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Melville: Moby-Dick

5. Race and Slavery

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In this module, we think about how Moby-Dick engages with contemporary debates in the United States about race and slavery, focusing in particular on the context on the rising tensions in 1850s America, the depiction of racial harmony and racism, and the significance of whiteness in the novel.


In this course, Dr Kate McGettigan (Royal Holloway) explores Herman Melville's 1851 masterpiece, Moby-Dick. We begin by providing a broad introduction to Melville's life and career, including his experiences in the South Pacific and his brief but intense relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the second module, we think about what kind of book Moby-Dick actually is, before turning in the third module to the question of why Melville chose to write about whaling and whales – what do whales signify? In the fourth module, we think about who should be thought of as the central character of the novel – Ahab or Ishmael – and the implications of this choice for how we read Moby-Dick, before moving on in the fifth module to consider how the novel engages with issues of race and slavery. Finally, in the sixth module, we think about the presentation of labour and capitalism in Moby-Dick, focusing in particular on the kind of economic existence represented first by Ishmael, and then by Ahab.


Dr Katie McGettigan is Lecturer in American Literature. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century American and transatlantic literature and print culture. Her first book, Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text is forthcoming from the University Press of New England. In 2014, she was awarded a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship for a project exploring the publication of American Literature in Britain, 1830-1860. Her work has appeared in Symbiosis: A Journal of Transatlantic Literature and Cultural Relations and the Journal of Culture, Society and Masculinities.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

McGettigan, K. (2018, August 15). Melville: Moby-Dick - Race and Slavery [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

McGettigan, K. "Melville: Moby-Dick – Race and Slavery." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,

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