Which of the following literary characters has a name?
Considering the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, the monster in Frankenstein, the narrator of Moby Dick, and The Little Prince, the answer is: the narrator of Moby Dick.
Written by Herman Melville and published in 1851, Moby Dick tells the story of Captain Ahab, who has an unhealthy obsession with a large white whale that bit off part of his leg. The story is told by a sailor on the ship, who introduces himself in the first line of the book by saying, "Call me Ishmael."
Moby Dick is a great work of American fiction that, sadly, went largely unappreciated during the author's lifetime. In fact, after its release in 1851, only 3,700 copies of Moby Dick were sold – a meager sum that ultimately left Melville destitute. The failure of the novel drew in large part from Melville's brand: audiences expected another tale of "exotic" adventure following the release of his first novel, Typee, based on his time spent in Polynesia. Instead, audiences received a dark and harrowing tale of a man's relationship to the whale that took his leg.
Interestingly, Moby Dick was based off of a real whale. Named after the Chilean island of Mocha where sailors first encountered him, a 70-foot sperm whale called Mocha Dick was notorious for swimming calmly alongside whaling boats until a harpoon was thrown. Upon the first sign of harpoon, Mocha would try to destroy the boat. When Mocha Dick was finally killed in 1839, he had over 19 harpoons lodged in his sides. It's evident that Melville drew from this tale to create his own, yet no one is quite sure why he changed his name.
After Melville's death, Moby Dick began to circulate in print once more. Around 1919, the centennial of Melville's birth, critics and readers alike rekindled interest in the story. Upon finding the novel at a used bookstore, author Carl Van Doren declared Moby Dick "one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world," and went on to publish it in his influential collection The American Novel in 1921. From there, Moby Dick steadily rose in popularity, until eventually earning its place as a great American classic.
Learn more about this influential novel below.