How To Understand the White Whale in Moby Dick

By now it is a thoroughly worn cliché to talk about Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick as being saturated with symbolism and allegory, whose exact meaning can never fully be deciphered. However, this should never deter the reader from at least making the effort, as even a little understanding can increase one’s appreciation of this genuine American classic. This article offers some suggestions as to how Moby Dick, the White Whale, might be interpreted, but is by no means exhaustive on the subject. For this reason I have listed at the end a few links that I feel may be of further use to enterprising students.

  1. Moby Dick drives the novel. Remember, the first important point about Moby Dick the character is that he is absolutely the driving force behind the quest that makes up the main plot of the novel. The lives of all the other characters, whatever they may feel about the whale or about the voyage, are in one way or another directed towards fulfilling the mission, namely Moby Dick’s death, and thereby completing Ahab’s revenge.
  2. Ask yourself: what is the exact nature of this revenge? For Ahab, the captain of the whaling ship Pequod, the intended killing of Moby Dick has a double significance: he has in the first place a purely personal reason for wanting to do so, as well as what he believes (or at least comes to believe) to be a more symbolic, universal motive.

    Note that on the apparently personal level, Ahab simply wants to avenge himself because Moby Dick robbed him of his leg during his last expedition. However, this desire soon shows itself to have grown out of all proportion, since Ahab has clearly made it the central, indeed the only, purpose of his life and consequently of his crew on this particular voyage. It can well be said that nothing else has importance for him any longer.

    Now try to see how, on a higher level, the whale is also symbolic for Ahab of the more general evil in life. He dedicates himself utterly to fighting what he sees as a bad aspect of one’s destiny. As such Ahab is able to see his mission as something good, which will rid the world of at least one such malicious force.

  3. Look at the other end of this spectrum, especially as it concerns someone like Stubb. He ignores the negative experiences of life as much as Ahab is prone to emphasize them. Note for instance how he regards the sharks feasting on the whale he has caught, without malice (Chapter 64, “Stubb’s Supper”), and how he even reprimands Fleece for cursing at them.
  4. Think about the question of Moby Dick’s color. Although he is a Sperm Whale, he is also particularly noteworthy for the idiosyncratic whiteness of his hump. This characteristic is examined at length in Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale”, and is of special significance to Ishmael.
  5. Try to put yourself in Ishmael's shoes. For him the White Whale is a symbol of awe and terror, like a polar bear, or the tropical white shark, especially because the whiteness (traditionally a symbol of purity and/or nobility) seems to hide the viciousness that lurks within these creatures. Moby Dick, and indeed nature itself, seems at once to be both benevolent and malevolent. Whiteness can also be a sign of physical abnormality, such as in albino people or animals, with the implication that Moby Dick is from the very beginning set apart from his peers by this characteristic.

    Because Ishmael recognizes of the dual nature of the whale, he is able to form a more balanced viewpoint of it, and consequently also of life itself, that either Ahab or Stubb can. Whereas Ahab is only able to see nature and the whale in black, and Stubb only in white, Ishmael is aware of the complexity of the natural world and the shades of grey that exist when it is perceived more fully by man.

  6. Imagine being more practical-minded than the captain. Starbuck, for example, takes a far more pragmatic view of the journey, in contrast to Ahab’s unique brand of idealism. Whales are simply a commodity to Starbuck, and to hunt a particular one for any other reason, as Ahab wants to do with Moby Dick, is senseless, especially as the animal lacks reason, thus making a mockery of any rational explanations for the Pequod’s mission. Starbuck, like Ahab, is a Quaker and therefore by definition a pacifist; Ahab, however, has explicitly strayed from this code of non-violence, in keeping with his rebellion against any form of higher authority.
  7. Consider the implications of these differing views of the whale. One conclusion that can be drawn from them is that Moby Dick reveals how men try to bring their various, subjective, outlooks on life to bear on something that might be termed an objective reality. In a very real sense the whale is, or can be, all things to all people (a fact that incidentally emphasizes the intentionally cosmopolitan makeup of the Pequod’s crew).
  8. Think about how such a mission might end. The final result of Ahab’s monomania is not only his own death when he is caught in the last harpoon rope and drowns, but also the deaths of his entire crew, apart from Ishmael, when Moby Dick wrecks the Pequod. The mission to kill the whale thus ends in failure; Moby Dick annihilates his pursuers, and lives on himself to fight another day, albeit now further injured and scarred.
  9. Try to make use of your knowledge of the Bible. It is not for nothing that Melville cites the Old Testament book of Jonah several times in the novel. It should be seen that just as a whale swallows Jonah, who has rebelled against his God’s wish for him to turn the sinful city of Nineveh, so the whale destroys mere (or lesser) mortals who have dared to set themselves against it.

It is in the above sense that Moby Dick can finally be seen as a symbol for those forces in life (such as Nature or Fate) that man has continually tried to bring under his control, but which ultimately tend to overwhelm and even destroy him, especially when their subjugation becomes the focus of one’s existence at the expense of all other things. Man, for all his undoubted ingenuity, remains forever at the mercy of certain powers, whether these are called God (gods) or Destiny.

Carl G. Becker

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I've been meaning to read Moby Dick, as it was not one of the novels I read in getting my degrees and I think it is an essential work of American literature. I will definitely keep your article in mind as I read -- the prospect is daunting, but with some interpretive guidance, I will be much more at ease!

By Jennifer de Guzman