Moby Dick Metaphor

What symbolic meaning does the white whale have in Moby Dick

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The white whale, Moby Dick, is associated with both good and evil, with nature and with God. The whale symbolizes opposition (to Ahab) and mystery (living in the wild and dark sea). The whale may even be seen to represent the limits of man to control this wildness of the natural world.

As an aspect of nature, Moby Dick is aligned with the glory and beauty of nature as well as the danger and power of nature. 

The whiteness of the whale is given consideration in its own chapter.

In this particular chapter, Ishmael meditates on the strange phenomenon of whiteness, which sometimes speaks of godly purity and at other times repels or terrorizes with its ghostly pallor. The meditation leaves color references behind to become a general meditation on the nature of fear and the existence of unseen evil: “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright.” (eNotes)

In addition to being associated with the forces of invisible chaos beneath the surface of the sea, the whale is strongly identified with God. The whale is both one of God's creatures in the novel and a representative for the very idea of God and the idea of a natural order with God at its peak/top. 

Ahab resists and rebels against the natural order, willing to go against any force that would take from him his own free will.

To Ahab it does not matter if the white whale is “agent” or “principle.” He will fight against fate, rather than resign himself to a divine providence. (eNotes) 

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Moby Dick is not actually a white whale. He just has a white head. This must mean that the rest of him is the same color as other whales. Captain Ahab gives a very explicit description of Moby Dick in Chapter 36 because he wants the men to be able to recognize this particular whale if anyone spots him. It seems as though their chances of seeing this one whale in all the vast ocean are miniscule. And the beautiful gold coin nailed to the mast isn't going to make it any easier to find a particular whale. Moby Dick could be virtually anywhere between the Antarctic and the Arctic, and between Asia and the Americas--or perhaps elsewhere. Ahab may be looking for Moby Dick, but Moby Dick certainly isn't looking for Ahab. Here is how Ahab describes the whale:

"Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke--look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"

Apparently a crewman might spot a white-headed whale, but it wouldn't be Moby Dick unless he had three holes punctured in his right fluke. Whales have big triangular tails, and each side is called a fluke. Ahab himself may have been responsible for those three holes.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Herman Melville probably made Moby Dick a white whale because that was the only way the sailors could identify him as Moby Dick. Melville may have then attached specialized symbolism to the color white in order to explain a simple, pragmatic literary expedient. Moby Dick had to look distinctive. If he symbolized evil, he should have been described as black--but black would not be distinctive enough, since whales are usually dark-colored anyway. Too much significance can be read into many things in fiction which are only devices to serve a practical purpose. This can lead to endless speculation. As Freud once said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Melville obviously knew a lot about whales and whaling. He must have known that albino whales existed, although they must have been quite rare. If albino whales were common, then it would still be hard for the sailors to identify Moby Dick. But in the novel, as soon as someone saw a white whale, he knew it had to be Moby Dick. Imagine how hard it would be to find a single whale in all the great oceans of the world! 

dkeo1515 | Student

Moby Dick is full of symbolism.  Moby Dick is an impersonal force that can represent God or Ahab's futile quest for vengeance.  Since we cannot read its thoughts and feelings, Moby Dick is inscrutable.  Ahab is unable to defeat the great white whale, and it consistently thwarts Ahab's quest.  This ties in as a symbol of God.  God's will is inscrutable.  There is also physical manifestation of this inscrutability.  For most of the novel, we are unable to see the whole whale, most of it is hidden in the depts of the ocean.  This inability to really see the whale or to really understand the whale can be seen as humanity's relationship with God.

The crew are an interesting lot.  Ishmael, the narrator, is the only member of the crew with an education.  The rest of the crew are working-class men with little to no education.  Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are also symbolic.  Starbuck is a religious man.  He prays to God for guidance and relies on his faith to make sense of his world.  Stubb keeps a cool head in a crisis.  He has been working and surviving on a whaling ship for so long that the danger of death has little meaning for him.  He is a fatalist.  Flask enjoys the thrill of the hunt.  He does not live an examined life.  All three characters emphasize Ahab's character traits.  Ahab's actions are the opposite of each of these three characters.

imwithgod | Student

in relation with dkeo1515 she said that the whale symbolizes God...then is it a nature of God to fight back when He's been attack by these whale hunters?? there's a conflict between the whale and ahab. and yeah, i can't figure it out. it's man vs nature right. if moby dick represent MYSTERY then what ahab symbolizes?need help