Moby-Dick as a Symbol of God

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Moby-Dick is one of many symbols in Herman Melville's tale that is representative of another concept. In this case, that could be God. In this lesson, you'll learn more about this potential symbolism in the novel.

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

His Whiteness

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.

His Mask

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.

His Power

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.

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