The Role Of The White Whale In Moby Dick

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick’s white whale is often regarded as one of America’s most symbolism characters. The white whale is a symbol that can have many meanings for different people. It is also explicitly stated to have different meanings by the various characters in the story. The story revolves around Captain Ahab and his pursuit of the white whaling. However, other characters reflect on the significance of the whale.

Moby Dick is the personification of evil for Captain Ahab. Ishmael’s opinion of Ahab’s view of Moby-Dick is that “All evil was personified and made easily assailable by Moby Dick”, as he states (154). Ahab’s hatred stems from his whale stealing his leg. This is a 19th century Puritanical substitution for the bodypart that Melville wasn’t allowed to mention: Ahab’s penis. The loss is a metaphor for Captain Ahab losing his manhood. This is what Moby-Dick did. The loss of a leg is a symbol for the loss of Captain Ahab’s manhood, which was really what Moby-Dick destroyed.

Ahab refers to the personal when he says, “it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; Moby-Dick that brought me to this dead stump I stand on now…it was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor begging lubber of my for ever and a day!” (138). Ahab says at one point that Moby Dick was the person who dismasted him; Moby Dick was the person that brought me to that dead stump on which I now stand…that accursed whale razeed me, made a poor begging slave of me forever and a day! (138). The words “dismast”, “dead-stump” and other descriptive terms have deep-seated connotations that imply impotence, both in the sense of sexual impotence as well as a larger sense of not being able to fulfill one’s desires or duties. Moby-Dick robbed Ahab of his ability to stand on two legs, both literally and in the sense of being unable to carry out one’s duties or desires.

Ahab refers to Moby-Dick’s inscrutable nature, but this is just Ahab trying to give Moby-Dick a supernatural element, making him seem beyond comprehension. Ahab thinks that Moby-Dick will remain evil because people are unwilling to take the time to learn about the mysterious object of their fear. Ahab does not even try to understand the pure animal instincts that Starbuck may describe, as this makes it easier for Ahab to label Moby-Dick pure evil. He tells Starbuck, “That inscrutable creature is what I hate the most; and whether I’m the white shark agent or principal I’ll wreak my hate on him”(139). Ahab’s hatred for Moby-Dick represents his attempt to make the whale sentient. It is not only a carrier but also an originator of evil.

Ahab becomes obsessed with the idea of infusing the whale’s attributes. Ahab’s obsession is a result of imagination, whereas Starbuck refuses to give the whale any symbolism. Starbuck sees Ahab’s motives as a simple desire to “exact revenge on a stupid brute…that just smote thee out of blindest impulse!” (138). Starbuck’s statement is true. If so, Ahab will be driven to madness. Ishmael has to be sincere when he claims that Ahab’s actions were not solely the result of an unintelligent agent. If Ishmael’s words are true, and if Moby-Dick really did act with some level of conscious awareness, Ahab may be able to avoid accusations of monomania and madness.

It is a crazy idea to think that animals can be conscious at that level, based on the information we have about whales. Other animals do not appear to be capable of a forethought malice. Ishmael expresses the symbolism of the whale in a different observation. Ishmael perfectly captures what the whale means to each person’s consciousness, when he states that “by it indefiniteness…it shadows forth voids without heart and vastness of the cosmos” (164). Ahab’s darker side has taken over and he sees this in the whale. Starbuck, on the other hand, is unable to imagine anything beyond the dumb brute. The whale’s color is a white conglomerate, a promise of many colors. The colors of the whale are only revealed through each man’s individual consciousness, similar to Moby-Dick.


  • camdynelliott

    Camdyn Elliott is a 35-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. She has been writing about education for nearly a decade, and her work has been featured on sites like The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Camdyn is the founder of the education blog Education Week, and she is also the author of the book "How to Teach Like a Pro: A Guide to Effective Teaching Methods for College and Career Students."

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