Symbols play an extensive role in the plot of the novel Moby-Dick. This essay intends to explore the role of symbols in expressing and manifesting myriad complex themes interwoven throughout the plot of the novel.
Herman Melville is one of the eminent authors of American literature and his epoch-making novel, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale has continued to allure and engross its readers since the day of its publication in 1851. This gem from the treasure of world literature has simultaneously made its place in the heart of the children and adults together. At the outset, the novel seems to be the trajectory of the adventurous protagonist Ishmael and his voyage on Pequod, a whale-ship with its captain named Ahab. However, a deep delineation through the text would launch many inquisitive minds into a realm of insightful thoughts. Melville is a master-player of words and his novel Moby-Dick encapsulates a number of complexities of worldly life and life beyond through his extensive manifestation of metaphors and symbols. Myriad elements within the novel act for the manifestation of complex themes and allegorical subtext inherent within the main plot of the novel. There are many objects in the novel which can be read between the lines culminating into a wider vista of thought process pertaining to the subject matter imbibed within the novel. Here are a few of the pertinent symbols used in the novel to express a subject matter of greater intensity. The white enigmatic whale in the novel stands with different connotations for different characters in the novel. For the crew of the ship, it is a benevolent phenomenon as they find no harm or danger towards the mankind from this whale. For Captain Ahab, it is the embodiment of all evils in the world and he takes it as his duty to kill the whale and thereby kill everything evil around. Without any enticement, Moby-Dick also stands for many other themes expressed through the object at a greater realm. It stands for the harm, mankind has inflicted upon the environment. It also stands for the imperialistic pursuit of the white world upon the black. It is mysterious and therefore bears the imprint of something unknown and enigmatic like God. In chapter 1 of the novel, Ishmael expresses his passion for the voyage lies with the vision of the giant whale. He expresses,”…and in the wild conceit that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”(18). The ship in which Ishmael was set off for a voyage is named after an extinct tribe in America. The Native American tribe did not survive the arrival of white men and therefore it stands for doom in the novel. The ship has a very awful appearance. It is painted in black. It appears very gloomy and is covered by the teeth and bones of whales which make it all the more horrifying. It symbolizes moaning and everything violently related to death.
And the best description of the ship can be comprehended through quotes from the novel which says, “She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her.”(63) The coffin of Queequeg stands for the transition between life and death. Queequeg makes his coffin when he falls seriously ill. However, surprisingly he recovers from his illness and his life takes a new turn, he makes it a chest to contain his valuables which symbolizes his will to live. Again the coffin stands for life but in a morbid way. It becomes the lifebuoy for Ishmael. The coffin of Queequeg, therefore, stands for the subaltern present in every man between the quest for life and surrender to death. August J. Nigro in his book The Diagonal Line: Separation and Reparation in American Literature rightly says: “In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses the mythos of the primitive cult of Gnosticism to enrich his ironic development of plot, character, and symbol” (Nigro 77). Whatever might be the manifestation of the symbolic device in the novel, Melville has always used it an ample length to describe the latent issues within the plot of the novel which serves as a sub-plot within the main plot of the novel. However, the novel Moby-Dick for its extreme dramatic quality and picaresque nature shall continue to entertain and thrill the mind of its readers till eternity (Melville 18-63).
Works Cited Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. United States: Plain Label Books, 2009. Print. Nigro, August J. The Diagonal Line: Separation and Reparation in American Literature. United States: Susquehanna University Press, 1984. Print.