Symbolism, Themes, and Metaphors in "Moby Dick"

Categories: Moby Dick
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The novel Moby Dick written by Herman Melville is very ambiguous and is full of symbolism, themes, and metaphors. The characters of the book resonate from the Bible and the novel begins with a Biblical quote from the book of Job. Moby Dick explains the relationship between human beings and others, the value of life, and a whaling lore. The novel is told by Ishmael who divulges of a journey on the Pequod ship with Captain Ahab. Captain Ahab is the main protagonist of the story and is pursuing a whale; Moby Dick.

Ishmael is on the quest to find the real meaning of life and thus follows life at sea. The whale, Moby Dick a great deal of chaos among the ship and is chased by several other ships when he is seen. Moby Dick is a novel that is rich in ironic themes. The purpose of this paper is to analyze some of the themes and characters from this novel.

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Defiance is a theme that can be found pervasively in Moby Dick. Father Mapple, a former whale man and current preacher, prepares the reader to consider the theme of defiance through his sermon derived from Jonah and the Whale in Chapter 9. Jonah was called on by God to preach in Nineveh. Instead, he attempts to run away to another country where God does not rule. As Jonah tries to escape, his punishments become harsher and harsher. It later occurs to Jonah that God is everywhere. When Jonah is swallowed by a whale, he prays to God in it’s belly.

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He submits to preaching in Nineveh and only then does God bring Jonah to safety. Jonah later comes to learn that for one to follow God, one must lay aside their vanity and wishes to follow the will of God. Father Mapple states that for “one to obey God, he should first disobey himself.”  The telling of Jonah’s preaching is parallel to Ishmael’s eventual whaling story where he is the lone survivor of the Pequod’s ship.

Captain Ahab is an ungodly man who shows defiance by fighting against God’s will and the rules of nature. After Starbucks suggested that it was “blasphemous” to seek revenge on Moby Dick for attacking him, Ahab states that he would even hit the sun if it insulted him,further illustrating his egotistic character. He wears his defiance proudly and does not worship or acknowledge any superior forces. The whale, Moby Dick is used symbolically to represent the regime that Ahab is fighting against. The leadership and experiences of Father Mapple implies that God himself is the pilot of the ships, further suggesting that the White Whale may be God in disguise. Ahab thinks of himself as equal to God and is obsessed with getting more recognition than he deserves. However, by defying God and its superior power, Ahab condemns himself to death.

Contrary to the theme of defiance, the theme of friendship is also prevalent in Moby Dick. This theme can be found through the friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg. Although the two are different in culture, religious tradition, and race, they manage to be unlikely friends. The author uses words such as Christian/Heathen, savage/civilized and Black/White to further illustrate the differences between the two characters. As time goes by, the two become close and accept that diversity has its own positive possibilities. Queequeg and Ishmael continue to grow as they embrace change. They both recognize that by appreciating the similarities and differences of other cultures, they can learn a lot from each other. Furthermore, their respect for each other’s differences can be found when Queequeg attends services at Whaleman’s Chapel, even though he is not a Christian. Later in the story, Ishmael offers a sacrifice to Yojo, Queequeg’s idol and they both bond through sharing a tobacco pipe.

This comradeship is again experienced by the crew of the ship. Ishmael insinuates comradeship by working with the other mates. Stubb is among the exception of friendship on the ship. His role with Fleece, who is a black cook is intended to create humor but comes across as more of a lack of brotherhood. Ahab again, does not have an interest in friendship but fortunately comes across Pip who starts to get close to him. The friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg is later proven to be beneficial to Ishmael, as Queequeg indirectly saves his life through his coffin that floats on the surface of the water after the Pequod sinks. This provides Ishmael with a life buoy until the Rachel comes to his rescue.

The actions of the novel take place in a ship, therefore, the theme of duty is paramount. Father Mapple has a duty to God as a shepherd of people's hearts. After Ahab’s first disagreement with Starbuck concerning the mission of the ship, the crew regards Ahab as their overall leader. Later on during the voyage, the two confront each other again regarding the duties of the ship. Starbuck is a loyal servant to his authorities. He believes he has a duty to God, his employer, and to the captain of the ship. When Starbuck notices that oil is leaking from the barrels of the ship, he informs Ahab. Although it is expected that the captain of the ship stop the ship and concentrate on the safety of the whale oil, Ahab does not care about anything except his pursuit of Moby Dick. Ahab’s only duty is to himself and his mission. Starbuck reminds the captain of the interests of the owner and their duties, but Ahab does not care. He believes he can follow his own goals by defying everything that comes across his path. Ahab points a firearm towards the firstmate and declares that the Pequod has only one captain. Although Starbuck has an opportunity to kill Ahab, he is overcome with his obligations towards God and his own family. His values lead him to reconsider taking Ahab’s life and to serve him instead. Starbuck feels that he has a duty towards himself, God, and to common decency.

Obsession is another theme that is found present in Moby Dick. Ahab’s obsession to kill Moby Dick can be seen countless times throughout the novel. Ahab’s characteristics, his preparation and determination, and the prospect of revenge on Moby Dick is what leads to the eventual demise of Ahab. Ahab’s perspective of the White Whale as a mysterious force of evil, further drives Ahab’s obsession to conquer this evil by destroying the physical being of the whale. Ahab believes that by killing Moby Dick, he will be eradicated of evil and pits himself and humanity in an epic timeless struggle against the White Whale. It is not typical in whaling industries for captains to frequently risk themselves in pursuit of a whale, but Ahab challenges the White Whale despite everything. During the ritual that binds the crew together, Ahab proclaims “God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” He sees the White Whale as evidence of evil forces persecuting him instead of interpreting the loss of his leg as a consequence of his occupation. On his death bed, Ahab uses his last breath to curse the whale and its fate.

The theme of Death reveals itself at the end of Moby Dick but the foreshadowing of death can be found throughout the novel. When Ishmael first goes to the inn, he notices an oil painting, which is later determined to be a depiction of a whale attacking a ship. This painting is a foreshadowing of death as later events reveal the Pequod in a terrible storm under attack by a whale. Furthermore, the inn’s owners name is “Coffin” which portrays the theme of death at the beginning and at the end of the novel. Ahab is familiar and comfortable with the theme of death as he realistically knows that the mission can either end in a victory, or the deaths of many of his crew members.

Another occurrence of the theme of death are the prophecies of death heard throughout the voyage.  Elijah anticipates a bad ending before the ship starts sailing. Gabriel foresees that Ahab will die underneath the sea. Fedellah tells Ahab the prophecy of his elaborate death, but Ahab thinks that it is unlikely that his death will happen at sea. He is foretold that he will be dismembered by a whale, but he proclaims he will be both the prophet and fulfiller of Moby Dick’s destiny. All the predictions of Parsee anticipated death were fulfilled in ways that were not expected.

Another central theme to the novel is the limits of knowledge that a man can possess. The uncertainty of the crew about their fates and the crew’s doubt about their religious fate are parallel in a sense that there are limits to the knowledge that a can have. A prime example of the limits of knowledge is that each ship on sea must rely on encounters with other ships to get news and information. Captain Ahab only desires gams with ships whose captains have information about Moby Dick. When passing a ship with no information, Ahab ignores the boats.

Throughout the novel, Ishmael uses every subject he can to try and understand the important nature of the whale. He uses various systems of knowledge such as art and taxonomy but these detailed systems fail to give enough account to whaling. The various approaches used by Ishmael create a need for him to assert authority as a narrator with many references. However, by showing that a man is limited to information such as the depths of the ocean, this thereby proves that the knowledge of a human being is limited. The ways of Moby Dick cannot be predicted just like the ways of God cannot be predicted by man. Therefore, trying to interpret these ways like Ahab would not provide significant results.

Lastly, race is another central theme that can be found in Moby Dick. At first sight, the Pequod can be viewed as place where equality thrives and there is fellowship among the races. The men on the Pequod consists of all kinds of men from all other the world that seem to get along. Although Ishmael is uneasy when he meets Queequeg for the first time, he comes to find out that he is better a 'sober cannibal than a drunken Christian' as a shipmate. The work that the Pequod does creates equality among the crew because crew members are promoted based on the work that they have done and their skills. However, this is ironic to the actual fundamentals of whaling because the work of whaling can be found as characterizations of the American and European territorial expansion. Furthermore, the captain and mates in Moby Dick are all white while the harpooners are non-white. The white crew members on the ship are more dependent on other white crew members, while non-white crew members are involved in carrying out difficult jobs. The non-white character’s subordination to the white characters can be exemplified by a scene in which Ahab is “walking over” Pip symbolizing his value as that of a slave. In another scene, Flask stands on Daggo, an African harpooner to beat the other mates.

The novel ends with the death of all the characters apart from Ishmael who survives to tell the story. From the story, it is important to note the Ishmael is very obedient and he enacts his duty towards the captain and towards God. He is very respectful and it can be implied that God allowed him to survive because he acknowledged Him, unlike Captain Ahab who stated that he had no duty towards the rest of the crew or towards God. The theme of defiance, race, limits of knowledge, obsession, and death can all be found throughout the novel of Moby Dick. Moby Dick ultimately wins at the end of the novel by destroying all the ships. Ahab, who is the captain, is seen pinned to a harpoon line and is dragged by the whale underneath the water leading to his eventual demise. It is only Ishmael, the one telling the story, who survives and lives to tell the tales of the voyage.

Essay's Scoring Result: Good
Expert's Assessment
The essay on "Moby Dick" demonstrates a solid understanding of the novel's themes and characters. It effectively explores defiance, friendship, duty, obsession, death, limits of knowledge, and race. The writer analyzes key scenes and characters, drawing connections to broader literary themes. The essay maintains a coherent structure, with well-constructed sentences and suitable sourcing. While there are some grammatical issues, overall readability is good. It successfully engages with the complexities of Melville's work, offering valuable insights.
How can you enhance this essay?
The essay could benefit from a more focused introduction that outlines the main arguments and a clearer thesis statement. Additionally, there are grammatical errors and awkward phrasing that could be refined for smoother readability. The analysis of themes is thorough but might benefit from more concise language and a deeper exploration of specific textual examples. Improving the transitions between paragraphs and enhancing the conclusion's summarization of key points would contribute to a more polished and cohesive overall structure. Incorporating a broader range of critical perspectives or interpretations could further enrich the analysis.
This essay's assessment was conducted by:
Nik Johnson
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Symbolism, Themes, and Metaphors in "Moby Dick". (2021, Mar 22). Retrieved from

Symbolism, Themes, and Metaphors in "Moby Dick"
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