The Whale as Symbol in Moby Dick
That there are various perspectives to the white whale as symbol is a result of the value which Melville
accords the symbol as a medium of expression. Melville regarded the symbol as, what William Gleim
terms, "a means of both revelation and concealment"(402). Visible objects are as masks through
which one can educe universal and significant order. The "eyes are windows"(Melville, 9) through
which one "can see a little into the springs and motives which [are] cunningly presented . . . under
various disguises"(Melville, 5-6). The symbol of the white whale lends itself easily to this concept.
To Ahab, the whale represents the malevolence of nature. To Starbuck, it is a commodity. To
Ishmael, however, it is "portentous and mysterious"(Melville, 6). It rouses his curiosity, but he
recognizes it as a thing remote. It is an "overwhelming idea"(Melville, 6): an idea which is larger
than his consciousness. Its implications surpass his conscious understanding and cause him to feel
significance even if he can not know it.
Melville represents much that one can know about the white whale. Moby Dick is literally an albino
sperm whale. In his categorization of all whales, Melville regards the sperm whale as the primate: "He
is, without a doubt, the largest inhabitant of the globe; the most formidable of all whales to encounter;
and lastly, by far the most valuable in commerce"(Melville, 133). The whiteness of the whale enhances
this correspondence in that it has regal associations, "a certain royal pre-eminence in this
hue"(Melville, 184). The white whale, therefore, stands, primarily, as, what Gleim would term, "the
ideal representation of his species"(406). He is a sign of excellence, an apotheosis of the order of
nature. To Ishmael, however, the whiteness of the whale has not only noble associations, but also
terrible ones. The whiteness signifies a natural beauty, but it also signifies, "by its indefiniteness"(Melville,
192), the immensity of the universe.
For all aboard the Pequod, their voyage is one of search for the ultimate truth of experience. What
begins as a voyage in search of the commodity of whale oil, ends with the discovery of the inscrutability
and invulnerability of nature. Ahab, representative of what Sedgwick terms "man sentient, speculative,
purposive, religious, [stands in] his full stature against the immense mystery of creation"(97) and
defiantly attempts to comprehend it as a rational and purposive force. It is not, however, consciously
understandable reason which is the essence of the white whale, but the "blindest instinct"(Melville,
161). By not recognizing this, Ahab perceives only violence as the sinews which drive the immense
forces of the universe. The method of his quest determines that he should perceive violence and
inscrutability in nature, for he projects violence...