The Symbolism Of White Whale In Moby Dick

June 23, 2022 by Essay Writer

The middle of the 19th century was the culmination of the Romantic era in American literature, the time of the “Great American Novel”, Moby Dick. Written in a era that emphasized the individual over the whole and where the ideas of what religion is and where it is found, Transcendental philosophy, and the issue of slavery were all in their pinnacle of debate, Herman Melville delivered the novel that is true to the Romantic ideal. Melville wrote Moby Dick for many reasons, but primary among those were to incorporate copious amounts of religious imagery in such a way that religion and nature are connected, refute Ralf Waldo Emerson’s transcendental movement by using his own logic against him, and to bring up the issue of race in the United States by incorporating Pip as the Everyman for slaves in America.

The idea of nature of religion is an idea popularized by naturalists such as Henry Thoreau. There was a literary “Renaissance” where many philosophers broke from the idea of organized religion and turned to the idea that God is found in his creation. This idea began the naturalist movement and key thinkers like Henry Thoreau and Frederick Hedge became renowned for their ideas that nature and religion were intertwined. Thoreau wrote many essays and books on it, but he says it best in his book, Walden, “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, surveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable”. The idealistic life men came for in the whaling industry perfectly fits in this cry for Man’s need to immerse oneself into the wild and through this humbling experience they found their own, individual ideas of God. Many ships were made up of diverse crews where the only thing they had in common was their pursuit of a higher understanding

Most of the characters in Moby Dick have their own unique connection to religion, which they tie in to their personal experiences at sea. For example, Captain Ahab is described as an “grand, ungodly, god-like man” who is incredibly driven to find Moby dick. His quest seems like a revenge filled pursuit actually is symbolic for Ahab’s subsequent denial in fate and by extension an omnipotent deity. The character themselves have classically religious names like Ahab, Ishmael, and Elijah. Queequeg, for example, is a devote follower of a religion that is very interesting because he believes his god, Yojo, has a direct influence on every decision he makes. This is shown when Queequeg communes with the idol he has made to Yojo and believes it is the will of his god, that Ishmael should choose their whaling boat. Ishmael says, “I have forgotten to mention that, in many things, Queequeg placed great confidence in the excellence of Yojo’s judgment and surprising forecast of things; and cherished Yojo with considerable esteem, as a rather good sort of god…”.

The Quaker religion is most prevalent throughout the novel and throughout whaling as an industry. The biggest whaling communities were in Massachusetts and foremost among them was New Bedford. Massachusetts was also the haven of Quakers after they fled England to escape religious persecution and remained isolated for over 60 years. Moby Dick is based in New Bedford, so it is not surprising the Quakers in the novel are the most important characters in the novel. The owners of the Pequod, Bildad and Peleg, Captain Ahab, and Starbuck, the first mate, are all devote Quakers. The religious services offered before departure are in the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel and conducted by the Quaker preacher, Father Mapple, is a very Quaker message saying, “Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God.” (Melville 89) Mapple is saying that we should pursue in spite of obstacles and this viewpoint, it seems, is shared by Ahab due to his insatiable pursuit of the “White Whale” and will eventually be his downfall.

There are differing ideas of what the whale itself means. Melville himself after writing te book wrote in a letter, to his close personal friend and consult to the book, Nathaniel Hawthorne he had written an “evil book”, but it is unknown if he meant Moby Dick was evil or something else, he felt he had created in the novel was evil. Others disagree and this is supported by the title of chapter 42, “The Whiteness of The Whale.” The color white is traditionally a color of purity, illumination, and heaven and in many religious references, white is the color of God’s throne of judgement. This lends itself to the idea that Moby Dick is the reincarnation of God and Ishmael himself defines white as, “the emblem of many touching, noble things.”

While the Quaker influence is very important in Moby Dick, the crew of the Queequeg is very diverse and the crew’s religious beliefs are as varied as their ethnicities. One character who believes Moby Dick is the reincarnation of the Shaker god is the crewmate, “Gabriel.” His actual name is unknown, but he described himself as the archangel Gabriel and began profiting that any attempt to hurt the elusive whale would result in calamity. He was proven correct when the beast was spotted and in the pursuit the boat leader who didn’t believe his words was thrown 50 yards by Moby Dick and drowned. After this starting ordeal, Gabriel’s new crewmates on the Pequod began viewing his prophesies with trepidation to the point they called off that hunt.

From the beginning of the novel the story is filled with the foreshadowing of peril and eminent death. Before the ship leaves harbor Ishmael foreshadows Queequeg drowning in chapter 13 after he has just saved another ship’s crewmate from drowning Ishmael says, “From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.” Foreshadowing of the Pequod’s doom is also very common, bringing up the theme of fate. Each crewmember is on the ship for a different reason, yet they all are on the ship together at the same time. While predestination is not a traditional Quaker belief, Captain Ahab believes his fate has been spelled out by God. After Moby Dick takes his leg, he becomes irrational and erratic. He believes it is his mission to find the whale, but his fate is foreshadowed along with the rest of the crew’s fate, death.

Nature is transcendental in religion and is an overarching idea that most cultures incorporate. Naturalist Henry David Thoreau said it best in his book, Walden, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” Thoreau also believes in the convergence of nature and religion and Moby Dick is a prime example of this with the quest for the whale that is symbolic for Man’s quest for God. Man has sought answers for natural phenomenon for millennia and has tried to answer them with the belief in an omnipotent deity. This is never more evident than Captain Ahab’s hunt for Moby Dick. Successive failures and setbacks convince his crewmen that there is something supernatural about the whale, a position shared by other whaling vessels as well such as Gabriel’s old ship the Jeroboam. Other vessels believe the whale able to be hunted by many ships, in different locations, at the same time, giving the sailor’s the idea he is omnipresent and omnitemporal, in other words God.

Moby Dick as a symbol is not only wrapped in ambiguity for literary critics, but also for Ishmael himself. He is constant asking what the whale represents and how its image shifts from the supernatural deity that can appear anywhere to just the wily behemoth of the sea that is the sworn enemy of his captain. The crew also shifted their idea of what the whale means to them.

In the beginning they were swept up by Captain Ahab’s manipulative speech and viewed hunting the whale as nothing more than a hunt for a dangerous, but normal animal. Gabriel’s appearance changed this and the crew began to view the beast in a more elevated light. They began to doubt their captain’s rationale and his single-minded pursuit of the whale. Moby Dick began to take on the persona as their own reasons for being whalers.

As Thoreau wrote, “Many men fish all their lives without ever realizing that it is not the fish they are after.” This pertains to Ahab. In his quest to finally kill the elusive whale, the whale becomes the thing no man can fully grasp, God. As Ahab nears the whale, calamity after calamity strike the ship, similar to biblical stories of man trying to understand God’s ways by trying to act godlike as in the story of Lucifer. Lucifer tried to usurp God and gathered a group of fallen angels to help him in his quest to be seen as the better. Ahab manipulate his crew and villainized Moby Dick for his own personal revenge. Ahab is killed by the whale in the end, as are all the crew who followed him. The only survivor is the only character who ever voiced an objection to the hunt was Ishmael.

Although the themes of religion and nature are key element of Moby Dick, Melville also used his masterpiece to belittle Ralf Waldo Emerson’s beliefs of transcendentalism. Emerson crafted transcendentalism with tenet that organized society and social institutions corrupt the “individual.” Melville disagreed and he wrote Moby Dick as a rebuttal to Emerson. He created Ishmael and Captain Ahab to represent the foolishness of living by that ideology of transcendentalism.

They only seek absolute truths, for Ishmael those are unraveling the mysteries behind Ahab’s veil and the complex depths of his personality and drives. Ishmael says, “be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep,” when describing his captain’s thoughts. He becomes obsessed with Ahab’s thought process but admits that he is lost. “lost self in confounding attempts to explain the mystery”.

Ahab represents the failures of the transcendentalist ideals in the way he makes Ahab blames Moby Dick for all his problems saying, “[pile] upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down”.Ahab is shown to manifest all his problems in the whale, going so far as to say Moby Dick is the cause of all humanities follies. Melville is comparing this insane anger at a being with no thought to when Emerson argued in his essay, Nature, that the cause of man’s corruption is due to society and turning man into a, “timorous, desponding whimperer”.As Ahab is shown a transcendental, his downfall would naturally come of his ideology. Portraying Ahab as a dictator, Melville shows how man’s problems come from nature ironically. The literal vilification of the whale gives Melville a actual creature of nature for Ahab to target.

Melville makes Ishmael the opposing side of Ahab’s transcendental ideas. While Ishmael is butchering his first whale he is caught in the majesty of the slaughtered corpse. As they go through each level of the body, Ishmael tries to justify his wonder using facts, but is caught up in the supernatural aspects of the whale describing the whale’s skin as “mysterious cyphers” and calls “admire and model itself after the whale”. This glorification of nature is very in line with Emerson’s ideas and Melville is Viewing the dead corpse in such a divine light and saying that the creature is such an archetype for human society that we should model society after it, Melville is attempting to show how foolish transcendentalism and by extension, Emerson’s ideas sound.

Emerson also believes in the cyclical nature of life that man is self-evolving in his essay, Circles, “the natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles” (Emerson 233). Melville uses Emerson’s idea that life is ever evolving in an ironic way using Ahab. Ahab is described in a never-ending cycle, “in his forward turn beholding the monsters he chased, and in the after one the bloodthirsty pirates chasing him.” (Melville 299) Melville is using Emerson’s logic against himself and in the end Ahab’s destruction comes from his failure to break the cycle. While Emerson’s circles are neat and rational, Melville intentionally made a mockery of this by showing how this circle created not only Ahab’s, but also the entire crew’s destruction.

Ishmael is also described by Melville as being in his own inevitable circle, “Round and round at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle Ishmael did revolve” (Melville 427) This implies that the choice not to revolt against Ahab at the end of the book would mean that Ishmael is locked in to his fate, but Melville breaks his theme by allowing the cycle to be broken. His choices do not end in calamity for Ishmael, but Melville showing that Ishmael had no control over that decision, is also pointed at Ahab. One of the core tenets of transcendentalism is that through the individuals own perseverance he creates his own path. Having Moby Dick spare Ishmael through no doing of his own, he makes a point that the cycle is not evolving.

Independence and self-reliance in man, key principles of Emerson’s beliefs are also probed at by Melville in Ahab’s surrendering control of his fate. Blaming Moby Dick for his personal misfortune made Ahab, in his quest for the whale, search for a divine purpose. His repeated failures in the hunt, make him believe he has no control over his fate and in his belief of this, it becomes true. He goes into a destructive spiral that this dooms him and the crew.

Freedom in the individual is a transcendentalist tenet, but Emerson and Melville hold a shared ideology about abolition. Emerson believes freedom is a right among all men and when the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 passed, he writes, “This filthy act was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God. This is a case of conscience, a call for compassion, a call for mercy. Slavery poisons and depraves everything it touches. Union is a delectable thing, and so is wealth, and so is life, but they may all cost too much, if they cost honor.”

Melville is on record for being pro-abolitionist as well in many of his works, but most prevalently in Moby Dick. He never explicitly writes on slavery, but he instead uses the narrator to talk about racial tolerance in a very positive way for the 19th century. The overt racism common of this century was present in the book, but not shown in the carless manner per usual of the 19th century. Pip is a black cabin boy, who after being thrown overboard, goes crazy, but believes he has had an ethereal experience with God. Ishmael says, “Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore, his shipmates called him mad. He believes he is changed forever and no longer calls himself Pip.” Captain Ahab takes pity on Pip, seeing him as a kindred spirit, but eventually must cut ties with him when he implements his revenge scheme due to Pip being described as a sensible character, even while he is in an episode of delusion, and Ahab did not want someone questioning his orders.


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