Study Guide

Moby-Dick Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Herman Melville

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The White Whale

Humor columnist Dave Barry once gave potential English majors some advice using Moby-Dick as an example:

Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say Moby-Dick is a big white whale, since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor...will think you are enormously creative.

Now, we here at Shmoop are always seeking creative readings, but we also don’t want to say any old lunatic thing about literature. If you’re read this far, you’re starting to figure out the difference between ambiguity and randomness. Something can be ambiguous, and therefore have several possible interpretations, without being open to just any old reading you decide to pin on it.

There must be at least some textual evidence. So we don’t advise you to argue that Moby Dick represents Ireland. Still, there’s a good reason that Dave Barry chose Moby-Dick when he wanted to give an example of a Big Important Symbol that has many possible interpretations – and which is obviously demanding to be interpreted, possibly in a ludicrous way.

After all, here’s Ahab, who has "piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down" (41.19). He’s making Moby Dick the object of every negative feeling any human being has ever had, ever.

Then there are the superstitious sailors, who start to think that Moby Dick is immortal and omnipresent and invincible, almost like God.

And then there’s Ishmael, analyzing the whale’s whiteness and concluding that it could represent anything from angels to atheism and listing all the different symbolic possibilities of the color white.

So what does the whale represent? God? Nature? Vengeance? Everything and nothing? You’ll be able to find a lot of different clues about what the whale could represent in the text, but many of them seem like red herrings (white herrings? – whatever, you get the idea) to us.

We think the most important clue indicating what the White Whale symbolizes comes at the end of Chapter 79, when Ishmael describes the whale’s forehead as having wrinkles and scars on it that look like hieroglyphics. Ishmael tells the reader,

If then, Sir William Jones, who read in thirty languages, could not read the simplest peasant’s face in its profounder and more subtle meanings, how may unlettered Ishmael hope to read the awful Chaldee of the Sperm Whale’s brow? I put that brow before you. Read it if you can (79.6).

If that sounds like a dare, it’s supposed to. Ishmael is admitting how hard it is to read and understand Moby Dick. He's presenting us with the whale’s inscrutability.

To an extent, we can’t really know the nature of the White Whale itself; in fact, if you notice, Moby Dick only shows up personally in three of the 135 chapters of this book. What we can know is what the White Whale symbolizes in the minds of the various characters. We may not be able to interpret the White Whale itself, but we can decide how the characters’ interpretations of Moby Dick reflect who they are.

The Gold Doubloon

Captain Ahab’s not in his monomaniacal revenge quest for the money, but he knows how to motivate his crew: he nails a gold doubloon to the mast and promises that whoever sees Moby Dick first can have it. (Although, by the end of the novel, he’ll insist that he won it himself.)

As if that weren’t symbolic enough, Melville contrives a scene in which all the important characters, and a few of the unimportant ones, pass by this gold doubloon and give their interpretations of it aloud in a series of little monologues. You know how it goes, Ahab thinks every detail represents himself, Starbuck sees a dark, demonic valley into which the light of God’s sun doesn’t shine, Stubb makes up something silly about astrology, Flask just sees money, and so on. Hey, maybe it’s a little staged, but it gets the job done. (It’s Chapter 99, by the way, if you want to look back at it, or review the most important points in our "Detailed Summary.")

Just as in our interpretation of the White Whale, we’re more interested in knowing what all these different reactions show us about the characters than in deciding which of them is best or most accurate. However, as opposed to Moby Dick, the reader does learn, objectively, what the gold doubloon looks like; Ishmael (or perhaps a third-person omniscient narrator) describes the South American coin’s origins and the objects depicted on it. So we do actually have a yardstick with which we could measure the strangeness of what everyone sees.

How close is "real" coin to each character’s interpretation? Do they focus on insignificant details in the image? On its monetary value? On the main part of the picture?

Of course, there is one way of looking at the gold doubloon that might be better than all the others: Pip’s. In his madness, Pip describes the doubloon as the "ship’s navel," which all the crazy people on the revenge quest are "on fire to unscrew" (99.22). In this way, the coin comes to symbolize a stable center, and we see how Ahab’s monomania is on track to pull it away, leaving the Pequod with a void at its very heart.

Sperm and Spermaceti

As Ishmael tells us something like ten million times, the Pequod is out to hunt sperm whales, from which it can harvest sperm oil and spermaceti. The spermaceti is what gave the sperm whale its name; this precious white waxy stuff, which actually comes out of the sperm whale’s head, was once mistakenly believed to be the actual sperm of the right whale.

Of course, these straightforward facts about the sperm whale don’t stop Ishmael (or Melville) from making even more bawdy jokes about it. After all, if you’re on board a whaling ship with three dozen other guys, and your main job on some days is to squeeze lumps of white goo called "sperm," you’re bound to start punning sooner or later.

Shmoop encourages you to laugh at the jokes (we certainly are), but we also want to point out that the sperm comes to represent something other than profits for the whaling voyage or an opportunity for a nudge-nudge pun.

In Chapter 94: "A Squeeze of the Hand," Ishmael tells us that squeezing these lumps of spermaceti made him forget about the revenge quest; he says he could "wash [his] hands and heart of it" in "that inexpressible sperm" and that he "felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever" (94.4). The sperm also makes him want to melt together with his fellow sailors, forgetting any petty grievances they might have against one another.

Basically, Ishmael feels like he could love the whole world at this point. Now, there are certainly homoerotic overtones here, but there’s also a sense that this is another of Ishmael’s mystical, pantheistic experiences.

This sort of thing is just what gave the "Transcendentalist" movement its name. Transcendentalism was a political, philosophical, and literary movement that emerged in America in the mid-nineteenth century with advocates like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Proponents felt that spiritual transcendence was a more valuable form of experience than physical or strictly intellectual pursuits, and could be achieved in part through solitary, meditative communion with Nature. You can see echoes of this philosophy in Ishmael’s satisfied squeezing of the spermaceti.

Queequeg’s Coffin

When Queequeg falls deathly ill with a fever and thinks he’s dying, one of the things that’s most important to him is to have his coffin made, so that he can make sure it’s just perfect. When he recovers, though, it’s just a useful chest to put things in.

And then, suddenly, the Pequod needs an extra life-buoy, and Queequeg offers up the coffin as something that can easily be transformed into one.

As clever Shmoop readers, we’re sure you can feel the symbolism and irony fairly sizzling off of this one. Something made for a dead body is going to be turned into something that keeps a man from becoming a dead body. Captain Ahab, no fool himself, is deeply disturbed by the symbolism of having a coffin life-buoy on his ship, but eventually he’s able to convince himself that the coffin helps preserve the immortality of the soul anyway, so it’s OK. And yet, we’re not convinced.

When the life-buoy formally known as coffin is actually the thing that saves Ishmael’s life at the end of the story, we’ve got even more of this life-through-death stuff to deal with.

There’s more to say about this than just that the coffin represents both life and death. For Ishmael, it represents life from death, life out of death. After all, Ishmael survives by clinging onto Queequeg’s coffin in more ways than one. Heck, Queequeg might as well be in the coffin, considering that he dies at the same moment that Ishmael is saved.

Hmm…life out of death…that sounds like resurrection, which definitely has some religious symbolism.