Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Reading Moby-Dick

ENGL 200.305
TR 4:30-6

This course will take an in-depth look at one of the most famous pieces of American literature ever, and will place Herman Melville’s 1851 novel in the cultural and political context of its time. Moby-Dick’s epic status has generated a vast array of critical attention since its publication, and the novel has stimulated analyses and arguments about race, gender, nature, capitalism, imperialism, and about the extent and limits of human action. We will read a wide selection of the interpretations that Moby-Dick has provoked, as well as looking at some of the influences that shaped Melville’s own thinking, from the plays of Shakespeare to the political theories of Hobbes and Locke. We will explore sources as varied as the botany of Carl Linnaeus, the theology of William Paley, and the ocean maps of Charles Wilkes. Alongside some of Melville’s shorter works, like Benito Cereno (1855), we will look at how the symbols and themes of Moby-Dick connect to contemporary historical events and changes: the commercial exploration of the South Seas, the 1848 revolutions that rocked Europe, and the rising sectional tensions in the U.S. over slave labor and the expansion of the Republic.


The Junior Research Seminar is intended to introduce students to the range of research methods available in the discipline. Moby-Dick will allow us to practice these methods on an extraordinarily compelling and complex piece of literature, and one that is itself deeply interested in the different types of research along the route of its quest. We will use digital methods, practice historical research with original sources, trace the histories of words, and encounter the different approaches that have been developed in the history of literary and cultural analysis. For the final project, students will produce a creative or critical essay of 15-pages which can range from an intensive analysis and annotation of one of Melville’s passages, to a comparison with another text altogether.

fulfills requirements
Sector 5: 19th Century Literature of the Standard Major
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major