What is the main theme in Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Herman Melville dedicated his novel, Moby Dick, to Nathaniel Hawthorne and wrote him, "I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb."  While there are several major themes in Melville's great work, perhaps the central theme is that of the individual in conflict with nature which brings into play Religion and God's role in the natural world.

Melville marked repeatedly verses from the book of Job, such as the verse in the fourteenth chapter when Job asks his despairing question about a future life, "But man dieth and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, but where is he?"  Certainly, the implications here of the white whale as a metaphor for the forces of nature and fate are apparent. 

In the beginning of the novel, Father Mapple gives a sermon that reflects the contemporary religious attitudes of the early nineteenth century Protestantism.  On the voyage, Starbuck reflects these attitudes as well and conflicts with Ahab who vows to fight the "inscrutable malice" of the whale and break through the "pasteboard mask" of all visible objects.  That is, Ahab defies conventional attitudes and fights against the Calvinistic sense of fate and "Innate Depravity."  Ahab refuses to resign himself to the predestination of divine providence. Melville, like his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, felt very much the "Puritanical gloom" of his times, and as a Anti-Romantic, he also felt the dark forces of nature, forces that lie at the bottom of the sea while the good, perhaps, is on the shore and in the sky. 

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the main themes (especially when viewed through a modern critical lens) in Moby Dick is race and racism. The harpooners, Queequeg (from the South Seas), Tashtego (a Native American from Martha's Vineyard), and Daggoo (from Africa), are all people of color. They do the hard and dangerous work of harpooning whales, and they are the first people to confront the whale. However, they do not receive credit for what they do. For example, Tashtego is the harpooner who slays the first whale killed in the book, but Stubb, the white second mate on the Pequod, is credited with killing the whale. The other mates on the ship, Starbuck, Flask, and the captain, Ahab, are also white. They pursue the glory of killing whales and receive credit for it, while the harpooners, people of color, do the most dangerous work.

The whiteness of the whale is also significant, as the whale itself signifies what everyone desires. The fact that what everyone wants is white can be understood as an implicit valuation of the color white. In turn, this means that whiteness, and, by extension, white people eclipse the people of color around them. All anyone can see is whiteness—darkness and people of color are invisible.