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Themes, Symbols and Motifs in Moby-Dick

By Peter Boysen

This article is designed to help high school and college students encountering Moby-Dick to understand the symbols and motifs at work, and to see how they contribute to theme.

Themes in Moby-Dick

Never Trust Signs of Destiny

There are many references to destiny, or fate, throughout Moby-Dick. The illumination of the Pequod during the electrical storm, near the novel's end, appears to Ahab to be a sign that his dreams of catching the great white whale will finally be realized. When the sailor falls from the topmast right after the storm, though, the sailors look at this as a sign that the journey will be fatal, no matter what anyone does. This is why so few of the men will stand up to Ahab and refuse to chase the whale -- Starbuck is the only notable exception.

In Chapter 99, Ishmael tells the reader about the various ways that the sailors have interpreted the gold doubloon that Ahab nailed to the mast, as a reward for the first one to spot Moby-Dick. The vast differences among the different interpretations show the tendency that people have to come up with the explanation most convenient or desirable for them when encountered with situations like this.

Writing Prompt: If you had to describe your own destiny in life right now, how would you describe it? In other words, what do you think will be in your obituary -- or on your tombstone?

Anti-Transcendentalism: The Limits of Humanity

Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick after reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; in fact, he even dedicates the novel of the great white whale to Hawthorne, because he loved the book so much. Both authors had a strong reaction to the Transcendentalist movement led by such writers as Henry David Thoreau, who thought that people would ultimately do good, if restrictions were taken away from them. Hawthorne takes a big swipe at that notion in the opening of The Scarlet Letter, where he writes that the first two things a new town needs to build are a graveyard and a jail, because the only two certainties in life are death and evil.

If you look at the outcome of Moby-Dick, it is clear that Melville harbors similar notions of the "possibilities" inherent in each of us. Despite Father Mapple's rousing sermon, and despite Starbuck's common-sense urging for Ahab to give up the fatal quest for the whale, Ahab never gives in. As a result, his life has a brutal end that was completely unnecessary. Melville's view is that, given ultimate freedom, people will ultimately do wrong. There may be bright moments, but the ultimate trend will be downward.

Writing Prompt: What is the purpose of laws in a society? If there were suddenly no laws, what do you think would happen in your own niche within society?

Symbols in Moby-Dick

The Whale

The symbolism of Moby-Dick has had a wide variety of interpretations since the book was first published. For Captain Ahab, the whale symbolizes pure evil, and he feels that it is his duty to take that evil out of the world. For the crew of the ship, the whale is a convenient subject for legend and an easy scapegoat for all of their worries. Instead of talking about their own fears, they talk about the whale.

Other interpretations of the whale have included seeing it as Death, given its white color and its fatal effects on all who encounter it; as a distant, deist view of a distant God; as the coming growth of white colonialism and economic pillaging of the undeveloped world.

The Ship

The word "Pequod" comes from the name of a Native American tribe that had lived in what would become Massachusetts, but swiftly died out after the arrival of colonists from Europe. If that's not enough of an association with fatalistic doom, the ship itself is painted a dark ebony, and it is decorated with whale bones and teeth.

Queequeg's Coffin

Queequeg orders this coffin built during his long illness. However, once he gets better, he puts his possessions in it, and he mirrors his tattoos by carving them on his coffin as well. Later in the novel, the coffin becomes the ship's new life preserver -- and it ultimately carries Ishmael to safety. And so what had started out as a symbol of death becomes a symbol for life.

Writing Prompt: Which of these three symbols is the most powerful for you? What explanation do you give for that symbol's significance?

Motifs in Moby-Dick

The Color White

Generally associated with purity and peace, the color white has mostly negative associations in Moby-Dick, beginning with the idea of inscrutability. If you think about it, white is actually the total absence of color -- and here, the color is associated with a total absence of meaning. Moby-Dick is the ultimate white object, and is also completely incomprehensible -- each member of the crew interprets the whale in the way that he sees most fit. The wealth of white imagery in Ishmael's description of waves breaking, animals that live in privation, and particularly albinos shows the reader that Ishmael dreads and fears a color that brings most people comfort.

The Inscrutable Sea

If you look at the sea, it looks calm and placid -- unless you're in the middle of a storm. Even in the biggest gale, though, the wealth of life hiding under the sea never becomes apparent. The sea, for Ishmael, becomes a metaphor for the limits of what it is possible to know. Because humanity does not have the all-seeing eye of God, we only have our own observations to rely on. This frustrates Ishmael (and most of us, if we are honest about it), because we want to know everything.

Writing Prompt: What associations do you have with the color white? What does the color mean to you? If you had to name one important object in your life that was white, what would it be?