The Whiteness of the Whale
The white whale at the center of Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick is often considered to be one of the most symbolic characters in American literature. In part, this is because not only can the white whale mean many different things to each reader, but because it also is explicitly delineated as having different meanings to the tale's various characters. Although Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale is the centerpiece of the story, the other characters also reflect upon the whale’s significance and it becomes a directly symbolic agent even within the direct narrative.
For Captain Ahab, Moby-Dick represents the personification of everything that has, is or will be evil in the world. That is, at least, the opinion that Ishmael holds of what Ahab thinks of Moby-Dick, as he says, “All evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick” (154). Ahab's malice stems from the whale's theft of his leg, a 19th-century Puritanical substitute for the body part that Melville was forbidden to write about: Ahab’s penis. The loss of his leg is a symbolic stand-in for the loss of Captain Ahab’s manhood, which is really what was destroyed by Moby-Dick. Few events could be more evil...
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