Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.
The Great White Whale
The whale in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is literally and figuratively one of the largest figures in American literature. Not only does it serve as the namesake for the novel itself, but the quest to find it is the basis for the entire story.
It's easy to see the whale as just a whale or a large sea creature or a formidable foe for Captain Ahab and his crew. However, some see the whale as symbolic of something else. In literature, symbolism is frequently used to convey a deeper meaning behind some object or character. In the case of Moby-Dick, there are many items that have a deeper significance, not the least of which is the whale himself.
In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at how Moby-Dick is a representation of God in Melville's tale.
Moby-Dick as God
An entire chapter of Moby-Dick titled, 'The Whiteness of the Whale,' discusses the coloring of the beast by comparing it to the whiteness of other objects. There is discussion about whiteness representing beauty, royalty, innocence and holiness. In many religious books and references, there is talk of the color white in relation to God and Heaven, including robes of white and a throne of judgment that God sits upon that is white.
The narrator, however, is unsure whether Moby-Dick's whiteness is symbolic of anything at all:
'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?'
This may be indicative of people seeing different symbols in different objects. What appears to be a spiritual representation to one person may look like something else to another.
During part of the tale, when Starbuck is trying to reason with Captain Ahab, Ahab refers to all objects being covered by a mask.
'All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.'
Behind that mask, to Ahab, is a power he cannot tame, but he must make the attempt. By killing the whale, he will have quieted the hidden force. To some, this is representative of God's power that is both great and out of reach. Ahab may mistakenly believe it to be evil, though it is simply a powerful and unstoppable force that cannot be killed.
It's no coincidence that Melville uses a large sea creature and a battle with nature to give greater meaning to man's struggle with fate and death. By failing on the journey to kill the whale, Melville is telling his readers that the whale (or, symbolically, God) is a greater force than any man can defeat.
Before Captain Ahab's journey aboard the Pequod begins, the stories of the white whale had reached a fevered pitch. Sailors carry tales, and sometimes they become bigger the more times they are told and re-told. The same is true of the whale, who enjoyed almost God-like levels of reverence and fear in these stories being told. Rumors included talk of the whale's invincibility and omnipresence (or ability to be more than one place at one time). This may be representative of God's nature to oversee all of the world, all the time.
The Pursuit of God
Men and women all over the world embark, daily, on a journey to get closer to God. Some take pilgrimages; others strive for God through daily devotions, Bible readings or religious services. Humans seem always on the quest for spiritual knowledge and enlightenment.
The journey to reach Moby-Dick may be representative of man's pursuit of God. That's not to say that Ahab's unsuccessful quest means that God cannot be reached. It may only mean that Ahab's heart was not in the right place or that he was being shown that he is pursuing God in a manner driven by hatred or vengeance rather than something peaceful.
There are many instances inside Melville's Moby-Dick where the great whale may be symbolic of God or spirituality. The first is the dedication of a chapter in the book to discuss the whale's whiteness, a parallel that is seen throughout spiritual readings such as the Bible. The second may be Captain Ahab's quest to get behind the mask of the whale, to get to the true power that cannot, ultimately be tamed. The power and the presence of the whale are also symbolic of God, who is omnipresent and all-powerful by nature. Lastly, the pursuit of the whale is representative of man's pursuit of higher purpose and spiritual matters.
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