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What Does Moby Dick Symbolize?
Moby Dick, despite being a whale, is one of the most famous and analyzed literary characters in American history. Countless scholars have studied the White Whale in Melville’s famous novel, attempting to understand what he represents. Moby Dick is often associated with both good and evil and is commonly believed to represent God himself. The whale is also thought to represent nature; indeed, the appreciation of nature and belief in its divinity was a key aspect of the Romantic movement. The list of Moby Dick’s possible symbolism does not end here; this simple whale who is unable to utter a single word is the symbol of all symbols in literature.
Is He Just a Whale?
A less common reading of the White Whale is to read Moby Dick as nothing more or less than an actual whale; a non-symbolic animal who does not represent anything "greater." Instead of Moby Dick representing everything, he can be analyzed as representing nothing. This paper will explore this reading of Moby Dick and will argue that through this lens Melville condemns the brutality of man, specifically in terms of man’s violence against nature.
The first time that Moby Dick appears by name in the novel is when Ahab announces, “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw…with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke…he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!” (Melville 201). Tashtego, a harpooner on the Pequod, inquires if this whale is the one who goes by the name of Moby Dick, which Ahab confirms. Ahab’s graphic description of the whale’s potential death wounds and his large reward offering for whoever kills the whale creates a game-like competition between the sailors that is strongly reminiscent of trophy hunting. Moby Dick is treated as a rare and notable animal to be killed for Ahab’s purposes instead of being killed for the use of his carcass.
Starbuck, the chief mate, exclaims, “Vengeance on a dumb brute! …to be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.” (203). Starbuck has already been shown to be a reasonable and respectable character by the sailors, described as a “good man…pious,” (134). This voice of reason in the novel proclaims that hunting this whale for the purpose of revenge is sacrilegious. The fact that Starbuck is a likeable and level-headed character gives his words much more value to the reader. Indeed, killing one of God’s creatures for reasons other than its actual use can be considered an act against nature. This first mention of Moby Dick in the novel is immediately accompanied by commentary on the atrocity of killing an animal for the sake of killing. Thus, Melville allows for little subjectivity regarding the ethics of hunting the White Whale.
As Ahab convinces his crew to aid him in his quest for the White Whale, they all eventually acquiesce to his request but some seem to have initial reservations. Starbuck yet again gives his opinion when he soliloquizes his dismay at “…[sailing] with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them,” (209). Ahab and those who willingly follow him in his quest are characterized are heathens who lack motherly compassion. Starbuck is not the only one that characterizes the whale hunters negatively. In chapter forty-six, a second, non-Ishmael narrator steps in and characterizes the entire crew as “savage” (257). This unknown second narrator, often presumed to be Melville himself, gives a very decided and seemingly truthy account of Ahab’s quest. The idea that the crew is savage for chasing the White Whale does not seem an opinion, but rather a fact. This savagery and lack of compassion are being directly mentioned in regard to Moby Dick, who is no more than an animal. This is the first time that the question of whether or not one can have sympathy for a non-human creature is brought into play in the novel.
The portrayal of Captain Ahab himself is also very important in studying Moby Dick, as a great portion of Moby Dick’s appearances in the story consist of Ahab discussing him rather than the whale actually being present. In fact, Ahab’s portrayal furthers the sympathy that Melville creates for the whale. In a famous monologue, he proclaims, “They think me mad…but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself!” (208). Ahab is also described as “monomania[cal]” (226) and possessing “undeniable delirium,” (228). He is a “grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job’s whale round the world,” (229). Melville casts Ahab as a man who is aware of his insanity but does nothing to better himself, and who can think of nothing other than killing a simple whale who has acted aggressively only in order to protect itself.
Who Is the Villain? The Victim or the Killer?
Indeed, Ahab can easily be read as the villain in this story. He fits quite well into the classic trope of the slightly ridiculous, extremely obsessive villain who dedicates his life to chasing his enemy. Ahab declares that Moby Dick “…tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it,” (203). Ahab knows the whale’s strength and believes that the whale is malicious, with this malice simply strengthening the creature. Yet the reader, and many characters in the novel, know that the whale is still just an animal. Being such, Moby Dick did not consciously or maliciously want to rip off Ahab’s leg; he was acting in self-defense. Starbuck declares, “See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (649).
Ahab, in his madness, is attempting to make Moby Dick into more than just an animal so that his rage and violence are justified. The readers, however, can clearly see that his violence is not justified. Ahab’s monomaniacal insanity furthers the sympathy for this beautiful, majestic creature. One is made to feel that Moby Dick does not deserve death at the hands of a raging madman.
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Melville creates sympathy for not just Moby Dick, but also the other whales in the novel. He uses intense descriptive language that forces the reader to feel the agony of the hunted whales and to empathize with these animals. Ishmael observes an injured whale: “…tormented to madness, he was now churning through the water, violently flailing…” (452-453). Even Ishmael, who takes little to no personal issue with the killing of whales, finds the brutal hunting of these creatures to be “…an appalling spectacle,” (452).
Although Moby Dick successfully fights back against his hunters, few other whales manage to do the same. One particular killing is described as a “…most pitiable, and maddening sight. The whale was now going head out, and sending his spout before him in a continual tormented jet; while his one poor fin beat his side in an agony of fright,” (415). The physical anguish of the whale as well as its fear are incredibly graphic in this scene, creating a disturbing visualization of the murder of an innocent animal.
When seeing that this act against a creature of nature was committed by the same “savage crew” (257) that was mentioned before, it becomes difficult not to take issue with the hunting. Our non-Ishmael narrator steps in again in chapter sixty-five and makes the following observation: “…no doubt the first man that ever murdered an ox was regarded as a murderer; perhaps he was hung; and if he had been put on trial by oxen, he certainly would have been; and he certainly deserved it if any murderer does,” (353-354). This thought directly follows Stubbs’s eating of a whale steak, making the reader consider whether killing a whale would similarly be regarded as murder. Although the promotion of vegetarianism may not have been at the forefront of Melville’s mind, this passage clearly questions the morality of killing animals. Furthermore, the idea of killing animals without necessity or the intention of using their carcasses to the fullest extent becomes even more immoral. Yet again, it is important to note that Ahab wants to murder a whale solely for the purpose of vengeance.
The descriptive language used to describe the killing of whales becomes even more effective when paired with Melville’s romanticization of whales. Moby Dick is romanticized heavily throughout the novel, especially in descriptions that emphasize the closeness of this animal to nature. Ishmael describes the White Whale as being “…not only ubiquitous, but immortal,” (224). Indeed, whales in general are described as being “enormous creature[s] of enormous power,” (250). One could easily apply the same adjectives to nature; these words create a sense of awe and magnificence at the sheer immensity of these beings.
Whales are also said to be one of the sea’s “greatest marvels” (221). This passage directly states that whales, belonging to the sea, are a piece of nature themselves. Thus, any act of violence against a whale becomes an act of violence against nature as well. If nature is a thing of wonder that should be treated with great respect, its creatures should be treated in the same manner. These awe-inducing descriptions of whales cause even more emotion and sorrow to be experienced by the reader when Mother Nature’s “majestic” (173) creatures are brutally killed by the men aboard the Pequod.
Moby Dick comes to a finish as Ahab and the crew attempt to make their final kill. On the third day of seeing and chasing the White Whale, the crew attacks it yet again. At one point, the whale begins to swim away, “…pursuing his own straight path into the sea,” (649) and giving the crew the chance to live another day. Yet Ahab refuses to give up his violent and desperate need for revenge, and so Moby Dick soon destroys the Pequod itself and all of its men. Ishmael is the sole survivor of the wreckage, whose survival functions almost exclusively to relate the story of Moby Dick to the readers. Otherwise, every character is killed as a response to the acts of violence against nature that they participated in.
Nature vs. Man
This eventful and deathly finale expresses an important message: trying to destroy an animal; a piece of nature, will only bring destruction upon the perpetrator. Nature, acting through its animals, takes down the men aboard the Pequod and reclaims the remnants of the murdered whales. The final sentence of the novel resonates with this message: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago,” (654). Nature’s animals are still alive and present; the birds are flying over the sea and there is no reason to suppose that Moby Dick was killed in the final scene. Nature continues to carry on as it has for the past five thousand years, regardless of those who attempt to control or destroy it.
Understanding Moby Dick as nothing more or less than a whale illuminates an important message in the novel. Animals themselves are just as much a part of nature as the forests, deserts, and oceans are. Thus, man’s violence against nature is not limited to just the inanimate. Animals must be treated with respect, and those who commit unnecessary violence against nature will eventually suffer the consequences.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2003.
Stanley Johnston on February 27, 2019:
Seeing Moby Dick as just a whale provides an interesting perspective on meaning in the novel.