Well, on the most basic level, this is a novel about a hunting quest, and the title of the novel is the name of the beast that’s being hunted: Moby Dick, the White Whale. It does seem a little strange, though, to imagine titling other famous in-quest-of-the-beast epics with the name of the evil adversary: imagine re-titling Beowulf "Grendel," for example.
When a title focuses on the beast, not the hero, it confuses all our ideas of character roles in the novel and makes us ask a lot of questions. Why isn’t the novel’s title the name of the protagonist, which was a common nineteenth-century practice (think David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, even Frankenstein)? As you’re reading, ask yourself: could Moby-Dick be called Ishmael or Captain Ahab’s Revenge, and how would it seem different if it was? Maybe using the name of the antagonist as the title keeps us from being certain whether the hero is Ishmael or Ahab.
But there’s another possibility, too: maybe the novel’s title is the name of the protagonist. Maybe Moby Dick is the real star of this story, and Ahab the antagonist, and Ishmael just a bystander. Or there’s a third possibility: that the White Whale is neither good nor evil. It’s just a weird (and really, really dangerous) thing being encountered – sort of like the alien in Alien. (For more speculation on who’s playing what part, see the "Character Roles" section.)
Come to think of it, it seems significant that the title is the whale’s name instead of a descriptive phrase like "The White Whale." In fact, when this novel was first published (in England in an edited version), it was just titled The Whale, which ended up being the subtitle of the novel as we know it today. Calling Moby Dick "The Whale" instead of just "a whale" makes it seem like a universal type for all whales. But in the American edition and all the editions after, Melville uses the whale’s name for the title. Emphasizing the whale’s name, instead of its symbolic whale-ness, anthropomorphizes it – makes it seem to have human characteristics, like a personality, instead of just being a natural creature. (For more about Moby Dick as a character, see the "Character Analysis" section.)
We wish we could tell you that the White Whale’s name, "Moby Dick," is a joke, because this novel is so full of phallic puns, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "dick" doesn’t start meaning "penis" until the late nineteenth century, so we’re out of luck on that one. (Although it’s always possible that Melville was ahead of the dictionary’s editors in his use of slang.) Rest assured, however, that everything else that looks like a crude joke in this novel is actually a crude joke, so you’re in for plenty of belly laughs while you’re in this whale’s belly.
Oh, right, we were explaining the title. Well, apart from the fact that giving the novel the whale’s name, "Moby Dick," 1) makes the character roles of the novel more ambiguous, and 2) emphasizes the whale’s supposed personality, it also 3) doesn’t mean anything. What do we mean by that? Well, it’s not that the title isn’t significant after we’ve read the novel – at that point, we’ve come to know that Moby Dick is a famous, vicious white whale that attacks ships and chomps people into smithereens – but usually, titles are supposed to give us some kind of clue about the contents of a work.
When you write an essay, your teacher wants you to give it a title that makes it obvious to the reader what it’s going to be about. Newspaper headlines, essays, and most novels follow this rule in their titles, too: if you pick up Pride and Prejudice and read the title, you get the idea that somebody’s going to be proud, somebody prejudiced, and those are the themes of the novel. If you pick up Moby-Dick without already knowing what it is, though, the title’s not going to help much. It’s inscrutable. It’s nonsensical. It’s all Greek to you.
So that’s something else we’ll have to watch out for in this novel: symbols that we haven’t been given a key to, codes that we can’t decipher (at least not without a lot of effort). But don’t despair: Shmoop is here to help you see the meaning behind the mysticism.