In what ways is Herman Melville's Moby Dick an allegory? What enlightenment does the ending of the novel reveal?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Moby Dick has been interpreted in several ways as an allegory, a narrative in which the characters and events are symbolic or metaphoric for deeply meaningful abstract ideas or qualities; that is, "a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another."

  • An Allegory of Democracy and Racial Diversity

The Pequod and the sea represent a small, metaphoric...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Moby Dick has been interpreted in several ways as an allegory, a narrative in which the characters and events are symbolic or metaphoric for deeply meaningful abstract ideas or qualities; that is, "a figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another."

  • An Allegory of Democracy and Racial Diversity

The Pequod and the sea represent a small, metaphoric nation in which few differences of class and rank count, and one's lineage and past no longer governs one’s life. Filled with sailors from the world over of various races, the Pequod depicts a democratic vision. In Chapter 3, Ismael finds himself doubled up in bed with a bizarre harpooneer, a South Seas Islander, who is a cannibal covered with tattoos and who totes a shrunken head in his bag. Initially terrified by him, Ismael finds that it is "[B]etter[to] sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian."
Later, aboard the Pequod there are sailors from all over the world, but all in the crew are equal. In Chapter 72, "Monkey Ropes," Ismael describes how the crew descend upon the whale and "cut in and attend" to the flesh. As Queeque balances himself upon the moving whale's back, Ismael likens him to a highlander dancing in long socks upon the mammoth's back as Ismael holds onto him with what is called the Monkey Rope. In addition, Ismael is tied in life or death to him:

...should poor Queequeq sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake.

Further, Ismael underlines this "joint stock company of two" in which he and Quequeeq are involved as he recognizes that which the metaphysical poet Donne wrote of when he noted "No man is an island unto himself." For, Ismael observes that 

...every mortal that breathes...one way or other has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.

As they are paired together in their work, Ishmael even refers to his partner as his brother.

  •  Biblical and Metaphysical Allegory

Much like the king of Israel in the Old Testament, Captain Ahab is arrogant and self-serving in his demands. He is also monomaniacal in his desire for revenge against the great white whale Moby Dick of whom he remarks,

He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. 

On the ship Elijah, like the prophet of the Bible, foretells Ahab's death. And, Ishmael is like his Biblical nomenclature, a wanderer.
Much like the Bible stories, Moby Dick chronicles hypocrisies in religious fanaticism and the tragedy that pride inevitably wreaks upon its owner. Also, much like Ahab of the Old Testament, Captain Ahab suffers a tragic end.

In Chapter 36, "The Quarter Deck," Ahab ponders aloud the metaphysical aspects of living creatures:

....All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the moldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!

His perception of Moby Dick, who has taken from him his leg, is that of more than mammal; it is a metaphysical force that he finds evil, and Ahab challenges this preternatural white whale. Ishmael describes Ahab in Chapter 41 as an "ungodly old man chasing with curses a Job's whale" who is "intent on an audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge." Further, in Chapter 135, Ishmael remarks,

...Ahab never thinks, he only feels, feels, feels; that tingling enough for mortal man! To think's audacity. God only has that right and privilege.

The Quaker and dutiful mate Starbuck despairingly remarks, "I misdoubt me that I disobey my God in obeying him." He finds himself following the man who he knows is wrong in his vengeful desires, yet, he feels driven by some force he is unable to control.

Having blasphemed Nature and God, as Starbuck acknowledges, Ahab dies wrapped in the harpoon lines, a "shroud of the sea," finding nothing behind the "pasteboard mask" and no meaning in his life.

In her article, "The Adamic Myth," critic Karen Tanguma calls Ahab a "tragic Adam" who suffers "the unfortunate fall" since he renounces God in his vengeance against Moby Dick; on the other hand, Ishmael, who does not seek revenge upon this white symbol of a spiritual power, is the "Old World Adam," whose suffering leads him to spiritual knowledge and wisdom. Like Job of the Old Testament, Ishmael is "escaped along to tell thee" [Job 1:16] the tale of himself and the others. 

The ending thus enlightens the reader that vengeance is, indeed, the province of God, not man. At the same time, there is much that, as Ahab observes, is inscrutable about life.

The Adamic Myth in American Literature (pp 9, 11)

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team