Moby-Dick AP Test Preparation: Sample Essay Questions

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AP English Language and Composition Sample

Sample Question

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Every wall is a door.” Would you agree, disagree, or qualify this statement? Based on your reading of Moby-Dick, other literature that you have encountered, and personal experience, give a reasoned answer.

Recommended Elements of Your Response

Emerson was one of the prime movers in the American Transcendentalist movement, which held that, among other things, given unlimited freedom, humanity would ultimately choose to do good. This philosophy led to the establishment of utopian colonies in the United States in the early 1800’s. Most of these colonies quickly fell apart over disagreements about money and shared labor.

Melville, of course, was an Anti-Transcendentalist, along with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He believed that, given ultimate freedom, people would do their worst, as we can see in Captain Ahab. Obstacle after obstacle comes between Ahab and the whale – he’s hard to find, he meets people on other boats who have had increasingly dangerous encounters with the whale (a lost arm, dead crew members), but he still presses on. Even during the three days of the chase, Ahab has many opportunities to stop before he encounters his own destruction, including the death of Fedallah.

So, it appears that Ahab agrees with Emerson, as he tries to push every wall aside to get to the whale. One might think, though, that eventually Ahab would have hit enough walls, but that’s not the case, and Ahab ends up dying by the hanging that he thought was a false prophecy, tangled in the harpoon rope and pulled beneath the sea.

Personal View

From your own personal experience, you would want to give a detailed account of a time when you encountered obstacles and fought through them (if you agree with Emerson) or you found them insurmountable (if you want to disagree). If you’re qualifying the statement, you could talk about situations that you had encountered that were different from Ahab’s situation.

Evidence from the Text

With regard to other readings, be sure to give detailed text evidence that supports your claim from that book, play or story. Text evidence takes your opinion and supports it. Everyone has opinions – it is the quality of your support that will improve your score!

Sample Question 2

Literary critic Brett Zimmerman said this in the Spring, 2003 issue of Style:

“I feel that the difference between a merely good and a truly great piece of fiction is not solely in the nature and structure of the story conveyed, or in the themes or characterization, or in the success with which the writer puts him or herself within particular literary conventions (genres); it is mostly in the style–or, at any rate, in the way style and other components (such as themes and characterization) are complementary. The greatness lies not at the ‘global’ but at the sentence level.”

In other words, Zimmerman believes that what makes a literary work great is the nuances within each sentences – choices regarding syntax, specific literary devices, and other points of style. In what way would you say that this applies to the prose in Moby-Dick?

Recommended Elements of Your Response

Much of Moby-Dick is difficult to work through. There are extended sections of the novel, for example, where Melville categorizes the various types of whales. That chapter is not what makes this one of the great American novels – at least not in isolation.

There are many passages from Moby-Dick that you could use to answer this question; for a top-level paper, you will need examples from three different ones.

This quotation gives the first description of Ahab from Ishmael’s point of view:

He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. (p. 129)

The description goes further, but here are some examples of elements you could use in a response to this essay question. Note how, in these two sentences, Melville compares Ahab to someone who has just escaped execution (“cut away from the stake”) and expresses his otherworldly appearance of strength (“compacted aged robustness”). The otherworldly ambiance continues in the comparison to an ancient statue out of bronze, followed by the direct allusion to Perseus, the hero who slew Medusa and the Kraken.

It is the richness of descriptive passages that makes Melville’s prose amazing to behold. The painstaking labor of writing and revising ensures that elements like these find their way into sentence after sentence.


This post is part of the series: Study Guide for “Moby-Dick”

This study guide will assist high school and college students with the reading and understanding of Herman Melville’s classic American novel.

  1. Major Characters from Moby-Dick
  2. Plot Summary of Moby-Dick
  3. Themes, Symbols and Motifs in Moby-Dick
  4. AP-Level Test Questions from Moby-Dick
  5. Important Quotations from Moby-Dick