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< Back to question What does the White Whale symbolize in Moby-Dick? Show more Show less

As one of the most famous symbols in literature, one would expect "Moby-Dick's" White Whale to have a single and exact meaning. Although known by most as a symbol of Ahab's monomaniac obsession, the White Whale actually could represent a multitude of different things. What does the White Whale truly symbolize?

The whale in Moby Dick does not represent anything singularly Show more Show less

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The whale in Moby Dick simply symbolizes a whale

Melville does not give the White Whale any specific meaning. Only the characters ascribe meaning. We can assume there is no symbolism for the whale at all, as there are moments within the novel that further emphasize how not everything has meaning.
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The Argument

The White Whale is just that–a white whale. Although almost every single character in the novel propounds their own meaning for the whale, Melville never explicitly defines the whale. To Ahab, the whale is the sum of all evil in the world; the whale is malicious and divinely evil. For a character like Queequeg or one of the other harpooners, the whale is simply just another whale. This same idea is seen in Chapter 99, "The Doubloon," as each character expounds their personal meaning of the doubloon that Ahab uses to motivate his crew to search for the whale. But, of course, the coin is simply a coin. In fact, one line in this chapter presents the significance of ascribing meaning to nothing: "And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher..." In this line, Melville presents what is almost a thesis of sorts for the symbolism of the novel. Without being able to place or posit meaning onto something, that very thing lacks all worth. In this way, Melville uses the doubloon as an exemplar for symbols in the rest of the novel. The meaning of such symbols is dubious and subjective, but without meaning, all lack any worth. As such, it is clear that the whale is the same as the coin – while many meanings are offered, there is no true singular meaning. The whale means something to each character, and in a way, to each reader.

Counter arguments

Premises

[P1] Almost every major character in the novel decides their own meaning for the whale, Melville does not offer a definite answer to which is correct. [P2] Chapter 99 shows each crew member assigning their own meaning to the doubloon, which is shown simply to be a coin with no particular meaning, extending to the meaning of the White Whale.

Rejecting the premises


References


    This page was last edited on Monday, 14 Sep 2020 at 20:53 UTC