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White Whale in Moby-Dick: Symbolism, Meaning & Metaphor

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  • 0:04 Character Background
  • 0:48 Universal Symbolism
  • 1:39 Specific Symbolism
  • 3:18 Becoming a Metaphor
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

The White Whale in Melville's 'Moby-Dick' has been read as a symbol and a metaphor in a variety of ways: he is seen as representing God, nature, a Biblical monster, and so on. This lesson looks at how and why the White Whale can represent so many different ideas.

Character Background

Whether or not you have actually read Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, you can probably explain more or less what it's about. It's likely that if you stopped someone on the street and asked who the White Whale was, they'd say, ''That's Moby Dick! He's the whale that Captain Ahab was obsessed with.''

This is true: at the most basic level, the White Whale in the novel is the object of Ahab's obsession. Everything in the plot of Moby-Dick is directed toward the final, tragic confrontation between Ahab, his crew, and the White Whale. The White Whale wins the fight, and Ahab - along with nearly the entire crew of the Pequod - dies. The fact that the White Whale cannot be beaten contributes to the way it is used as a symbol.

Universal Symbolism

The White Whale in Moby-Dick is possibly one of the greatest symbols in literature. When we talk about a character being used as a symbol, we mean that the character, in addition to performing a role within the plot, also represents an abstract idea or concept.

For example, people have argued that the White Whale represents God, nature, the Leviathan, man's subconscious, and so on. There are great arguments to be made for all of these claims because we really don't know much about the White Whale; he mostly exists in the novel through the lens of other characters.

Although we, as readers, 'meet' Moby Dick a couple of times, the vast majority of what we learn about him comes from Ahab and the others in the story who discuss him. This means that we can use their imaginations, as well as our own, to decide what exactly Moby-Dick represents.

Specific Symbolism

Symbol of God

One of the main arguments about the symbolic nature of the White Whale is that he symbolizes God, or the divine. This is a reasonable interpretation for a couple reasons. The White Whale is discussed several times as something that is best left alone, since it is powerful enough to destroy people, and all attempts at killing the White Whale fail, suggesting that he is, in fact, different from a mere whale, and is a force that people should respect enough not to interfere with.

Symbol of Nature

The arguments for the White Whale being symbolic of nature are based on Ahab's quest to demonstrate that he can best the whale. Ever since Moby Dick took Ahab's leg years ago, Ahab has been determined to prove that he can exact revenge for this and kill Moby Dick. In spite of the frequent warnings that Ahab gets from his crew and from other sailors who have taken on Moby Dick, he persists, and is ultimately killed by the whale.

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