The Metaphor and Symbolism Behind the White Whale
The white whale at the center of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is often considered to be one of the most symbolic characters in American literature. In part, this is because not only can the white whale mean many different things to each reader, but because it also is explicitly delineated as having different meanings to the tale’s various characters. Although Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale is the centerpiece of the story, the other characters also reflect upon the whale’s significance and it becomes a directly symbolic agent even within the direct narrative.
For Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick represents the personification of everything that has, is or will be evil in the world. That is, at least, the opinion that Ishmael holds of what Ahab thinks of Moby-Dick, as he says, “All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (154). Ahab’s malice stems from the whale’s theft of his leg, a 19th-century Puritanical substitute for the body part that Melville was forbidden to write about: Ahab’s penis. The loss of his leg is a symbolic stand-in for the loss of Captain Ahab’s manhood, which is really what was destroyed by Moby-Dick. Few events could be more evil than that to a hard-edged, embittered 19th-century sailor.
Ahab aches to transform Moby-Dick into a symbol of every conception of evil that has existed in the world, from the serpent slithering through the Garden of Eden onward, but ultimately Moby-Dick is reduced to being nothing more than a symbol for all the small offenses that men desire to construct into universal evils. At one point Ahab actually refers to the personal what he attempts to universalize when he says, “it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now…it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor begging lubber of me for ever and a day!” (138). Descriptive words such as “dismast” and “dead stump” carry deep rooted connotations of impotence—both in the sexual sense as well as the larger sense of being incapable of carrying out one’s duties or desires. Moby-Dick took away Ahab’s ability to stand on his own two feet, literally, but also took away his indepenence.
Ahab describes Moby-Dick as inscrutable, but that is merely Ahab wanting to imbue Moby-Dick with an element of almost supernatural abilities, as something that is beyond comprehension. For Ahab, Moby-Dick is evil the way that everything mysterious always has been and always will be evil: because people do not want to make the effort to understand the object of their dread. Ahab refuses even to try to understand what Starbuck might describe as pure beastly instinct, because the ignorance makes it easier to categorize Moby-Dick as pure malevolence. He says, “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him” (139). Ahab’s choosing to wreak his hate upon Moby-Dick is an attempt to turn the white whale into something sentient: not just a carrier of evil, but a creator of evil.
Ahab reaches the point where his need to infuse the whale with these attributes becomes obsessive. It takes imagination to become obsessive, however, and in that regard Ahab stands in direct contrast to Starbuack who refuses to instill any symbolism in the whale at all. Starbuck views Ahab as wanting merely to exact “vengeance on a dumb brute…that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!” (138). If what Starbuck says it true, then there is nothing standing between Ahab and pure madness. The only way that Ahab can escape this description is if Ishmael truly means it when he writes that “the White Whale’s infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent” (154). If these words are the truth, if there actually is an element of consciousness that can be attributed to Moby-Dick’s actions, then it remains possible for Ahab to escape accusations of madness and monomania.
Of course, the idea that consciousness of that level does exist would be madness itself, at least based on what is known of whales and other animals so far. No evidence suggests that other animals possess the capability of malice aforethought. More likely the whale’s symbolic reality is expressed in another observation by Ishmael. Ishmael captures the essence of how the whale is representative of each individual’s consciousness when he observes that “by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe” (164). Ahab has let the darker part of his nature take over his personality and sees that in the whale, while Starbuck’s lack of imagination will only let him see the whale as dumb, brute beast. The whale is white, an unprismed conglomerate of the promise of all colors. Those colors are revealed only through the prism of each man’s unique consciousness, much like Moby-Dick’s meaning.
The Mexican Revolution was a period in Mexico’s history where the entire political, economic, and social fabric of Mexico was thrust into rapid transformation. During this period, the principles that […]
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s dictionary defines existentialism, in part, as “a philosophical theory that…emphasizes the existence of the individual person… determining their own development through acts of the will.” Existentialist […]
Fish morphometrics has been within the hot-spot over ichthyological studies because many decades, but the preliminary steps date back in conformity with the day concerning Galileo Galilei (Froese 2006). Yet, […]
Metamorphosis begins with Gregor, a travelling salesman, waking up one morning before he has to report to his miserable job, as a beetle. Throughout the short story, Franz Kafka, the […]
Naguib Mahfouz and Franz Kafka both use setting as an important literary feature in their respective works, Midaq Alley and The Metamorphosis. Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley takes place in the back […]
In Chapter Twenty of Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke realizes that she has made a grave mistake in marriage: “…for that new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material […]
In George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, each character struggles to reconcile his desires with the realities of his life. This struggle often leads to an imaginative construction of reality in the […]
Self-Development: companionship cultivation In Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, Ishmael, the protagonist, undergoes a series of stages in the development of his personal qualities. As Ishmael ventures further out of […]
Introduction The theme of free will versus fate plays a large role in Moby Dick. One’s fate can be described as the path of events in their life that unfolds […]
The white whale at the center of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is often considered to be one of the most symbolic characters in American literature. In part, this is because […]