I’ve been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby Dick? I highly recommend it—but this passage brought me up short:
The White Whale is not a symbol. He is as real as you or I. He has a crooked jaw, a humped back, and a wiggle-waggle when he’s really moving fast. He is a thing of blubber, blood, muscle and bone—a creation of the natural world that transcends any fiction. So forget about trying to figure out what the White Whale signifies.
Um, while I admire and appreciate both your knowledge and your insights, Mr. Philbrick, please don’t give me direct orders on how to interpret a novel. I get that in in this story world, Moby Dick is an actual whale. I don’t question that. What I do question, however, is how Ahab understands this animal.
Okay. So Moby Dick is a powerful, terrifying whale who tore off Ahab’s leg. But is that exclusively how Ahab sees him? When he starts his crazy, fanatical hunt for vengeance, is it all about the whale?
Maybe. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here.
We can mostly agree that Ahab is obsessed with revenge against this wicked dangerous animal, right? (Well, wicked dangerous to the humans who try to hunt him down—it’s not like Moby Dick is purposely seeking out humans to attack. But that’s another issue.) But is Ahab furious only with the whale? Or does the whale represent, to him, something bigger? Or maybe Someone bigger?
That’s how I read it. I think, yeah, Ahab wants to kill this whale or die trying. Moby Dick the animal, I mean. But I also think there’s more going on for him.
Going after the animal who tore off his leg is really a way of declaring war on the God who allowed that to happen—the God who didn’t stop this creature from sort of emasculating him. Or maybe he’s warring against an impersonal Fate. Or maybe he’s warring against Reality Itself. You know, the way things are. (God, Fate, Reality—I don’t fret over these distinctions.)
Meanwhile, I have no idea if that’s how Melville saw Ahab. Melville never spelled out the crazy captain’s psychology, which is part of what makes the book so intriguing. But, at the very least, I think Melville left us with room for speculation. Room to view Moby Dick as a real whale and, at the same time, as a symbol for something even greater. Or Someone even more awe-inspiring.
Or a different interpretation altogether.