Moby Dick or, The Whale is a book that can be read on a number of levels. On the surface it is an adventure story and a mine of information about whaling and the whaling industry. However, the novel also explores the depths of the human psyche and cardinal philosophical questions relating to the meaning of life, religion and good and evil. Sociologically, the novel explores the tension between enlightened thought and the tenets of eighteenth-century Calvinism.
The central theme of the work, which is clearly referred to in the quotation for this essay, is search for meaning and reality. This is implied by Captain Ahab when he says, "How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond." (Mansfield and Vincent 162) The white whale is a reality and a symbol for Ahab of the most important dimensions of philosophy and life.
The Novel begins with the narrator Ishmael's realization that all is not well with the Christian and contemporary world in which he finds himself. Throughout the book there is an undercurrent of criticism of the conventional world and of rigid Christianity, which becomes evident throughout the relationship between Ishmael and the cannibal Queequeg. The biblical names and connotations that resound throughout the work also refer to the sense of spiritual isolation and the loss of a nearness to God and reality that also forms the central trajectory of the work and the symbolism of the hunt for the white whale, Moby Dick.
This sense of isolation and separation of many of the main characters emphasizes the main theme of a search for identity and reality in the face of a seemingly alien and intractable world. Ishmael, the narrator and central character, is an exile. The biblical meaning of Ishmael refers to isolation from both mother and father. He can be seen as modern man cut off form his relationship with the world around him in both a physical and spatial sense. "What Melville did through Ishmael ... was to put man's distinctly modern feeling of 'exile,' of abandonment, directly at the center of the stage. " (Chase 42). Our understanding of Ishmael sets the scene for the encounter with Ahab and the search for the whale.
It is important to note that the book was written in a certain historical period in which the emergence of the technological and Industrial age was just beginning. This was not only changing the face of the world but also challenging religious veracity and truth and, in this questioning, opening man to existential anxiety.
The dominant theme that the character of Ahab stresses and which is developed throughout the book is therefore the search for personal and spiritual meaning in the face of the enormity and seemingly empty vacuity of nature in the symbols of the ocean and the whale. Both Ahab and Ishmael are involved in a quest for understanding and inner knowledge. The complexity of this search is epitomized by Captain Ahab in his relentless, almost demonic need to slay the white whale, Moby Dick. This theme is best understood through the symbol of the sea that is a pervasive and philosophically important guide to the meaning of the book. For Ahab the sea, and Moby Dick, represents eternity and the forces of fate that control and determine men's lives. He rebels and defies these forces and, in a heroic stance, demands and answer to why human life is so brutal and meaningless. Essentially, Ahab's search for the whale is symbolic of a passion "that starts from the deepest loneliness that man can know. It is the great cry of man who feels himself exiled form his 'birthright, the merry May-day gods of old'." (Chase 22) Behind the search of the Pequod lies the search for meaning and the need to face the possibility that life may in fact be void of significance.
This disillusionment with the world is encountered early in the book when we first encounter Ishmael at the beginning of the story expressing an irresistible dislike and estrangement for the world around him. ". . . It requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off." (Mansfield and Vincent 1) Ishmael is similar to Ahab in his search for answers to the human condition, but he is more positive in view of the mystery of reality symbolized by the sea. Ahab on the other hand sees it in a darker more negative light.
The symbol of sea is important in understanding the motivation behind Ahab's words. The sea represents that which is unknown, strange and "ungraspable" and therein lies the key to the hidden and often contentious depths of this book. The word "ungraspable" also reflects on the central character of Ahab later in the novel. However, Ahab's perception of the ungraspable is that it should be dominated and "grasped." The whale itself is also a symbol for Ahab of "evil" and more importantly of the nothingness that seemingly lurks behind the "mask" of ordinary reality.
It is significant that Ishmael muses on the fact that deep thinkers seem to gravitate towards the sea. This suggests that the sea is source of truth and reality, while the land seems to suggest evasion and illusion. It is in silence and isolation from society that truth is traditionally to be found ". . .in landlessness alone resides the highest truth." (Mansfield and Vincent 1)
There are the crucial symbols that provide the background to the central thematic structure of the book. Particularly important is the image of the void or emptiness that the sea conjures that is antithetical to human life. The sea is a multidimensional symbol suggesting wonder and mystery as well as terror and death. The whale provides the mysterious center to the novel and nature and is seen as both cruel and alien and harmonious and beautiful. It is against this complex background that the symbols are used to draw the novel together as a composite and integrated whole.
It is in the light of the above discussion of the central themes of the book that that we can understand Ahab's words to Starbuck. The rational and sensible Starbuck questions Ahab's vengeful intentions and inserts the voice of reason against Ahab's passion to kill the white whale, stating that this is not the aim of the commercial venture. Ahab's response to Starbuck is enlightening. He states that all things on earth are "masks" for deeper layers and meaning.
All visible objects, man, are but pasteboard masks. But in each event- in the living act, the undoubted deed- there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask." (Mansfield and Vincent 1)
Ahab expresses a neo-platonic vision of the inner evil that lurks behind the facade of everyday life. It is this sense of a demonic world that lies within the ordinary world of nature that is the real enemy that Ahab wishes to "strike." The question arises as to what this mask hides for Ahab- is it demonic evil, the emptiness of life, or the feeling that life is inexorably driven by a fate which diminishes man's independence? There are many interpretations of Ahab's understanding of what the white whale represents; one interpretation is that Ahab is rebelling against the natural order and the Christian God and is in a sense a defiant Biblical Jonah.
He goes on to describe the white whale as a "wall," which confronts him. "To me the white whale is that wall, shoved near me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond." The metaphor of a wall is further explored and Ahab's greatest fear is that there might be nothing behind the wall. This would mean that the universe does not have a benign God as the Christian doctrine suggests. The idea of nothingness is also carried further in Ahab's words, "That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate." (Mansfield and Vincent 1)
Ahab states clearly that it is this element, this nothingness, which is what he will destroy. The idea of a godless universe ruled by fate and chance is the lurking evil that hides in the image of the whale and is that element which would make all life meaningless for him. Ahab sitting alone in his cabin utters his deepest thoughts and realizes that he is deeply possessed by the desire to kill the whale. "They think me mad-Starbuck does; but I'm demonic, I am madness maddened!" (ibid)
Ahab's soliloquy ends with a metaphor that again emphasizes an inhuman and mechanical quality to his passion for the whale. "The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run." (ibid) This image reinforces the resolute trajectory of his actions.