Symbolism of the Pequod

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

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

What's behind the important vessel, the Pequod, in Herman Melville's ''Moby-Dick?'' In this lesson, you'll learn more about the ship that carried Ahab and his crew as well as the symbolism behind it.

The Ship of Doom

What's in a name? Have you ever considered how sailing vessels - cruise ships, in particular - are named? They generally boast positive and uplifting names like Princess, Regal, Inspiration or Magic. Sounds enticing, right? Who wouldn't want to go sailing the seas in a boat with a name that evokes feelings of wellness and royalty?

You might not have wanted to sail aboard the Pequod in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, however. In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at the Pequod and what it represents in Melville's tale on the high seas.

The Pequod's Ties to History

To understand a little more about what the Pequod symbolizes, you must first understand its roots. The Pequod was named after a long-extinct Native American tribe located in Massachusetts. The Pequot people were ravaged by smallpox and skirmishes with white settlers, and all but disappeared from the region. The word, 'Pequot,' is Algonquian and is most notably recognized as meaning 'the men of the swamp.' The imagery of 'men of the swamp' might even have negative connotations in itself, to some.

The Pequod's Symbolism

Thanks to its ties to the extinction of the Pequot people, the name of the Pequod alone symbolizes doom and failure. Pretty bleak, huh? By naming the ship for a tribe that didn't survive, Melville is almost foreshadowing the deaths of the Pequod's crew.

The Pequod is necessary for the story, however. Without it, the voyage to sail to find Moby-Dick may not have happened. And, it's important to note that the superstitious and foreboding premonitions of many characters, who try to discourage Ahab's vengeful pursuit, are also aligned with the symbolism (used to give deeper meaning to objects and characters in literature) of the boat's name.

The Pequod's Appearance

In the book, Melville tells us that the ship is noble, yet melancholy or gloomy. The ship, itself, is painted a foreboding black and covered with teeth and bones, not-so-subtle reminders of death from previous quests, captures, and kills.

Melville describes those trophies in detail:

'She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.'

The ship is further described as rare and old, worn and wrinkled, and damaged from many years of service, perhaps more hints from Melville about the coming doom meant for it and its crew.

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