 in June 2011 by Sothebys

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