Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS
Moby Dick is not just another book based on the writer’s own experiences at sea. It is a deeply symbolic story of the conflicting forces of good and evil.
The symbols used in the book are linked to the sea, sailors and the thriving whaling industry of the nineteenth century. The author, through the use of rather mundane images and events related to life at sea, reflects on life, the universe, morality and death. For instance, the ocean in the novel represents the world or life where man struggles and plays his role. Thus the Pequod with sailors from varied nationalities and alien lands, is a microcosm of the world we are living in.
Through the physical features of the whale, the author makes profound observations on life and man’s position vis-a-vis the complex universe. To cite an example, in the chapter where the narrator pauses to talk about the whale’s skeleton and how one cannot figure out where the skull (of the whale) ends and the tailbone begins. This relates to however hard one may strive, it is not possible for one to understand the complex universe. The author’s deep philosophical statements through common sights and events at sea reveal his skill as a writer as well as his understanding of the subjects he is discussing.
In Melville’s novel, almost all the characters are just as important as the events and situations that are depicted. Therefore through the sensitive portrayal of Queequeg, the aborigine from New Zealand who becomes a close friend of Ishmael, the author comments on the so-called ‘civilized’ Christian world as opposed to the world of the savage. Moreover, the bond that formed between Ishmael and Queequeg is significant for through them, the author seems to suggests that in the uncertain and difficult world, a trusted and loving friend can help human beings. Also, the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg suggests that a bond can be formed between people cutting across national boundaries and cultures.
Finally, through the elusive white whale Moby Dick, the author suggests that there is a supreme spirit controlling our world and destinies. So just as in the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, in the book also, the white whale is used to punish the evil in the world manifested in Ahab. Moby Dick also represents something that is unconquerable by man, suggesting that man cannot control or destroy everything. There are some things that are beyond human control.
Thus, in the novel, each event, name or character reveals some aspect of life, morality, or human nature. Just as Ishmael reflects over these images and symbols, the reader too is caught in the spell of the fascinating array of symbols and reflects upon the subjects they represent.