Ahab’s Evil Quest:
Melville’s Symbols in Moby-Dick
Herman Melville began working on his epic novel Moby-Dick in 1850, writing it
primarily as a report on the whaling voyages he undertook in the 1830s and early 1840s.
Many critics suppose that his initial book did not contain characters such as Ahab,
Starbuck, or even Moby Dick, but the summer of 1850 changed Melville’s writing and
his masterpiece. He became friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne and was greatly
influenced by him. He also read Shakespeare and Milton’s Paradise Lost (Murray 41).
These influences lead to the novel Melville completed and published in 1851. Although
shunned by critics after its release, Moby-Dick enjoyed a critical renaissance in the 1920s
and as assumed its rightful place in the canons of American and world literature as a
great classic. Through the symbols employed by Melville, Moby-Dick studies man’s
relationship with his universe, his fate, and his God. Ahab represents the league humans
make with evil when they question the fate God has willed upon them, and God is
represented by the great white whale, Moby Dick. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses
a vast array of symbols and allegories in the search for the true explanation of man’s
place in the universe and his relationship with his fate and his God.
The focus of cruel fate and evil symbols is placed on the head of Ahab, captain of
the Pequod. Ishmael, though narrator of the story, is not the center of Moby-Dick after
Captain Ahab is introduced onto the deck of the ship and into action. The focus of the
novel shifts from the freshman whaler to experienced Ahab, an “ungodly, god-like man”
(Melville 82). Having been a whaler for many years, he is a well respected captain, yet
his previous voyage has left him without a limb, and in its place is a peg leg carved from
whale ivory. Ahab remains below decks shadowed in obscurity for the initial stages of
the Pequod’s journey into the Atlantic. Ahab soon reveals his devilish plan to his crew,
however, in a frenzied attack of oratory he wishes to seek, hunt, and destroy the White
Whale, the fabled Moby Dick. It was the white whale Moby Dick which had, on Ahab’s
prior voyage, ravenously devoured his leg, and Ahab harbored a resentful revenge on his
persecutor. Any mention of Moby Dick sent Ahab into a furious rage (Melville 155). He
riles against Starbuck, the first mate and Starbuck replies, “vengeance on a dumb brute! .
. . to be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous” (Melville 155).
It is through Ahab’s speech and his subsequent dialogue with Starbuck that a
second major symbol is introduced into the story, Moby Dick. Blasphemy is irreverence
toward God or something sacred, not irreverence toward a dumb brutish whale. Yet
Starbuck accuses Ahab of blasphemy. Melville places this rather harsh accusatory word
in the mouth of the Christian-minded Starbuck, directed at a devilishly revengeful Ahab.
The only way actions taken against Moby Dick could be blasphemous is if he is sacred.
Through indirect descriptions of Moby Dick and direct rantings of an insane man,
Melville peppers Moby-Dick with hints and clues at the true essence Ahab sees behind
the symbol of Moby Dick.
According to sailors stories and legends, Moby Dick is seen in two places at once
at different places around the globe. In this trait Melville is suggesting omnipresence, a
godlike trait (Melville 172). The sailors think he is immortal, another godlike trait,
because he has been harpooned many times and still lives (Braswell 152). Ahab himself
believes Moby Dick’s power is outrageous, like God’s omnipotence. Ahab states in
Chapter XXXVI, “that inscrutable thing Moby Dick’s power is chiefly what I hate”
(Melville157). In addition to the godlike characteristics of omnipotence and
omnipresence, Moby Dick has garnered a reputation for tearing through sinners. He
shows godlike justice and mercy in saving Steelkilt and killing the unjust Radney, as the
crew learns from the sailors of the Town-Ho (Auden 11).
Melville uses many other symbols to make the white whale a symbol of divine
power (Braswell 151). His awful austere beauty is godlike, as is his titanic power and his
pyramidical white hump. His color, white, has signified a special sanctity; and Melville
devotes an entire chapter, narrated by Ishmael, in which he explores the meaning of
whiteness through the ages and through the eyes of many different cultures (Arvin
221-222). In Chapter LI, the Pequod sights a mysterious silvery jet of water obviously
emanating from a whale. The sails are spread and the ship gives chase, but the
“spirit-spout” is never identified. If this spirit-spout is emanating from Moby Dick, it is
reminiscent of God’s pillar of fire in Exodus. Through these and other small clues and
symbols, Melville insinuates that Moby Dick is sacred and godlike.
What Melville slyly intimates with symbol he states explicitly through the mouth
of an insane Shaker. When the Pequod meets the ship Jeroboam, the command of the
ship is virtually in the hands of an insane Shaker who thinks he is the archangel Gabriel.
Shakers were a religious sect that believed that humanity’s sin was caused by Adam and
Eve’s first act of carnal sin (Guiley 137). Gabriel’s rantings reveal his beliefs that Moby
Dick is God incarnate (Auden 11) and predicts doom for those who hunt “his divinity”
(Melville 295). Those who seek to destroy Moby Dick are destroyed by him. Harry
Macey, second mate of the Jeroboam, who pursued Moby Dick is killed. Like insane
Gabriel, few critics doubt that Moby Dick is a symbol for God (Buell 62). However,
Moby Dick is seen as unjust and too-powerful by Ahab, suggestive of an Old Testament
conception of God. Rather that being a loving Deity, Moby Dick embodies “the Old
Testament Calvinistic conception of an affrighting Deity and his strict commandments”
(Murray 42). T. Walker Herbert states that Moby Dick represents a God run amok
(112-114). Ahab’s feelings toward a God he feels has unjustly wronged him is his
inciting force to chase Moby Dick around the world.
What Captain Ahab is seeking, by way of symbols and allegories, is the grand
mystery of the universe. Ahab wishes to search heaven for the secret of human woe and
suffering (Hillway 89) and wrest the secrets away (Spiller 455). Ahab believes God is
punishing him unjustly, and Ahab’s mad quest is to avenge this private insult (Murray
46). Melville uses allusions to the Bible to emphasize this classic struggle between man
and God. Ishmael says that Ahab is chasing a “Job’s whale round the world” (Melville
177). In the Old Testament, Job claims that God has unjustly wronged him, similar to
Ahab’s belief. By comparing Job and Ahab, Melville forces “readers to consider God’s
character, especially as it relates to human suffering” (House 213). Ahab conveys all of
humanity’s protests against the injustices of fate, Melville makes Ahab the symbol of
humanity and Moby Dick a symbol of God, conferrer of Fate. “When Ahab strikes at
Moby Dick . . . he does so in a mad desire for revenge on God, whom he holds
responsible for its evil’s existence” (Braswell 150). Ahab refuses to accept the fact that
limitations on humans prohibit them from attacking God, yet Ahab tries. “A
contemporary French critic got a the heart of the matter when he said that the only reason
Ahab tries to harpoon Moby Dick is that he cannot harpoon God” (Braswell 151).
Ahab’s blasphemous hunt of Moby Dick has made him a sinner against God. By
striking back at fate Ahab has become the mirror image of his Old Testament namesake,
evil king Ahab of Israel (Kazin 44). Ahab desires to look through the “pasteboard mask”
of reality and see what is behind physical objects (Melville 157). Ahab wants to look
behind the mask of Moby Dick and see God, to challenge him and question his justness.
Ahab believes God is oblivious to the suffering of mankind (Braswell 154) and even
states, “Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond” the mask of Moby Dick (Melville
157). Not only has Ahab questioned God’s justice, he has questioned His very existence.
This blasphemy against God and non-acceptance of human limitations has made Ahab
seek evil forces to harpoon God, God in the guise of Moby Dick.
Ahab’s association with the evil forces in the universe is made apparent by
Melville many times in Moby-Dick. Ahab declares himself to be mad and “demoniac”
(Melville 160). His evil properties would lead him to be called the Antichrist by the
Church Fathers (Murray 40). Ahab sets sail on Christmas Day, leaving port when
Christ’s life began, symbolizing Ahab’s oppositeness to Christlike values (Braswell 152).
Ahab also baptizes his specially made harpoon in the name of the devil “Ego no
baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli.” The translation of Ahab’s Latin is, “I
do not baptize thee in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil.” Ahab
baptizes his harpoon in the blood of his pagan harpooners: Queequeg, Dagoo, and
Tashtego. Ahab’s personal whaleboat abounds with heathens, led by Fedallah, whose
name suggests “dev(il) Allah,” the Crusader view of Allah (Murray 41).
Melville adds more symbolism near the end of the novel. When Ahab announced
his devious intentions early in the voyage, he offered an Ecuadorian dubloon as a prize
for the first man who sighted Moby Dick. The coin shows the sun moving into the
zodiacal constellation of Libra, the Scales. Did Melville plant this symbol to suggest the
scales of fate were weighing in on Ahab? (Chase, “Melville” 59). Fate weighed Ahab
and found him wanting because his evil quest ends in despair. He chases Moby Dick,
Moby Dick does not chase him. Had he not pursued Moby Dick, Moby Dick would not
have destroyed the entire ship and its crew, save Ishmael who survived the encounter
(Arvin 217). On day three of Ahab’s hunt, the whale destroys the whaling boats and the
Pequod, thereby destroying those who seek to escape their human limitations and
question their divinely ordained fate. Melville’s allegories and symbolism Ahab
symbolizing men who feel wronged by God and Moby Dick symbolizing a vengeful God
who will destroy those who wish to destroy Him are woven into a timeless
masterpiece of exposition and are revealed through a vast array of symbols, hints, and
Arvin, Newton. “The Whale.” Parker and Hayford. 196.
Auden, W. H. “The Romantic Use of Symbols.” Gilmore. 9.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: Modern Critical Interpretations.”
New York: Chelsea, 1986.
Braswell, William. “Moby-Dick Is an Allegory of Humanity’s Struggle with God.”
Buell, Lawrence. “Moby-Dick as Sacred Text.” Bloom. 62.
Chase, Richard, ed. Melville: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Chase, Richard. “Melville and Moby-Dick.” Chase. 49.
Gilmore, Michael T., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Moby-Dick. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1977.
Guiley, Rosemary. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. New
York: Castle, 1991.
Hillway, Tyrus. Herman Melville. New York: Twayne, 1963.
House, Paul R. Old Testament Survey. Nashville: Broadman, 1992.
Kazin, Alfred. “‘Introduction’ to Moby-Dick.” Chase. 39.
Leone, Bruno, ed. Readings on Herman Melville. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or The Whale. 1851. New York: Bantam, 1981.
Murray, Henry A. “‘In Nomine Diaboli’: Moby-Dick.” Bloom. 39.
Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford, eds. Moby-Dick as Dubloon. New York: Norton,
Spiller, Robert, et al. Literary History of the United States of America. New York: Scott,