“Call me Ishmael.” These are the famous opening words to one of histories greatest single pieces of literature; the story of a man risking it all to take revenge on the mightiest of beasts, the white whale. The tale of captain Ahab and his doomed crew has woven itself into our Americana culture, so much so, that inevitable correlations are drawn into the tale. There is symbolism, hidden meaning behind the façade of revenge. There is code woven into the text, symbolisms hidden deep within the ocean’s depths, interpreted and deciphered by countless historians and experts. The whale that haunts the dreams of readers and sea captains embodies primitive human emotions, and complex abstract thoughts. Moby-Dick is not just a simple tale of a vengeance-driven old sea dog, but a political commentary, a segregation of good and evil, an investigation in the bible, and perhaps, as some suggest, an exploration into more erotic territory.
In 1851, a book by the title The Whale was written by Herman Melville. Like most great literature worth it’s ink, The Whale (later to be renamed Moby-Dick after it’s infamous title character) was full of social commentary. The whale played no small part in this tactful satire. As a lucrative commodity, the whale works into the scheme of white financial expansion and exploitation in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Some have even compared the whale to the American gold rush, where the sea is akin to the unexplored, untamed west, and the White Whale as the elusive gold. As a part of the natural world, it represents the devastation and destruction of the environment by such hubristic development. The whale’s destruction of the sailor’s ships (human achievement and expansion) has been interpreted to represent mankind’s self-destruction and eventual downfall. Ahab’s failure to succeed suggests the human condition. It suggests that man, with his limited knowledge, lives and dies besieged against forces that he cannot comprehend nor conquer. By fighting the whale even though defeat is assured, Ahab is doomed to the fate of all men.
Ahab meets his fate after his epic three-day struggle with the beast. This gargantuan battle between good and evil culminates in the death of a man, and the birth of a legend. But the question of who fills the shoes of hero and villain is the subject of heated debate. Naturally, as a reader, and as a human being, Captain Ahab is the accepted choice as the hero, a champion facing insurmountable odds to win over the persecution and tyranny of evil men, or in this case, evil fish. Ahab sees the fish as what is wrong with the world; it embodies all the evils of society and nature in one big fish. This is how Ahab justifies his obsession with the whale. He says Moby-Dick is a “mask” behind which lies a great power that Ahab refuses to accept. However, one can cite much more evidence of Ahab himself being the evil force. When Melville wrote Moby-Dick he knew he needed a compelling character to counter the title character. When inventing his “hero” he drew from several influences. Ahab is actually a combination of several infamous characters from other works of literature. He derives heavily from Shakespeare’s MacBeth in his mannerisms and tenacious behavior. Some of Ahab’s personality quirks are modified from the Bible’s depiction of Job. Even some of Milton’s portrayal of Satan manifests itself in Ahab’s condition. The last character he was molded after, Satan, brings the strongest tie of evil influence. Even Ahab’s name suggests malevolence. Melville named his surly captain after the Israelite king who worships the Pagan Sun God Baal. Perhaps then Ahab is the evil, and the whale is the just and goodliness. Or perhaps Ahab is simply insane and mad for power, and the only way he can justify his manliness and worth is by destroying the other thing that has every bested him. The crew of “The Pequod” see the whale as a mythical creature, a sort of urban legend. They use the tales of the whale to displace and dispel their anxieties about the dangers and perils of their jobs. They tell the tales of the White Whale to confront their fears, so for them, the whale is evil, but not to the extent Ahab wishes us to believe. Ishmael, the Horatio to Ahab’s Hamlet, sees the whale in a much different light. He sees the “whiteness of the whale” which be believes to represent good or evil, or perhaps both. He believes the whale is all colors or the “visible absence of color.” Ishmael can understand the atrocities committed by the creature, but sees it is a beautiful animal and worthy of praise and admiration. Ishmael can place the whale next the Ahab’s Satan, or even next to godliness.
Herman Melville was a spiritual man, as evident in the many symbols found in his numerous works relating to the church and biblical passages. In Moby-Dick his religious symbolism is again prevalent. The most notable reference may be the story of Jonah. In the story, Jonah is told by God to preach against the great evils in a city. Jonah, not wanting to, decides to sail away from the city, thus allowing himself to become just as evil as the evildoers in the city itself. This angered God, who then set forth a great storm, reminiscent of the one during the final confrontation between the White Whale and Ahab. When Jonah realized that God was angry with him, he had the sailors of the ship lift him up and cast him overboard. Waiting for him in the water was a great fish, or whale that swallowed him whole. The whale, in essence, was used by God to swallow the evil. This connection makes perfect sense if one is to believe that Ahab was evil. This would then infer that the White Whale is then in fact the hand of God, casting down punishment to the wicked. This could have been a warning from Melville about the current state of humanity. Ahab’s relentless pursuit of something for financial and personal gain consumed and destroyed him, invoking the wrath and punishment of God in the same mannerism as biblical times with the story of Jonah. Melville tactfully tries to warn us against personal and superficial needs and wants, but to instead try and both sides of a subject, such as Ishmael does. Ishmael is the only one to survive the encounter with the whale ironically enough floating on a coffin. Melville may have been stating that only those who have full understanding and enlightenment will succeed, will live. The whale is even mentioned by name in Genesis, the first book of the bible. “And God created great whales.” Melville does not force his opinions and beliefs upon the reader, but when looking for them, it is evident that they are indeed available for study.
Interestingly enough, the whale can be construed to take a more erotic undertone. Recently, many literary experts have analyzed Melville’s writings for clues into his sexuality. He was loved by numerous homosexual readers, including E. M. Forster, who wrote for Britten's Billy Budd, and William Plomer. Hart Crane was one of Melville's devotees and wrote "At Melville's Tomb.” Some affirm Melville's standing as husband and father deferred wider acknowledgment of his homosexuality, but recently critics have come to distinguish the unmistakable facts of the text. Many critics and analysts think that Moby-Dick, the whale itself, was merely a phallic symbol. Leading phallic symnologists attest that Moby-Dick was the closest Melville ever came to coming out. The contest that Ahab was Melville’s literary embodiment, that his obsession with the white whale was Melville’s obsession with the phallus. Perhaps this attributes to why Ahab is so torn at certain moments on if he should or should not embrace the white whale or shun it. It was a goal he could never achieve, just as being publicly homosexual was never attained by Melville. These radical thinkers attest that Melville was so pained by his shameful secret that he wanted to destroy it, and tear it away from his being, as evidence by Ahab’s intense hatred for the White Whale. But many physiologists are quick to point out that love and hate are perplexingly similar and one can turn into the other in a heartbeat. His intense hatred for this whale, this phallus of the sea, can easily be translated into love and admiration. In the end, it is merely speculation by modern critics, based on little facts about Melville’s personal sexual life, beyond the fact that he did have a wife and child. But therein lies the beauty of symbolism. It is whatever one can make of it, and is it can be supported, no one is to say it is incorrect.
Truly a masterful work, Moby-Dick goes down in history as one of the greatest adventure stories every told, or ever to be told. It has action, heart, hatred, vengeance, love, denial, everything that makes up an entertaining and enthralling story to last the ages, and it has. In large part it stays popular due to the inferences one can make from it. Representation in political satire will always thrive within it’s pages. The debate on which character embodies evil and which represents man’s flaws is still in the air. Biblical references abound, not only pertaining to the White Whale but ubiquitously. Even the more extreme interpretations are welcome and unavoidable at any case. As long as literature thrives, it will be interpreted, torn apart and dug into. Moby-Dick is a prime example of the tenacity of the readers and scholars of prose. Within the text lie cryptic messages, hidden meanings, malicious interpretations of even the most harmless of figures; a big white fish.