系别：英语系 专业：英语教育 年级：02 接本 完成时间 2004 年 5 月 20 日
A Reading of Symbols in Moby Dick
By Wei Lingling Prof: Wu Xiulan
Submitted to the B.A. committee in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Bachelor of Arts in the English Department of Langfang Teachers College
的灾难历险小说， 也是一部被赋予象征意味的哲理小说。 其中的白鲸被描写成 无处不在，无所不能的万能的上帝。埃哈布船长为复仇远涉重洋捕捉白鲸，最 后自己，同伴与白鲸同归于尽的事迹，既表现了人类的勇敢与忍耐，也反映了 他们的偏执与疯狂。另一个贯穿全文的象征就是“床单” ，它象征世界不同文 化的混合与交织，世界就像一块由多种布拼凑而成的床单，由不同的文化、种 族、背景交织而成，人们在一起相互依靠，相互依存，小说中来自不同国家的 船员就是最生动形象的体现。
Title: A Reading of Symbols in Moby Dick
Moby Dick is not merely a whaling tale or sea adventure, but
also a philosophic novel with symbolic meanings. Moby Dick represents God owing to his godlike characters and his awfully severe beauty. Ahab symbolizes the league human with evil. In the whaling trip, we can see his bravery and patience, as well as his madness and stubbornness. The third symbolic element is the idea of the “counterpane” that is woven throughout the story as a symbol of the world’s multiculturalism. Melville develops the symbol proving that the world is indeed a counterpane of diverse cultures, races, and environment, in which we are always connected by our humanity.
Moby Dick; Arab; God; human; counterpane
I. Introduction ………………………………………………………………...…6 II. The Symbolic Meanings of Moby Dick …………………………..…………7 1. Moby Dick’s Characteristics ……………………………………….…….7 2. Moby Dick’s Whiteness…………………………………………….…….8 3. Moby Dick’s Power and Strength ……………………...……………..…..8 III. The Symbolic Meanings of Ahab …………………………...……………....9 1. The Name Ahab ………. ……………...……………………………...…10 2. Ahab’s Madness…………………………………………………....……..10 3. Ahab’s Characters ………………………………………...……...………12 IV. The Symbolic Meanings of Counterpane ………………………………..….14 1. The Grandiose Sea…………………………………………...…….……..14 2. The Crew of the Pequod……………………………………………....….14 3. The Character Queequeg…………………………………….….…………16 V. Conclusion ………………………………………...…………………….…...18 Notes……………………………………………………………...……..…….…19 Bibliography………………………………………………………………...…...20
Moby Dick is Melville’s masterpiece, but it is overlooked in its author’s time. The revival interest in Moby Dick in the 1920s is of the most dramatic reversals in all literary history. From a by-line in the textbooks, Melville becomes, overnight, one of the half-dozen major American literary figures of the 19th century. Some critics hold it the greatest American novel. They assert that there is no other character as commanding as Ahab and no other book as full of such action, religion, philosophy, detailed information about a way of life, democratic beliefs, humor, tremendous variety of style and allusions. Therefore, Moby Dick has been studied and analyzed on different points by hundreds of writers. Some writers focus on the protagonist Ahab, who is seen as the tragic hero; some writers state that all moral judgments are accompanied with tensions, paradoxes and ambiguities, and take many illustrations to prove their statement; some writers study the brotherhood of man in the novel, the theme of which is the idea of comradeship between human beings, no matter how different. However, the paper will take Melville’s symbols as the subject matter. What does make him become a master of symbolism? It relates to his life experience and culture background. Herman Melville began working on his epic novel Moby Dick in 1850, writing it primarily as a report on the whaling voyages he undertook in the 1830s and early 1840s. Many critics think that his initial book didn’t contain characters such as Ahab, Starbuck, or even Moby Dick, but the summer of 1850 changed Melville’s writing and his masterpiece. He became friend, with author Nathaniel Hawthorne and was greatly influenced by him. He also read Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Their influences lead to the novel Moby Dick completed and published in 1851. Although ignored by critics after its release, Moby Dick took an important place in the world literature. In Moby Dick, Melville’s imagination has achieved its great peak through
employing every means and technique he can reach, among which symbolism is the most thought-provoking and well-studied one. The symbolism of the white whale can be interpreted in many ways. The paper concerns that Moby Dick is the symbol of God. Ahab, the captain of the ship, represents the league human with evil. He questions the fate that God sends upon him and wants to challenge him. The idea of “counterpane” is the third symbolic element, which is woven throughout the story as a symbol of the world’s multiculturalism.
II. The Symbolic Meanings of Moby Dick
Moby Dick is introduced through Ahab’s speech and his dialogue with Starburk. Starburk accuses Ahab of blasphemy, which is irreverence toward God or something sacred. Melville places this rather bitter accusatory word in the mouth of the Christian-minded Starburk, directing at a cruel revengeful Ahab. If Moby Dick is sacred, Ahab only can take the action of blasphemy against him. Through indirect description of Moby Dick and direct cursing of a crazy man, Melville fills Moby Dick with hints and clues. At the true essence, Ahab sees behind the symbol of Moby Dick. According to the sailor’s stories and legends, Moby Dick is seen in two places at once at different places around the world. In this trait, Melville is suggesting omnipresence, a godlike trait. The sailors think he is immortal, another godlike trait, because he has been harpooned many times and still lives. Ahab himself believes Moby Dick’s power is shocking, like god’s omnipotence. Ahab states in chapter XXXVI, “that inscrutable thing [Moby Dick]’s power is chiefly what I hate”. In addition to the godlike characteristics of omnipotence and omnipresence, Moby Dick has got a reputation for tearing through sinners. He shows godlike justice and mercy in saving Steelkilt and killing the unjust Radney, as the crew learns from the sailors of the Town-Ho. Melville uses many other symbols to make the white whale a symbol of divine
power. Moby Dick is thought to be immortal. He is the collective whale soul, the essential, eternal whale of which all other whales are only ephemeral manifestations. The sacred, special character of Moby Dick is indicated by his whiteness. His awfully severe beauty is godlike, as is his titanic power and his pyramid-like white hump. His color, white, has signified a special sanctify:
In many natural objects, whiteness refines and enhances beauty, as in pearls, or confers special qualities such as innocence or purity. There is an elusive quality that causes the thought of whiteness to heighten terror, such as the white bear of the poles or the white shark of the tropics. Among humans, the Albino is considered shocking and loathed, while the whiteness of a corpse is a distinguishing and disturbing feature. In its most profound idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul. White is portentous because it is indefinite, not so much a color as the visible absence of color. 
In this chapter, Melville attempts to define Moby Dick through its whiteness, instead finding that the very nature of the color white defines definition. Melville devotes an entire chapter, narrated by Ishmael, in which he explores the meaning of whiteness through the ages and through the eyes of many different cultures. White or albino animals are typically considered sacred. Melville notes this fact, giving as examples the sacred white elephant of the Orient and the sacred white dog of the Iroquois. Melville portrays Moby Dick in nearly human terms, endowing the great whale a sense of intelligence, strategy and grandeur. The whale is more than a match for Ahab, despite his dogged persistence, and in fact appears altogether unconquerable. From the beginning of the novel, we are confronted with the image of the whale as the personification of power and strength, as Stubb says in the inn, “If God where to be any fish, he would be a whale,” the quote proves that the
whale holds a great deal of power. It’s also obvious that to confront a whale is much like confronting Mother Nature or God. One of the first remarks that makes about the whale is “Aye, it was Moby Dick that tore my body and soul until they bled into each other.” This quote, by captain Ahab, describes the whale as not only having power to destroy in the physical realm, but also to ruin in the spiritual world. Many biblical allusions in the story reinforce the notion that Moby Dick is an instrument of God if not God himself. Through these and other small clues and symbols, Melville hints that Moby Dick is sacred and godlike. He destroys those who seek to destroy Moby Dick. Harry Mackey, second mate of the Jeroboam, who pursues Moby Dick, is killed. However, Ahab, suggestive of an Old Testament conception of God, sees Moby Dick as unjust and too powerful. For the character Ahab, however, the whale represents only evil. Moby Dick is like a wall, hiding some unknown, a mysterious thing behind. Ahab wills the whole crew on the Pequod to join him in the pursuit of the big whale so as to pierce the wall, to root out the evil, but only to be destroyed by evil, in this case, by his own consuming desire, his madness.
III. The Symbolic Meanings of Ahab
Ahab is the central character and the primary focus of the novel, despite his mysterious and long-delayed appearance. Long before Ahab actually interacts with Ishmael and the other characters, Melville establishes him as an impressive and tragic figure, deserving of sympathy. Most of the details surrounding Ahab contain some elements of legend, such as the story that he loses one of his legs, and Melville further creates a tension between Ahab’s supposed grandeur and his more fearsome qualities. Pelage describes him as simultaneously that the dynamic between these sides of Ahab’s personality will form the primary internal struggle against Moby Dick. Melville additionally continues the Biblical allusions that dominate the character’s name.
The name Ahab in Moby Dick is symbolic and taken from the Bible, in which Ahab is described as a king who turns vile, suggesting that the Ahab of this novel will be a similarly conflicted leader. Ahab is an evil man having had someone killed so he could be king. Mysterious captain Ahab, a combination of Macbeth, Job, and Milton’s Satan, appears after several days at sea. Melville names the character after the Israelite king who worshiped the pagan sun god Baal. Ahab’s blasphemous hunt of Moby Dick has made him a sinner against God. Ahab wants to look through the “pasteboard mask” of reality and see what is behind physical objects. He wants to look behind the mask of Moby Dick and see God, to challenge him and question his justness. Ahab believes God is oblivious to the suffering of mankind and even states, “ sometimes I think there’s naught beyond” the mask of Moby Dick. Not only has Ahab questioned God’s justice; he has questioned God’s existence. This blasphemy against God and no acceptance of human limitations have made Ahab to harpoon God, God in the guise of Moby Dick. Melville many times in Moby Dick makes Ahab’s association with evil forces in the world apparent. Ahab declares himself to be mad and “demoniac”. He was called the Anti-Christ by the church Fathers. Ahab sets sail on Christmas Day, leaving when Christ’s life begins, symbolizing Ahab’s opposition to Christ like values. Ahab also names his specially made harpoon in the name of the devil—“Ego no baptize tee in nominee patris, sed in nomine diaboli.” The translation of Ahab’s Latin is “I do not baptize thee in the name of the father, but in the name of devil.” Ahab baptizes his harpoon in the blood of his pagan harpooners. Queequeg, Dagoo, and Tashtego, Ahab’s personal whaleboat abounds with heathens, led by Fedallah, whose name suggests “devil, Allah,” the crusader view of Allah. Ahab is a deeply disturbed man, who could be viewed as a crazy lunatic. He has been trapped in a world gone mad for a long time since the day he is unable to catch the feared Moby Dick, and he no longer finds simple pleasure any more
because of the torment of his obsession. This is illustrated when he throws his favorite pipe into the sea. The pipe is a symbol of peace and tranquility. Ahab himself is trapped in madness and states, “May God damn us all if we do not hunt. Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab obviously knows what he is doing, “Drub brute blasphemy-kills and mutilate out race. I would strike the sun if it offended me? ” And he would not let Moby Dick get away this time no matter what the circumstance is. We can see Ahab as a tormented man, he suffers in physical and mental pain, and is obsessed by only one thing, vengeance against the whale. This does not allow him room in his heart for love and affection for others. The whale symbolizes a thing; he must destroy to regain what he has lost in his life, his freedom, and his mastery over his world. He sees his encounter with the whale as a defeat. By being maimed by the whale he is no longer the unconquerable, immortal godlike sea captain. He knows that in this pursuit he may die and so may his crew. Ahab has accepted the fact the beast is much more than an animal, but he still persists in his quest for vengeance, this constant struggle between Ahab and the whale indicate man’s ongoing conflict with god. Like Ahab, no matter how often or in what manner God makes his will known to us we always seem to stray a way from that. Here Ahab or man does not ignore the will of God but he also challenges it. He is a man who we know has been to sea for years, three voyages, neglecting his wife and child in Nantucket. He is a loner with no friends. No one can come close to him. He is feared. Numerous examples support that something is not quite right with his mental state. In the novel, we learn that he has stowed away, much to the surprise of the crew, a mysterious group of oriental men who act, as Ahab’s own personal whaling crew, designed specifically to hunt Moby Dick. It seems that, the leader, Fedallzah, is perceived by the crew as having a dark influence over Ahab. Stubb at one point confides to Flask that he thinks that Fedallzah is the devil himself and Flask thinks that Ahab may have struck a deal with him. Another example that demonstrates his madness is the sad case of Pip, the
castaway. The small African boy is required to replace an oarsman on Stubb’s boat; he is cast overboard and nearly drowned. From the experience, he goes mad. Pip seems to have been sacrificed for the sake of Ahab’s obsession. We see a similar story in Ahab’s own life. He abandons his own wife and child. Seeming to remember back to those days, he shows a small sign of affection toward the insane Pip. When the Pequod meets the whaling ship, the Samuel Enderby, on the high seas we get a look at the mindset of Ahab opposed to the mind of a rational and sane sea captain. Captain Boomer suffers a similar fate to that of Ahab’s at the wrath of the white whale. Instead of a leg he loses his hand. Whale ivory replaces his hand. The two engage in a discussion. Ahab is interested in knowing the location of the whale. Captain Boomer does not want to have anything to do with the whale and he thinks Ahab is crazy for wanting to pursue him and risk further bodily injury. Along the long journey, the Pequod encounters some problems with whale oil leaking. Starbuck immediately tells Ahab that they need to fix the problem or they would loose their profits. Ahab does not want to waste time in his pursuit of Moby Dick. In the chapter “Pequod meets the Bachelor,” we see the contrast of what could have been the fate of the Pequod. The Bachelor is a ship with a happy crew loaded with a large cargo of whale, headed home. Had not a mad man been the captain of the Pequod, the same happy ending would have resulted instead of the tragic one we will see later on. Later, the ship meets another ship, the Rachel. Ahab asks the usual question about the whereabouts of the white whale. Captain Gardinar of the Rachel it turns out is missing a boat with his young son in it and needs the aid of the Pequod to find the boy. Ahab seems more interested in the subject of the white whale than the missing boy. Ahab refuses his plea for help. His refusal shows how his mania has overtaken his sense of human decency. Ahab, the Pequod’s obsessed captain, represents both an ancient and a typical modern type of hero. He is a man distinguished by courage and ability, who is admired for his qualities and achievements. Peleg describes Ahab as a “...grand,
ungodly, god-like man, captain Ahab; does not speak much but when he does speak, then you may well listen. ” Peleg tells that he is “… moody, desperate moody and savage sometimes.” “… better to be a moody good captain than a laughing bad one.” The captain maintains a strong sense of dignity. He is single-minded in his pursuit of the whale, using a mixture of charisma and terror to persuade his crew to join him. As a captain, he is dictatorial but not unfair. At moments he shows a compassionate side, caring for the insane Pip and musing on his wife and child back in Nantucket. Like the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, Ahab suffers from a single fatal flaw, one he shares with such legendary characters as Oedipus and Faust. His tremendous overconfidence, or hubris, leads him to defy common sense and believe that, like a god, he can enact his will and remain immune to the forces of nature. He considers Moby Dick the embodiment of evil in the world, and he pursues the white whale because he believes it his inescapable fate to destroy this evil. According to the critic M.H. Abrams, such a tragic hero moves us to pity because, since he is not an evil man, his misfortune is greater than he deserves; but he moves us also to fear, because we recognize similar possibilities of error in our own lesser and fallible selves. Ahab delivers all of humanity’s protests against the injustices of fate; Melville makes him the symbol of humanity, “when Ahab strikes at Moby Dick, he does so in a mad desire for revenge on God, whom he holds responsible for its evil’s existence.” Ahab refuses to accept the fact that limitations of humans stop them from attacking God; he tries his best to do so, “a contemporary French critic got the heart of the matter when he said that the only reason Ahab tries to harpoon Moby Dick is that he cannot harpoon God.”  Unlike the heroes of older tragic works, however, Ahab suffers from a fatal flaw that is not necessarily inborn but instead stems from damage, in his case both psychological and physical, inflicted by life in a harsh world. He is as much a victim as he is an aggressor, and the symbolic opposition that he constructs between himself and Moby Dick propels him toward what he considers a destined
IV. The Symbolic Meanings of Counterpane
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a symbolic element that makes the novel more clear and more real to his reader is the idea of the “counterpane”, or tapestry, of humanity which is woven through out the story as the symbol of the world’s multiculturalism. Melville develops the symbolism on at least three levels, proving that the world is indeed a counterpane of diverse cultures, races and environment. On a great scale, Melville uses the sea as a metaphor for the world and mankind. There are many creatures that depend on the water, and others who depend on the creatures that depend on the water. In order for everything to be balanced, people must learn to coexist peacefully when they try to meet all of the different needs they may have. The multiple ships that the Pequod meets at the travel represent different cultures of people. For instance, the Jungfrau [or virgin] is a ship from Germany, while the Rosebud is from France, and the Town Ho comes from Nantucket. Not only are the different ships different in style and accent, but also their views on whaling and life are all greatly varied as well. There is also a great irony in the meetings of the Pequod with other ships. “…another homeward bound whale man, the Town Ho, was encountered. She was manned almost wholly by Polynesians.” Whales are not running the ship that comes from one of the most “white” places in the whaling world! The multiculturalism of all the different ships proves that we as humans are all connected by the idea that sometimes we will have to rely on people we would never expect. “…Melville’s novel becomes a conglomeration of thoughts on evil verse good, the role of fate, the tension between Christianity and paganism, in addition to a multitude of other subjects”. The crew of the Pequod is by far the most obvious counterpane in Moby Dick. Each crewmember is different in his own way and brings some diverse culture and background to the ship. The three non-white
harpooners, the three mates, who are white, but each holds their own different beliefs about life, and the other members of the crew, such as Fedallah, Pip, Ahab, and Ishmael, all make up one big counterpane of cultures. “Swimming against the racist tide of most popular fiction, Melville invested the Pequod’s three non-white harpooners with the dignity of priests, kings, and princes, and relegated the hierarchy of privilege that puts whites in command of color”. It is interesting to see once again, how the white people on the ship, who most likely never dream of putting their lives in the hands of colored people, are so completely dependent on the colored members of the crew. Without the harpooners, the Pequod would have been destroyed long before they spot Moby Dick. The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is the prime example of the interdependency within the crew. Ishmael, the stereotypical white Christian, is one of the few to accept others’ beliefs. His friendship with Queequeg proves that man can be happy and acceptable with his peers:
It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we precede any further, it must be said that the monkey rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my [Ishmael’s] narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead the cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake…Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother…while earnestly watching his motion, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake and misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death…still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only inmost cases, he, one way or other, has this
Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey-rope heedfully as I would… Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had management of one end of it. 
The passage proves that Ishmael and Queequeg are close enough that we are willing to die for each other. It also shows how the interdependency of mankind is unavoidable and how no person can control it. “…Melville asserts that life interwoven, whether it be one human connects to another human or one action connects to another action; everything it ultimately interdependent”. This dependency is how the Pequod functions. Although every crewmember is different from the next, they all try to assure the success of the Pequod. Therefore, the interdependency is visible on the ship, and transfers over to show the counterpane of humanity. The most diverse, single character by far in Moby Dick, is a dark-complexioned harpooner named Queenqueg, who represents a great number of cultures all at once. He is first introduced to the reader as a man Ishmael will have to share a bed with for the night. At the first encounter, Queequeg is portrayed as a horrifying savage and “cannibal” who seem ready and willing to attack Ishmael: But what to make of this head-pedding purple rascal…his chest and arms…parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back too, was all over the same dark squares; still more, his very legs were marked… It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other…I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too-perhaps
the heads of his own brothers. He might take a fancy to mine-heavens! Look at that tomahawk 
Immediately, Queequeg is portrayed as someone to fear. However the first impression is quickly replaced by the impression of noble and trustworthy friend. In the chapter entitled “Biographical”, the reader is surprised to find that Queequeg is actually a prince, with a Christian family that includes “His father…a High Chief, a King; his uncle a High Priest; and on the maternal side he boasted aunts who were the wives of unconquerable warriors. There was excellent blood in his veins-royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth ” Another culture that is rolled up into Queequeg, is that of the Ishmael religion. He follows the Ramadan but only while worshipping an African idol. Along with harpoon, one of the most precious belongings to Queequeg is his little “Congo baby” named Yojo. When he is following rituals like the Ramadan for hours on end, he escapes to another world. His death-like trance is frightening to those who do not understand what he is about; Ishmael thinks Queegueg has died before learning of this special fasting period! But all of these opinions form are based merely on the physical looks of his character. Despite the fact that at first glance, anyone would be terrified of this so-called cannibal, he is one of the most outgoing and positive people in the book. He remains loyal to his friends, especially Ishmael, and his courage and nobility shines through his heroic acts. The poor fellow whom Queequeg had handled so roughly, was swept overboard; all hands were in a panic; queequeg, stripped to the waist, darted from the side with a long living arc of a leap. For three minutes or more he was seen swimming…the poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted queequeg a noble trump. His intriguing character builds a fascinating scope of human emotions and characteristics that is unique to him, yet common to humanity.
The paper has discussed Melville’s symbolism in Moby Dick. As a master of allegory and symbolism, Melville develops a great deal of symbols to add beauty to his novel, and makes it become a timeless masterpiece. What remain to be pointed out are the symbolic meanings of Ahab, Moby Dick and counterpane. Ahab is viewed as the human with evil, Moby Dick as God, counterpane as the world’s multiculturalism. However, what the paper has discussed about symbolism in the novel is just a little part of the whole. There are many other symbols in the novel. For instance, the voyage itself is a metaphor for “search and discovery, the search for the ultimate truth of experience.” The Pequod is, to D.H.Lawrence, the ship of the American soul, and the endeavor of its crew represents “the maniacal fanaticism of our white mental consciousness”. By far the most conspicuous symbol in the book is, of course Moby Dick, the white whale is capable of many interpretations. It’s viewed as God, an unstoppable force of nature and as simply a whale. It is apparent that he represents more. It symbolizes nature for Melville, for it is complex, unfathomable, malignant and beautiful as well. For the author, as well as for the reader and Ishmael, the narrator, Moby Dick is still a mystery; an ultimate mystery of the universe, inscrutable and ambivalent, and the voyage of the mind will forever remain a search, not a discovery, of the truth. Thus, people should not be satisfied with learning from the ancient only. A more important thing for them to do is to develop more scientific and reasonable point of view about Melville’s symbolism in Moby Dick.
1. Melville Herman, Moby-Dick. (New York: Bantam, 1981), 177. 2. Ibid.133. 3. Ibid.213. 4. Ibid.76. 5. Ibid.77. 6. Braswell William, Moby-Dick is an Allegory of Humanity’s Struggle with God. (Leone, 1949), 150. 7. Ibid.151. 8. Melville Herman, Moby-Dick. (New York: Bantam, 1981), 177. 9. Robertson-Lorant Laurie, Melville: A Biography. (New York: Clarkson Pottor, 1996), 108. 10. Ibid.281. 11. Melville Herman, Moby-Dick. (New York: Bantam, 1981), 310-311. 12. Ibid.40-41. 13. Ibid.70.
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