How important was the whaling industry?Herman Melville's Moby-Dick

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the context of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, descriptions of the whaling industry prevail throughout this tome, indicating that whales are more important to Western culture that hiterto thought.  For, there is a wide range of concepts which the whale has represented.  For instance, the "leviathan" of the Bible is often alluded to as well as the symbolism of this mammoth creature of the seas as it is "that intangible malignity of the seas."

The search for the whale, that inscrutable monster of the abstruse sea, is one of man for meaning.  Captain Ahab perceives the whale as representative of the pasteboard mask behind which much of Nature hides,  an evil force, and one that must be subdued.  Ishmael, who submerges his hands in the spermaceti and takes the hands of others, seeks to unite with the crew in understanding.  His attempts to classify are important since meaning lies in these efforts, as the act of classifying represents the act of hope against futility. He mentions that sperm oil was used to anoint kings because it is the best; he argues that whaling is heroic, economically critical, and knowledge-seeking.  Truly, the whaling industry has become a metaphor for man's struggles against a Nature that is often hostile.  In the nineteenth century the whaling industry provided nearly every home with oil that outlasted other kinds.  The whaling boats of the United States ventured forth into unchartered waters and, thus, contributed to maritime cartography.

titaniumc | Student

Whaling during the 18th and 19th century was a huge benefit to society.  Oil from a whale's blubber or fat was used for lighting and lubrication, like in candles.  The bones from a whale were used for a variety of useful products as well such as corsets.

Specifically, sperm whales (such as Moby Dick) possessed a unique substance called spermaceti which is "a waxy oil found in a mysterious organ in the massive head of the sperm whale. It is believed that the organ containing the spermaceti either aids in buoyancy or is somehow related to the acoustic signals whales send and receive. Whatever its purpose to the whale, spermaceti was greatly coveted by man."  Spermaceti candles are still believed by some to be the best candles ever made because of they were smokeless and odorless.  They were also considered "swimming oil wells" since they used the oil from these whales to lubricate machinery.  Without this oild the industrial revolution may have not been possible.