What do Captain Ahab and the whale symbolize in Moby Dick?  

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As with all literature, Moby Dick can be interpreted in many ways, but I would argue that its principal theme can be stated as some variation of "man's search for the impossible," or "man's search for meaning in a hostile or inexplicable universe." I would also state that it's partly by looking at the novel in the context of Melville's work as a whole—other novels or novellas such as Whitejacket, Bartleby, and Billy Buddthat this meaning within the Moby Dick narrative becomes clearer.

Ahab is a man both obsessed and possessed. The surface motive for this is revenge against the whale. The deeper reason is that humanity in general, of whom Ahab is a grand-scale representative (just as Shakespeare's heroes are), has a need to pursue something beyond just ordinary living, and to seek something greater, some impossible goal or dream. Without it, life is existentially meaningless, as Bartleby finds it to be. In Moby Dick, when Ishmael states that his solution to "hypo," a nineteenth-century term for depression, is to go to sea, this is his form of that search for meaning. Ahab is an extreme example of that part of human nature that rebels against the mundane, quiet life. The whale can be seen as the mystery, horrible in its way, that lies at the center of the universe and which man is always attempting, even to the point of destroying himself, to uncover.

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Much could be said about the symbolism of each of these two characters, but the short answer is as follows:

Ahab symbolizes the single-minded, obsessive quest to achieve one goal. Ahab, with his scar and missing leg filled in by a whale bone, is willing to go literally to any length for revenge against Moby Dick. He doesn't care how much destruction is wrought and how many people die (almost his entire crew) or even about his own life as long as he can achieve his end. He loses all reason and proportion in his desire to "win" against the whale.

Moby Dick represents evil. We tend to see whales in a positive light in our culture, but to Ahab this great white whale is a satanic force (the book has a whole chapter on "white" as a symbol of evil) that must be stopped at all costs. To more sober minds, the whale symbolizes the destructive, mindless forces of nature against which we must contend and which can be pitiless in their assaults.

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These two figures exist in opposition to one another in this novel. Captain Ahab casts the white whale, Moby Dick, as his enemy and the whale seems to respond in kind. Beyond the formal representation of natural enemies, Ahab and the whale are laden with further symbolic meaning. This is especially true of the whale, whose meaning is discussed at length in the novel.

Moby Dick stands as a figure of Nature in the text, a creature of the unbounded sea.

In developing the theme of the individual (Ahab) versus Nature (symbolized by Moby-Dick), Melville explores the attributes of natural forces.

Moby Dick is therefore a representative of the chaos present in Nature. He is also emblematic of the philosophical "natural order" that Ahab resists and challenges, which places God and Nature above mankind, able to dictate man's fate. 

Various anatomical descriptions are made of the whale, as the science of the day sought to understand the world of Nature and in that way gain some access to its inner-workings if not control of those mechanisms. These discussions are imbued with specific meanings that underscore the symbolic signficance of the whale.

The whale’s head thus symbolizes the unsympathetic and irresistible forces of nature.

If we reduce the pair in opposition in this novel to a simple idea, we can say that Moby Dick is a representative of Nature (or God) and Ahab stands for mankind. 

The driving force behind Ahab's philosophical rebellion and his need for revenge is his insistence on free-will. He will not suffer the ignoble fate dictated to him by the whale; will not humbly accept the loss of his leg. Even if the whale kills him, Ahab will choose his own doom. 

Thus, Ahab represents mankind in rebellion against Nature, fate, or God. 

He will fight against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence.

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