Essays and Criticism
The Symbol of the Whale
As many commentators have pointed out, Moby Dick is first and foremost a naturalistic story of whale-hunting. There are careful technical descriptions about whaling and precise details are enumerated on everything from the whales themselves to the men that pursue them. But beyond the surface account, Melville has created a story with another level of meaning. This is not to suggest that the book should be read as purely symbolic. As Denham Sutcliffe explains, “It is not that things ‘stand for’ something else; they are inexorably themselves, but they begin to accrete meanings and associations. We begin to notice recurrent motifs, and an emphatic insistence upon certain objects and ideas, and suspicion finally becomes certainty that this story of the pursuit of the whale is a huge metaphor of which one face is to be taken literally and the other symbolically.” (FN1) This essay will focus on the whale in Moby Dick and the extent to which this creature encourages other meanings to be associated with it.
The whale is central to the story of Moby Dick. Whenever a whale is encountered in the story, the scene is usually one of horror. This horror is intensified by Melville’s contrasts between the calm, clarity of the weather and the seeming fury and irrationality of the whale. In these instances the contrast on a symbolic level may be seen as one between the power of nature and the smallness of man. The day may be calm and serene, man may be lulled into a sense of trust and contentment. But what man expects and desires cannot always be had from nature. Just as Jonah, in the Biblical story “Jonah and the Whale,” experiences the power and wrath of God via nature, so the sailors in this story experience the power of nature. In this story, however, often the experience of nature prevails before a sense of spirituality or God is realized (if it is realized at all).
The scholar Howard Vincent sees in Moby Dick the epitome of natural power. In The Trying-Out of Moby Dick he says that “though Moby Dick is a monument to the greatest whale that ever swam the seven seas, it is not, however, the biography of that fish, since it reconstructs but one episode from Moby Dick’s career. But even though the climax of Moby Dick is fiction, it sprang from a vortex of tradition traceable through an odd assortment of records.” (FN2) Vincent lays great importance on the factual bases of the story. Many others take care in pointing to this same factual basis about whales and whaling in particular. While the exactness of Melville’s information is indeed a point of strong interest and says a great deal for his powers of observation and his skill as a researcher, it is nonetheless more important from a literary point of view to consider the effect that these details have upon the reader.
Vincent says that “there is almost no expository fact in Moby Dick which does not have some narrative or themistic function besides.” (FN3) It is this latter function which acts upon the reader in an unconscious way. Even though one may analyze the work from many points of view, it is important to keep in mind that much of the effect is on an unconscious level even though analysis, by definition, must occur on a conscious plane.
The whale in this story is seen at different times as symbolic of different things. Sometimes it brings...
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