Moby-Dick as an Allegory

Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

In this lesson, you will learn about what it means when we refer to Herman Melville's novel, ''Moby-Dick,'' as an allegory and consider why some say that the novel is really about man's search for knowledge, whilst others consider it to be a comment on religion.

Thinking about Allegories

What does it mean when we refer to something as an allegory? Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines an allegory as 'the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence,' but let's unpack this definition in simpler terms. In this, an allegory is a narrative, or story (whether this is presented in a novel, short story or poem), in which things (characters and events) represent both themselves and something else.

Once we understand what the different aspects in the story represent, we are able to make out what the second meaning to the story is trying to say about life. The 'generalizations about human existence' mentioned in the definition take on the form of universal truths. Therefor, the writer has developed a certain perspective on reality, but instead of communicating his/her thoughts directly, they are doing so through symbolism, thereby using a story to communicate their ideas to the reader or audience.

Moby-Dick as an Allegory

In Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby-Dick, one could say that the author uses a story about a whaleboat, and a captain, obsessed with catching one particular white whale, to explore mankind's search for meaning. In philosophy, this interest in the nature of knowledge and the ways we obtain it, is called epistemology. Others, however, read this 'search for meaning' a bit more specifically, believing that the kind of 'knowledge' that the men are 'chasing' represents religious understanding.

But how does Melville do this? And what is he saying about our search for meaning?

The Novel's Structure as a Comment on the Search for Meaning

One way in which Melville comments on mankind's search for meaning is in the way his character, Ishmael, is telling the reader about whales. In this, he considers quotes about the 'leviathan,' he tells us about the whale industry, the way whales are built, and even tells us about a time when he stood inside a whale's skeleton. And yet, the overall sense is that, no matter how manner or different angle he takes, and the level of detail that he goes into (which explains why the novel is SO long), the 'whale' keeps eluding him.

Symbolism in Moby-Dick

In this, the novel's titular character, Moby Dick, becomes a symbol for knowledge. Instead of being a story about some guys chasing a whale, the story becomes one of mankind's search for meaning. However, some theorists have suggested that the whale represents a particular kind of knowledge - namely, religious understanding.

This perspective might be motivated by the large amount of biblical references found in the novel. Not only does the novel start off by listing some quotes from the Bible that refer to whales and 'leviathans' (alongside quotes taken from philosophers), but some of the names used in the novel are also taken from the Bible. Names like Ishmael, Elijah and Ahab all appear in the Bible.

Ishmael, the son of the prophet Abraham in the Bible, is a figure who has since become associated with outcasts, since the biblical Ishmael was disowned by his father, in favor of his brother, Isaac. Similarly, Ishmael in Moby-Dick is a bit of an outcast in the novel, since he is not as experienced in whaling as the others.

Whilst the biblical Elijah was a prophet, in the novel, this character is one who warns Ishmael and Queequeg about Ahab. Ironically, the biblical Ahab, a wicked king, is warned by Elijah, and is destroyed through his unwillingness to listen to this prophet.

When considering the symbolism found in Moby-Dick, the novel becomes far more than a just a story about chasing a single whale

Allegorical Implications

If we consider Moby Dick as a symbol of knowledge, then what is Melville trying to say about people? What 'universal truth' is he trying to communicate?

In this, it is useful to consider the differences in the way Ishmael and his captain, Ahab, approach this chase. Whilst Ishmael's search is a search for meaning, an attempt to understand a natural phenomenon, Ahab's desire is to catch and kill the whale. In his attempts to do so, Ahab ends up losing touch with reality, and later, his life.

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