The Whiteness of the Whale

In 1851, Herman Melville published a novel which, at that time, wasn’t considered a literary novelty: Moby Dick. Most readers who are critical of the work even today blame it for its narrative redundance. Like Victor Hugo, Melville excels in giving the reader as much backdrop into his topics as possible. Though this technique is informative, it can be a burden on a reader who is looking for an exciting plot to follow. But in the twentieth century, scholars began to look into the story of the white whale and proclaimed it to be a masterpiece of nineteenth century literature.

Ishmael, a man whose soul has grown melancholy over time, decides to find relief in sailing the seas. He wishes to join the crew of the whaling ship, the Pequod. Before his desire is granted, he meets Queequeg, a native from the exotic pacific isles, as well as hearing a traditional Puritan sermon on the story of Jonah and the whale. One by one, he meets the crew of the Pequod, such as Starbuck, a hard-working Christian sailor. But his interest is in Captain Ahab, a stern middle aged man with a peg leg.

As the ship leaves to sail through the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, Ishmael describes everything one can know about whales and the whaling industry, which was an important economic trade in America at the time. But the story’s main plot is Captain Ahab’s obsession with finding and killing a white sperm whale named Moby Dick. Moby Dick was responsible for biting Ahab’s leg off, necessitating a replacement. In deep fury, Ahab wants revenge on the whale, even if it means sailing through dangerous waters to do so. No one can convince him to depart from his mission. The ship finds the white whale at long last, after numerous days of whaling, ship meetings, and a deadly typhoon. However, the whale turns out to be their greatest problem, by far.

One of the reasons for the novel’s popularity is that it is seen as a deeply symbolic work. Ahab is chasing a white whale, not just any whale. And because colors are often used as symbolic, suggestive signs in literature, many scholars ponder what it is that Moby Dick represents. They could argue that one of Melville’s goals had to have been symbolism; afterall, the novel is dedicated to one of Melville’s closest friends, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was a renowned symbolic novelist during Melville’s time. But Ahab, as well, is subject to interpretation, for he is the one who wishes to contend with the whale’s domineering might. So the question bceomes, what do Captain Ahab and Moby Dick stand for, respectively?

One interpretation has suggested that Moby Dick, due to his colossal size and whiteness, represents God. Afterall, the color white has been seen as a color representing holiness and purity. And God is often believed to be quite larger than life, to say it lightly. Moby Dick is distinguished from the other whales, for there is none like him, just as the God of the Bible claims to be the one true God, greater than any “god.”  And why would Melville put a sermon in the novel if not to remind the reader of traditional Christian orthodoxy? By doing so, the reader wonders whether there is a traditional religious message going on.

But what of Ahab, who wants to kill the whale? Is Melville suggesting a blasphemous idea of God being put to death? It certainly seemed that people were abandoning God, at least, in Melville’s day;  Charles Darwin’s scientific discoveries further facillitated a growing distrust in Christian authoritarianism that had been brewing in the century. Some Romantics before Melville had begun fostering a distaste for organized religion, advocating new ways to see the world. In this way, Ahab can be seen as one who is viciously rebelling against Christianity, a symbol of society’s growing skepticism of religion.

Yet what if Moby Dick is more of a satanic than godly symbol? Afterall, the whale’s jaw is “crooked.” That particular word suggests corruption and hypocrisy, traits associated with Satan. There is also the fact that Moby Dick, like other whales, is referred to as “Leviathan.” The term traditionally refers to a great serpent, suggestive of the Devil. By wanting to kill the whale, Ahab is rebelling against what he sees as evil and demonic in the world. But in a socio-historical context, what could this mean? What was seen as corrupt in Melville’s time?

The word “Leviathan” could refer to big, centralized government. Thomas Hobbes published a pro central government book entitled Leviathan in the late 1600’s, a popular book in Melville’s era. But many, such as the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, accused the American federal government of great evils such as slavery and forcing soldiers into the Mexican War. Many felt his sentiments and protested likewise, especially when it came to slavery. The whale being “white” could even be suggestive of race; Ahab rebels against the whale who symbolizes the pre-dominantly white authoritarianism of the day, one that is often seen as the source of the slave’s plight in nineteenth century America. The rapper Tupac Shakur,a supporter of the Black Panther Party in the 1990’s (a group dedicated to justice for African Americans against white supremacy), had some of his lyrics inspired by Moby Dick. To him, the novel was as socially relevant as it was in Melville’s day.

There are many different angles to see Moby Dick and therein lies its true beauty; it is a deeply artistic novel that can be discussed hours on end. That is, if the reader can patiently endure Melville’s complex and embellished language. Like many works dedicated to symbolism, the novel gives the reader the liberty to define what it means to them instead of just being told what to believe. Whether it is liked or not, the tale of the white whale continues to be discussed today.

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3 responses to “The Whiteness of the Whale

  1. Pingback: Gem of the Week, The Oldspeak Journal « Pilant's Business Ethics

  2. Pingback: American Minute for August 1st | Wholeheartedness

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