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 represents some sort of inscrutable god or higher power
There are many reasons why the White Whale represents God. The whale's whiteness relates to the holiness of higher powers. The whale's incomprehensible size and strength represent that of a diety. Captain Ahab wants to kill the whale to become a God himself.
The whale in Moby Dick represents the weaver god or some other divine entity
The novel is narrated by a sailor named Ishmael, who is named after the biblical character, who is the illegitimate son of Jacob/Israel and his maidservant Hagar. At the beginning of the novel, Ishmael attends a church service at the Whaleman's Chapel in New Bedford, where he hears a sermon about Jonah's experience with a whale. He hears about how Jonah cried out to God and was saved. While staying at a local inn, he meets up with Queequeg, a Polynesian sailor who will later go on the same ship with him. At first Ishmael is frightened of Queequeg, for he has tattoos on his body, even on his face. He later realizes that Queequeg is actually a nice person and the two men become friends. Despite their differences in culture, appearance, and religion, they get along well. When the two men enlist on the "Pequod" they do not see their captain at all for quite a while. Captain Ahab (named for a wicked king in the Bible) is in his quarters, healing from losing his leg in a whale hunt. He is also brooding the loss of his leg badly. When Captain Ahab finally arises from his quarters, he calls all the men to a meeting. The men see his prosthetic leg made of a whale's jawbone. He tells them that he wishes to have the whale who took his leg killed as soon as possible. He even gives them an incentive, saying that he will give the man who finds the whale a gold Spanish coin. He nails the coin to the main mast of the ship. The hated whale would be easy to spot, for white whales are very rare. It likely has leucism, which means that it lacks pigment, yet is not the same as albinism, which would be the entire lack of pigment. The whale's name is Moby Dick. The quest for revenge has Captain Ahab so consumed that he cannot sleep well at night. He does not want to even lay in his bed, but rests in a chair. When a large pod of whales is discovered, he meets up with another whaling captain who has also lost a limb to the white whale. Captain Boomer talks with Ahab, and he shows him his prosthetic arm also made of a whale's jawbone. Captain Boomer has a metal mallet attached to the end of it. He says that it is useful, for it has helped him in tapping kegs of ale and whacking unruly sailors. Captain Ahab hopes that he has found a kindred spirit in hunting Moby Dick. He finds that Captain Boomer does not have any ill will towards the whale. He wishes to only get back to whaling in general and does not care if the whale is killed or not. Captain Ahab decides to leave the large pod of whales once Captain Boomer tells him that he last saw Moby Dick at the Horn of Africa. Captain Boomer then wants nothing to do with Ahab and goes back to his ship. Ahab then turns the ship around and sails straight for Africa. That part of the ocean is a very dangerous place for ships, for the horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope have had many shipwrecks over the years. In doing this, Ahab leaves the pod of whales that could be lucrative for him and his crew and also takes them to a dangerous place. When he finally reaches Africa, he meets up with another ship called the " Rachel." The captain pleads with Ahab to help him find his twelve year-old son who is missing at sea. In the Bible, Rachel is the second wife of Jacob/Israel. It is also in reference of the Bible verse "Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15 NIV)." Captain Ahab refuses to help the captain of the Rachel find his son. He only wants to find Moby Dick and kill him. When the white whale is finally spotted, Captain Ahab goes out to spear it with his harpoon. The whale ends up killing him, and Ahab's corpse is tied to the whale. The rest of the crew is also killed in the hunt, save for Ishmael. Ishmael clings to a piece of wood and is saved when the Rachel comes by. Captain Ahab's quest for revenge cost him his own life and the life of all the crew except for one man. Ishmael was saved from certain death and is allowed a second chance at life and hope.
The white whale Moby Dick is the subject of Captain Ahab's revenge. Ahab is so angry at the whale for taking his leg from him, that he will stop at nothing to get him killed. The whale has Captain Ahab so obsessed with revenge that the man cannot even sleep in his bed. That is how much the evil has taken over Ahab's life. At the end of the novel, Captain Ahab and the entire crew are killed, except for Ishmael. The evil took over them all. That shows the destruction of evil and revenge.
The whale in Moby Dick does not represent anything singularly
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.