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Moby-Dick | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick.

Moby-Dick | Symbols


The White Whale

Ahab's nemesis, Moby Dick (or the White Whale), symbolizes forces beyond human control, including nature, God, and fate. As Ahab's antagonist, it represents impossible goals and works against the free exercise of human will. In Father Mapple's sermon, the whale—or great fish—is an agent of God's wrath and a call to repentance, and so this, too, is a symbolic interpretation of the White Whale. In Ahab's madness, however, the White Whale symbolizes evil personified.

The Ship

The Pequod is a microcosm of the world and so symbolically represents Earth populated by humanity's diversity. The different men aboard the ship, the dangers it encounters, and the struggles those on board must face all mirror the differences, dangers, and struggles of human life and society. As a small society separated by distance from the rest of humanity, it also represents both isolation and community.

Queequeg's Coffin

Queequeg's coffin, made while Queequeg is deathly ill, symbolizes at the same time both life and death. Its symbolism of death is obvious, yet within the story it provides life in two cases. Its construction seems to bring comfort to Queequeg, after which he completely recovers, and Ishmael is saved from drowning by its ability to float.

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