The Whale as Symbol in Moby Dick

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The Whale as Symbol in Moby Dick

That there are various perspectives to the white whale as symbol is a result of the value which Melville

accords the symbol as a medium of expression. Melville regarded the symbol as, what William Gleim

terms, "a means of both revelation and concealment"(402). Visible objects are as masks through

which one can educe universal and significant order. The "eyes are windows"(Melville, 9) through

which one "can see a little into the springs and motives which [are] cunningly presented . . . under

various disguises"(Melville, 5-6). The symbol of the white whale lends itself easily to this concept.

To Ahab, the whale represents the malevolence of nature. To Starbuck, it is a commodity. To

Ishmael, however, it is "portentous and mysterious"(Melville, 6). It rouses his curiosity, but he

recognizes it as a thing remote. It is an "overwhelming idea"(Melville, 6): an idea which is larger

than his consciousness. Its implications surpass his conscious understanding and cause him to feel

significance even if he can not know it.

Melville represents much that one can know about the white whale. Moby Dick is literally an albino

sperm whale. In his categorization of all whales, Melville regards the sperm whale as the primate: "He

is, without a doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter;

and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce"(Melville, 133). The whiteness of the whale enhances

this correspondence in that it has regal associations, "a certain royal pre-eminence in this

hue"(Melville, 184). The white whale, therefore, stands, primarily, as, what Gleim would term, "the

ideal representation...

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...e organizes and creates commodity and joint stock

existence. Nature, however, is indifferent, and Moby Dick is the symbol of this indifference. Man can

impose perceptions of beauty upon nature and extract commodity from it, but the white whale

represents the absolute negation of these efforts: what Hoffman calls "the everpresent possibility

of cosmic nothingness"(271).

Works Cited

Hoffman, Daniel. Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Hughes, Charles. "Man Against Nature: Moby Dick and `The Bear'." DAI 32:5230 A (Texas Tech).

Gleim, William. "A Theory of Moby Dick." New England Quarterly, II (1929), 402-408.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. 1855; rpt., New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966.

Sedgwick, William. Herman Melville: The Tragedy of the Mind. New York: Russell and Russell, 1944.

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