Moby-Dick, the legendary White Whale, is an awfully generous sperm whale. He not only lends his name to the title of the novel—he also lends himself to everyone in the novel who decides they need a symbol for something:
- To Ishmael, Moby-Dick is (among other things) one of several different sperm whales that have rumors circulating about them in the whaling industry.
- To superstitious sailors, Moby-Dick seems immortal and omnipresent, everywhere at once, impossible to kill, and rather like a mysterious seafaring God.
- To Captain Ahab, the White Whale becomes both the cause and the target for all his pain, anger, rage, and hate, and even for the suffering of all human beings throughout time.
- And for the novel as a whole? Moby-Dick becomes an object in and of himself. While the Pequod searches the seas for Moby Dick’s body, Ishmael, as narrator, searches through reams of information, trying to "find" the White Whale in an intellectual sense.
But who (or what) is the real Moby-Dick? Well, he’s only in the novel for three of the 135 chapters, so it’s a little hard to say. It’s clear that the reader should only anthropomorphize (i.e., assign human characteristics to) him at your own risk. Melville seems more concerned with how other characters react to the White Whale than with what he might be like personally.
Think of Moby-Dick as a screen onto which other characters project their own preconceptions. Or as a mirror reflecting the characters back at themselves. Or as a blank white page on which they write their own story.
The page thing reminds us of something: the way Ishmael treats whales like books and books like whales. After all, this novel is a book that carries the name of a whale, and Moby-Dick is a whale that seems like a book—he even has lines that look like writing on his forehead.
And when Ishmael tries to taxonomize whales, he ends up using a bibliographic system, as though he were organizing books in a library. There’s only one lesson Moby-Dick himself is trying to teach all those hunters on whaling ships, and that’s simple: Leave me alone. Don’t bother me unless you want to swim with the fishes. It’s not like he’s being subtle, what with the series of wrecked ships and dead sailors he leaves in his wake. But somehow, Ahab can’t seem to grasp it.