What’s the Symbolism in Moby Dick?

moby dick

In my travels during our recent vacation to Iowa and back, I listened to the 135 chapters of Moby Dick.  The book is a monster!  What does it mean?

R. C. Sproul writes:

It seems that every time a writer picks up a pen or turns on his word processor to compose a literary work of fiction, deep in his bosom resides the hope that somehow he will create the Great American Novel. Too late. That feat has already been accomplished and is as far out of reach for new novelists as is Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak or Pete Rose’s record of cumulative career hits for a rookie baseball player. The Great American Novel was written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by Herman Melville. This novel, the one that has been unsurpassed by any other, is Moby Dick. . .

Note that the claim here is not that Moby Dick is one of the hundred greatest books written in English, but rather that it is one of the hundred greatest books written in any language.

Its greatness may be seen not in its sometimes cumbersome literary structure or its excursions into technicalia about the nature and function of whales (cetology). No, its greatness is found in its unparalleled theological symbolism. This symbolism is sprinkled abundantly throughout the novel, particularly in the identities of certain individuals who are assigned biblical names. Among the characters are Ahab, Ishmael, and Elijah, and the names Jeroboam and Rachel (“who was seeking her lost children”) are given to two of the ships in the story.

In a personal letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne upon completing this novel, Melville said, “I have written an evil book.” What is it about the book that Melville considered evil? I think the answer to that question lies in the meaning of the central symbolic character of the novel, Moby Dick, the great white whale.

Melville experts and scholars come to different conclusions about the meaning of the great white whale. Many see this brutish animal as evil because it had inflicted great personal damage on Ahab in an earlier encounter. Ahab lost his leg, . . .

Other scholars have been convinced that the whale is not a symbol of evil but the symbol of God Himself. In this interpretation, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is not a righteous pursuit of God but natural man’s futile attempt in his hatred of God to destroy the omnipotent deity.

I favor this second view. It was the view held by one of my college professors — one of the five leading Melville scholars in the world at the time I studied under him. My senior philosophy research paper in college was titled “The Existential Implications of Melville’s Moby Dick.” In that paper, which I cannot reproduce in this brief article, I tried to set forth the theological structure of the narrative.

I believe that the greatest chapter ever written in the English language is the chapter of Moby Dick titled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Here we gain an insight into the profound symbolism that Melville employs in his novel. He explores how whiteness is used in history, in religion, and in nature. The terms he uses to describe the appearance of whiteness in these areas include elusive, ghastly, and transcendent horror, as well as sweet, honorable, and pure. All of these are descriptive terms that are symbolized in one way or another by the presence of whiteness. . . .

If the whale embodies everything that is symbolized by whiteness — that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible — does he not embody those traits that are found in the fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?

Who can survive the pursuit of such a being if the pursuit is driven by hostility? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of a transcendent God and find there peace rather than a drive for vengeance. Read Moby Dick, and then read it again.

http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/unholy-pursuit-god-moby-dick/

I myself, also find in Queequeg the assertion of a Savior figure.  

Ponder.  This suspicious and scarred man befriends Ishmael, becoming his body guard, and during the voyage selflessly snatches many from the jaws of death. Queequeg’s coffin, out of which he arose claiming “whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure,” was the very means of saving Ishmael in the end.  This makes us think of a certain cross and tomb.

Another writer asserts:

Queequeg’s Coffin

Queequeg’s coffin alternately symbolizes life and death. Queequeg has it built when he is seriously ill, but when he recovers, it becomes a chest to hold his belongings and an emblem of his will to live. He perpetuates the knowledge tattooed on his body by carving it onto the coffin’s lid. The coffin further comes to symbolize life, in a morbid way, when it replaces the Pequod’s life buoy. When the Pequod sinks, the coffin becomes Ishmael’s buoy, saving not only his life but the life of the narrative that he will pass on.

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mobydick/themes.html

Countless other biblical themes and allusions fill Melville’s pages.

Advertisements

About savedbygrace1976

Mark Chanski (author of Manly Dominion and Womanly Dominion) has labored as a full-time Pastor since 1986 in churches in Ohio and Michigan. He has been Pastor of Harbor Church in Holland, Michigan, since 1994. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Cornerstone University, and a Master of Divinity degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. He teaches Hermeneutics for the Reformed Baptist Seminary in Taylors, SC. Mark is married to his wife Dianne, and has fathered their four sons and one daughter, whose ages stretch from 30 to 20 (born 1983 to 1994).
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What’s the Symbolism in Moby Dick?

  1. Bill Deutsch says:

    Great post, Mark! Next to the Bible, Moby Dick is my favorite book. Reading Melville is powerful and tragic. Powerful because he always seems to me to be asking the right questions. Tragic, because he can never embrace the answers as found in Scripture. I agree that the whale symbolizes God – a God that Ahab hated: “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!” This book is also a fascinating study on the mystery of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility. “Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.”

    So – if I may offer a couple suggestions: First, read (listen to ) this book more than once. There are so many layers to it. Second, read Billy Budd (a faster read, fortunately) and ask if Melville is not saying something truly poignant about the Covenant of Redemption there.

    Think I will re-read “The Whiteness of the Whale” tonight. Thanks for the inspiration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s