Symbolism dominates literature. Without it, the author is handcuffed and is left without a highly effective tool to convey his or her message. By using symbolism, an author can still maintain an objective appearance by letting the literary device do its work in expressing views, relaying opinions or simply stating the facts. We encounter a great deal of symbolism in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick". The book itself is a clear representation of the American society, its values, goals and inhabitants, as well as numerous other issues that Melville sought to challenge or come to terms with.
Melville's careful assembly of the characters for the crew of the "Pequod" was done with a specific purpose in mind. Through the wide range of characters, Melville was able to represent the American society, possibly even the world, and furnish it with contrasting figures that would set the scene for all the episodes that Melville will create in "Moby Dick" to set forth his ideas.
Basically, the "Pequod" is a miniature of all sections of society and civilization. It is actually broken down based on social stature, race, ethnicity, as well as on personal values.
It is obvious that whatever "Moby Dick" is, it is not a mere adventure story. It is a representation, but even more importantly, - a challenge to American virtues and ideas. In chapter 35 we encounter a scene where Starbuck, the first mate, learns of Ahab's intent to pursue the White Whale to satisfy his lust for vengeance. Starbuck's reaction to this turn of events is to question his captain's motives and protest. For his purpose of the journey is to make money. To Starbuck whaling is a mean of income and anything else is madness. A born and bred Nantucketer, he firmly believes in the rules of capitalism and financial motivation. "...but I came here to hunt whales, not my commanders vengeance. How many barrels will thy vengeance yield thee even if thou gettest it, captain Ahab? It will not fetch thee much in our Nantucket market."(Moby Dick, Chapter 35). It is at this point that Ahab utters the words that issue a direct challenge, striking at the very foundation of American civilization. In essence, Ahab throws aside business and profit. "Nantucket market! Hoot!...If money's to be the measurer, man, and the accountants have computes their great counting-house the globe, by girdling it with guineas, one to every three parts of an inch; then, let me tell thee, that my vengeance will fetch a great premium here!"(Moby Dick, Chapter 35) Free enterprise should produce goods for sale. By working for as much money as possible men made themselves and their country great, as it was their duty to do so. These were the virtues of American civilization in 1851. Arguably, these rules would apply to this very day. However, in Ahab, we are presented with a character that defies the notions, casting them aside and following his own path. In a similar fashion, Ahab scorns other American material philosophies. As Starbuck implores the captain to repair an oil leak, suggesting that the owners of the "Pequod" will not be happy, Ahab angrily admonishes the rights of the owners. "Let the owners stand on Nantucket Beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if owners were my conscience. But look ye, the only real owner of anything is its commander ?"(Moby Dick, Chapter 108) Ahab's life story may very well serve for us as a guide to the folly of Americanism. To reconstruct his biography is to understand the reason behind his ambition translating into obsession. Growing up in the age of post-Independence War expansion, Ahab was directly subjected to the American expansionistic ideals and capitalistic virtues. He becomes a part of the process of material progress growth, devoting all his energy to mastering a dangerous and difficult craft.
However, by ascending the ladder of business, Ahab continuously finds himself seeking to challenge his work, his personal life and the opinions of the people around him. Personally, I view Ahab not as an unstable personality, but rather as a product of the life that he lives. His "rise to stardom" has in turn led Ahab to personal misery. Devoting the best years of his life to work, he has isolated himself from the rest of humanity. Ahab's meals with his officers are a direct symbol of such isolation. The rigid discipline Ahab is forced to maintain as a captain severs his ties of social contact. Furthermore, by spending only three years of his life ashore, Ahab had not been able to marry till late in life and the drive to work has separated him from his wife and son. "When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of slitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without - oh, weariness! heaviness!?Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness; and then the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow - more a demon than a man! - aye, aye! What a forty years' old fool - fool - fool, has Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? How the richer or better is Ahab now?" (Moby Dick, Chapter 131) It is this anguish over the years spent whaling and over the bitterness of his reward that Ahab's malcontent boils over and becomes an obsession. The loss of his limb is merely the final straw that pushes Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick.
To point out another of Ahab's nature, one also has to look at his interaction with his crew. Ahab is a man of lofty status. Yet throughout the story we see Ahab favouring characters from a lower social class. Usually reserved and authoritative with his officers, he displays rare emotion and humanity (or his own form of it) with the harpooners and the crew. One of the best examples would be the scene where Ahab announces the true nature of the voyage, forcing them to swear to chase Moby Dick. Deriding the owners and going as far as threatening his officers with physical violence (Stubb's dream), Ahab befriends a black slave boy and Fedallah, characters that are on the bottom of the American social caste system. This disparity may symbolize Ahab's desire to regain that place in society he once held where, though not free of responsibilities, he was not isolated from others because of the loftyness of his status.
The crew themselves are a great symbolic representation of society. Collected from all different parts of the world, they represent the diversity of the American workforce upon which the country relies. The influx of immigrants kept the wheels of American capitalism turning in the same fashion the multiethnic crew of the "Pequod" ran the ship. Melville emphasizes the importance of the simple sailor (average blue-collar or lower class labourer) by noting that Ahab may as well stay in his cabin for days for his involvement in running the ship is not essential. Furthermore, Melville challenges the notion of white-American supremacy, which prevailed in the 19th century America. Although the men in command are all white traditional Nantucketers, Melville counters that with the characters of the three harpooners, - Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo. A savage, an Indian and a Negro, they represent groups that are not influenced by American industrial philosophy and are thought not to have accepted the American virtues. Prejudiced and discriminated against, Melville elevates these individuals (and their respective races) to a lofty plateau, showing that they too can contribute to the American dream and deserve an equal place in society. They even receive a higher wage than the rest of the crew. Allowed to eat in the captain's cabin they are in stark contrast to the rest of the crew. "In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constraint and nameless invisible domineerings of the captain's table, was the entire care-free licence and ease, the almost frantic democracy of these inferior fellows the harpooners. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooners chewed their food with such relish that there was a report to it."(Moby Dick, Chapter 33) The harpooners are also set in contrast to the captain's mates. It is here that Melville further emphasizes importance and grace of the harpooners, setting them practically on equal terms with the Nantucket trio of officers. In one scene, Flask, a man of short stature, is offered a shoulder by Daggoo. "On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the Negro's lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that."(Moby Dick, Chapter 33)