As I turn the (virtual) pages of Moby-Dick, I find myself searching for the allegorical meaning that overlays every element of the story. As we all know from high school English Lit, and as Melville himself makes plain, is that Moby-Dick is an allegorical tale for…something. No doubt, the endlessly rollicking word of Moby-Dick allows for many interpretations, but I’d like to offer my own interpretation of what the actual White Whale symbolizes. I don’t do this because I feel I have a valuable insight, but because I think, interpreted this way, Moby-Dick is a poignant symbol of a host of emotions and otherwise intangible forces that we sense in our lives. I think the White Whale symbolizes all the frustrations and contradictions of life that pile upon our shoulders as we learn about the world – the weight of which threatens to mire us in cynicism and apathy.
Though a few passages throughout the book suggest this symbolism (keep in mind, I’m only about 1/3 of the way through this monstrous tome), I’d like to focus on one in particular:
Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. (p. 179)
Up to this point, the environmentalist in me held Ahab in contempt. Though he was a fascinating and compelling character, and the story took place at a time when whaling was common, it seemed to me that he was just a crazy sea captain chasing a whale that he imagined to be a wicked killer, when in fact Ahab was the killer. Yet, in the wake of this passage, it becomes easier to sympathize with his urge for vengeance. While he hunts the whale across the world, he’s really hunting a symbol that all of us would chase to the edge of the earth if we could eliminate it: a symbol of all the seemingly senseless acts of hatred, or the missed opportunities that tear at us, or the despair in the face of human selfishness. Ahab is hunting the “malicious agencies” which eat at us all – turning our confidence to corrosive self-doubt, or withering the bloom of love into wilted disappointment. Ahab represents the person who has suffered the worst and is left living with “half a heart and half a lung” (and half a set of legs), yet his spirit still rages on, demanding satisfaction from the White Whale that lurks somewhere beneath the vast oceans. We are enthralled by his mad quest because we’d like to be there when he finally catches up to the Whale and reckons with everything life has piled upon already weary shoulders.
At least, that’s the lens I’m reading this marvelously-written book through for the moment. What do you think, am I just as out-to-sea as Ahab?