Do you remember this camera shot from The Wrath of Khan?


Lethal-looking odd swords on one wall, a bookshelf; CAMERA PANS by 20th Century volumes; MOBY DICK, KING LEAR, THE HOLY BIBLE -- and a seat belt dangling with the name on it -- Botany Bay.

The presence of Herman Melville’s classic American novel Moby Dick on Khan's bookshelf anticipates what quotation from Moby Dick made later in The Wrath of Khan? What is the significance of that quotation in The Wrath of Khan?

  • 33
    Kirk is Khan's white whale - he chases him to his (Khan's) own doom, blind to any other considerations, seeking only ill-conceived vengeance.
    – NKCampbell
    Apr 11, 2017 at 20:55
  • Valorum's answer seems best, and what I expected also. Vis–à–vis I hope you weren't looking for a reason other than the cinematically pertinent one. Apr 11, 2017 at 23:02
  • 14
    Chekov's book, lolololololol.
    – Möoz
    Apr 12, 2017 at 0:14
  • It could very well have been unimportant or a coincidence. Apr 12, 2017 at 3:49
  • 2
    There's also significance with seeing Paradise Lost on the bookshelf, where Khan = Lucifer ("Better to reign in Hell (or Ceti Alpha 5) than serve in Heaven"). But what about King Lear - were there any obvious references to Lear in the movie?
    – RobertF
    Apr 12, 2017 at 13:49

3 Answers 3


Khan has clearly read and enjoyed Moby Dick. With his dying breath he directly quotes from the novel.

Ahab/Khan: From hell's heart, I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee."

Earlier in the film he intentionally misquotes a couple of different lines;

Khan: "I'll chase him round the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up!"


Ahab: "I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up!"

Ahab: He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it


Khan: He tasks me, he tasks me, and I shall have him

As to the significance thematically, it's reasonably clear that Khan sees himself cast in the role of Ahab, chasing his white whale, Kirk. Ironically he meets much the same sticky end, substituting his lust for vengeance with the conduct of a good captain and leader.

Wikipedia notes that the film's director stated (in an audio commentary) that they intentionally added a copy of the book and lingered the camera over it in order to make the parallel clear to the viewing audience.

Khan's pursuit of Kirk is central to the film's theme of vengeance, and The Wrath of Khan deliberately borrows heavily from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. To make the parallels clear to viewers, Meyer added a visible copy of Moby-Dick to Khan's dwelling.

For a scholarly review of the other parallels in the film (some strong, others substantially more tenuous) you can read.

The Wrath of Ahab; or, Herman Melville Meets Gene Roddenberry by Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds

  • 10
    Less directly, there's also the fact that in any movie/series/book that takes place in the distant future and/or involves lots of nonhumans, having a villain be familiar with literary classics makes them instantly relatable. Apr 11, 2017 at 21:19
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    @PlutoThePlanet - Having him be "a reader" is a nice film shorthand for showing the audience that he's very very clever. The alternative would have been to have him quote some shakespeare or play chess with one of his men.
    – Valorum
    Apr 11, 2017 at 21:20
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    Preferably Shakespeare in the original Klingon, of course.
    – Molag Bal
    Apr 11, 2017 at 22:02
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    @BrianDHall Kahn ruled in the 1990s. His diploma would have been from regular old Harvard, if he had gone there.
    – Molag Bal
    Apr 12, 2017 at 7:48
  • 4
    JJ Abrams is making a new Moby Dick, except Ahab is killed trying to stop Moby and Ishmael is trying to avenge him before Moby can ram himself into San Francisco
    – Machavity
    Apr 12, 2017 at 12:23

Moby Dick represents an obsession with chasing something - much like Khan did with Kirk.

The story of Moby Dick is often used as a way of representing an unhealthy obsession with chasing something that leads to eventual ruin. Prominently having it displayed on Khan's bookshelf is a way of drawing the viewers' attention to the similarities between it and Khan's obsessive desire to get revenge on Kirk for his defeat, subsequent exile to another planet with his people, and the deaths of his people caused by them being on the planet. It's somewhat ironic that Khan, despite reading and remembering it well enough to quote it (presuming he knows he's quoting it and it's not just a reference made by the creators), follows the same path as Ahab.


Check out this commentator's videos: http://sfdebris.com/videos/startrek/film2.php it is pretty long, but quite interesting and he reads directly from Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and King Lear to draw parallels to Khan - and makes the point that Khan himself probably read those books several times over the years of his exile (since they were all the entertainment/escapism he had...) and coupled with his wrath, fantasized himself in the stories. So the tie-ins are both in and out of character. From the video: "Moby-Dick serves as an inspiration to our villain within the story. Its sight there shows us that Khan has had little else to do than read his few books and watch his wife and comrades perish."

The video commentator reads from King Lear the first time at about 11:00 in to part 1, but if you're interested, I really think the whole pair of videos is worth watching, he makes a lot of good points throughout and reads more extensively from Paradise Lost and Moby Dick.

  • 1
    While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review
    – Mithical
    Apr 13, 2017 at 12:00
  • I DID include essential parts of the answer. You do see the text surrounding the link, right? Apr 13, 2017 at 17:08
  • The top rated answer (which is good imo btw, I just want to expand on the idea) notes that he "read and enjoyed it", but the expansion is that Khan likely obsessed to some extent too, since it is all he had to read over many years. So the director wanted tie ins, but the CHARACTER also tied himself in to the literature as he read it over and over again and self-identified with the stories and characters - like Captain Ahab, his constant pain came from Kirk and he wants payback, and like Satan, he was cast down from heaven... this is what I mean by "fantasized himself in the stories". Apr 13, 2017 at 17:26

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