How is "Moby Dick" an allegorical novel?

epollock | Student


Allegory - an extended metaphor in which a person, abstract idea, or event stands for itself and for something else. It usually involves moral or spiritual concepts which are more significant than the actual narrative. (

Moby-Dick, published by Herman Melville (1819−1891) in 1851, breaks with the familiar form of the Anglo-European novel (life story, linear plot, societal backdrop) to give us something at once lyrical and metaphysical, altogether larger than life. The book enlarges the concept of the self versus society to the human being versus the universe.

Moby-Dick celebrates American themes and American figures as does no earlier novel. The Nantucketer is presented as a new kind of hero, fully on a par with the knights and princes of yore. America’s mythic promise to the world, then as now, is democracy: a sociopolitical scheme whereby differences of class and rank no longer count, where one’s past no longer governs one’s life. The whaling boat, the Pequod, filled with sailors from the world over, typifies this democratic vision; of course, there are no women aboard the Pequod.

Our guide to the world of Moby-Dick is Ishmael, who is also one of the novel’s great triumphs. We are with him from the book’s first line, “Call me Ishmael,” and we stay right on through to the grisly end, when he alone survives “to tell the tale.” Ishmael is bluff, plain-speaking, robust, and engaging, but he is also more complex than this. We learn that he is prone to depression and that his unfailing remedy in these times is to go to sea. One of the book’s signal episodes is Ishmael’s initial encounter with his bunkmate Queequeg the harpooner, the fiercely marked, exotic South Sea Islander. The narrative “unpacking” of this meeting combines humor, satire, and wisdom. We also see democracy at work in this scene, in which Ishmael and Queequeg share a bed, and it establishes a connection between the two that will last throughout the book.

A later chapter, called “Monkey Ropes,” describes the complex set of ropes that hold the seamen as they descend into the suspended bodies of the whales they have caught. The scene is emblematic of the way Melville writes, moving from the finite and anecdotal to the metaphysical. Ishmael thinks of the ropes as a “Siamese ligature” that unites him with Queequeg. He then says that his own individuality has become a “joint stock company of two.” In Melville, once this type of thinking starts, it keeps going. Thus, Ishmael begins to think about the extraordinarily wide-ranging relevance of this perception for all of us. “If your banker breaks, you snap. If your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.” In every walk of life, in everything we do, we are interdependent, interconnected in ways that we rarely see.

The rich, expansive quality of Melville’s imagination takes such homely scenes and transforms them into metaphors that are quite philosophical in character. Another example can be found in the discussion of “fast-fish,” those claimed by a particular ship, and “loose-fish,” those that are fair game. Melville operates his own kind of magic with these terms, turning them to a discussion of colonialism, possessions, politics, and ultimately, the human mind.