Melville's Symbols in Moby-Dick
Herman Melville began working on his epic novel Moby-Dick in 1850, writing it
primarily as a report on the whaling voyages he undertook in the 1830s and early 1840s.
Many critics suppose that his initial book did not contain characters such as Ahab,
Starbuck, or even Moby Dick, but the summer of 1850 changed Melville's writing and
his masterpiece. He became friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne and was greatly
influenced by him. He also read Shakespeare and Milton's Paradise Lost (Murray 41).
These influences lead to the novel Melville completed and published in 1851. Although
shunned by critics after its release, Moby-Dick enjoyed a critical renaissance in the 1920s
and as assumed its rightful place in the canons of American and world literature as a
great classic. Through the symbols employed by Melville, Moby-Dick studies man's
relationship with his universe, his fate, and his God. Ahab represents the league humans
make with evil when they question the fate God has willed upon them, and God is
represented by the great white whale, Moby Dick. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses
a vast array of symbols and allegories in the search for the true explanation of man's
place in the universe and his relationship with his fate and his God.
The focus of cruel fate and evil symbols is placed on the head of Ahab, captain of
the Pequod. Ishmael, though narrator of the story, is not the center of Moby-Dick after
Captain Ahab is introduced onto the deck of the ship and into action. The focus of the
novel shifts from the freshman whaler to experienced Ahab, an "ungodly, god-like man"
(Melville 82). Having been a whaler for many years, he is a well respected captain, yet
his previous voyage has left him without a limb, and in its place is a peg leg carved from
whale ivory. Ahab remains below decks shadowed in obscurity for the initial stages of
the Pequod's journey into the Atlantic. Ahab soon reveals his devilish plan to his crew,
however, in a frenzied attack of oratory he wishes to seek, hunt, and destroy the White
Whale, the fabled Moby Dick. It was the white whale Moby Dick which had, on Ahab's
prior voyage, ravenously devoured his leg, and Ahab harbored a resentful revenge on his
persecutor. Any mention of Moby Dick sent Ahab into a furious rage (Melville 155). He
riles against Starbuck, the first mate and Starbuck replies, "vengeance on a dumb brute! .
. . to be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous" (Melville 155).
It is through Ahab's speech and his subsequent dialogue with Starbuck that a
second major symbol is introduced into the story, Moby Dick. Blasphemy is irreverence
toward God or something sacred, not irreverence toward a dumb brutish whale. Yet
Starbuck accuses Ahab of blasphemy. Melville places this rather harsh accusatory word
in the mouth of the Christian-minded Starbuck, directed at a devilishly revengeful Ahab.
The only way actions taken against Moby Dick could be blasphemous is if he is sacred.
Through indirect descriptions of Moby Dick and direct rantings of an insane man,
Melville peppers Moby-Dick with hints and clues at the true essence Ahab sees behind
the symbol of Moby Dick.
According to sailors stories and legends, Moby Dick is seen in two places at once
at different places around the globe. In this trait Melville is suggesting omnipresence, a
godlike trait (Melville 172). The sailors think he is immortal, another godlike trait,
because he has been harpooned many times and still lives (Braswell 152). Ahab himself
believes Moby Dick's power is outrageous, like God's omnipotence. Ahab states in
Chapter XXXVI, "that inscrutable thing [Moby Dick's power] is chiefly what I hate"
(Melville157). In addition to the godlike characteristics of omnipotence and