Meanings of the White Whale (Herman Melville: Moby Dick)

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When reading novels such as The Crying of Lot 49 or City of Glass, the reader is not able to give a meaning to what he has just read. Reality is too complex and subjective to be mastered and defined, just like Moby Dick is too big and wild to be captured. However, the symbolic prosecution of the whale by the Pequod can be seen as a reaction against this lack of meaning in life.

The Unholy Pursuit of God in Moby Dick

When something has a single meaning, we are able to put limits over it; therefore, we can master it, but as Moby Dick has different meanings, characters such as Ishmael are left with a feeling of hopelessness as they are not able to apprehend the reality that surrounds them. The first approach of this paper toward the symbolism of the whale is that Moby Dick and the ocean as a whole are a symbolic representation of reality. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible.

And as for small difficulties … and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed this free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object Melville In the quote, Ishmael offers a pretty pessimistic vision of the universe and the role that we human beings play in it.

Meanings of the White Whale (Herman Melville: Moby Dick)

This is a constant throughout the whole work as the ocean is conceived as being infinite, cruel, cold, and merciless, with Moby Dick being the perfect mixture of all these elements. Ishmael is hopeless when trying to understand and master the reality that surrounds him.

They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right again a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion.

True knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act … in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect any more. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied.

In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, the man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being. It disgusts him It can be assumed, that in the moment in which one of the members of the crew, in this case Ahab or Ishmael, are able to see Moby Dick in its fullness, they reach this state of incredulity and hopelessness.

The same happens with reality; we human beings are not able to even imagine everything that surrounds us, as different factors do not allow us to see the world as it really is. Nietzsche divided our mind in three parts, the Apollonian, the Dionysian, and another Apollonian part that cannot be apprehended. The first Apollonian part of our knowledge is destined to rationality while the Dionysian part is related to chaos. The second Apollonian part contains everything we cannot see or know, and in the moment in which we try to enter that part, we end up terrified or even dead and we cannot give a name or a meaning to what we have just seen.


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The experience of life dies because we are not able to conceptualize it; therefore, we cannot close it and master it. In English literature, characters such as Mr. Hyde have illustrated the part of human nature that tries to be hidden away, all the feelings, emotions and experiences that were not seen as correct in Victorian times. In American literature, Moby Dick is the perfect representation of the uncanny.

Essay on The Whale as Symbol in Moby Dick -- Moby Dick Essays Whale Es

The novel itself has a dark part; in the surface, the novel looks like an adventures novel or a Natural Science encyclopedia. Cruelty, selfishness, violence, being afraid of the world that surrounds us… These are all elements that are present in the novel. Just like Moby Dick can be barely seen throughout the story, the part of our personality that is hidden away cannot be seen.

This dark side of our soul is the representation of evil in our own nature. One of the best examples is that of Albino people as Moby Dick is an Albino whale. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt? However, what really justifies the aim of vengeance of Ahab and the rest of the crew is not the fact that Moby Dick is evil or dangerous as an Albino person or an iceberg, but the lack of color of the animal. In this quote, Ishmael wonders why exactly this whiteness is so menacing: Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the Milky Way?

Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? The absence of color means a lack of meanings but a multiplicity of them at the same time, which is what leads to the feeling of immensity and indefiniteness of this world, a world with no limits and a wide range of possibilities and opportunities.

Author Talk: Nathaniel Philbrick's "Why Read Moby-Dick?"

Some chapters later, Ishmael draws a comparison between the sea and the land that is pretty similar to the relation between the surface of the novel and its deepness, and the surface of our personality and our soul: Consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.

God keep thee!

Meanings of the White Whale

Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return! As it has been said, Moby Dick also represents an opportunity for the characters of the novel to get to know themselves. Therefore, Moby Dick seems pretty close to the idea of nature that Transcendentalists such as Emerson or Thoreau shared. Just like in The Scarlet Letter Hester and Arthur are able to show their real identities, one can only get to truly know himself by moving to the wilderness, the woods or in the case of this paper, the ocean.

To illustrate this point, a hypothesis by Sigmund Freud has to be acknowledged. If we assume that Moby Dick is a symbol of the hidden part of our knowledge like in the case of the Dionysian man, then only by facing the White Whale can characters as Ishmael or Ahab try to transcend themselves through the oceanic feeling. One of the most famous interpretations of the motif of the whale in the novel is that Moby Dick is a representation of the power and will of God. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me.

For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines Ahab, as an American Prometheus, wants to be the master of his own life and rebels against God; however, his untimely death ends the novel on a sour note as human beings have no chance against the Maker. The last symbolism that this paper will analyze is Moby Dick being a representation of nature. As the group of baby whales approach the boat, this is what Ishmael thinks: Far beneath this wondrous world upon the surface, another and still stranger world met our eyes as we gazed over the side.

It is part of its own prediction, as if it and its characters had been there all along, and had only been waiting to be written. Its oceanic reach and perverse digression provide endless sources of inspiration and interpretation. Ishmael will tell you everything you wanted to know about the whale, and much that he has made up. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience! Like a protean seed awaiting germination, the book needed a new element to bring it to life.

As a result, when it burst into the new century, it came invested with a terrific momentum of its own—as if the world had just caught up with its fiery power. In the nineteen-twenties, this lost book was rediscovered by the Lost Generation. In , D. The year before, in , T. In the summer of , the aristocratic aesthete the Honourable Stephen Tennant was entertaining his friend Morgan Forster, at tea in a genteel hotel in the English Home Counties, talking avidly of Queequeg.

Could Melville have ever imagined that his book would travel so far, and find such unlikely readers?

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Although, having posed this question, Melville, a perennial contrarian, comes to a contrary conclusion, his summary is certainly predictive. Yet, in the wake of the moratorium on the hunting of great whales implemented by the International Whaling Commission, in , whales appear to have recovered. Earlier this year, in the waters of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka, I saw dozens of blue whales, their thirty-foot blows as tall as houses.