Often in great works of literature, symbols are incorporated to add depth. These symbols make it more interesting to the reader by making connections from one idea to another. Herman Melville depicts a great number of characters and symbols in his 19th century novel Moby Dick. Melville uses symbols to develop plot, characters, and to give the reader a deeper interpretation of the novel. (Tucker) The author successfully uses the symbols of brotherhood, monomania, isolation, religion, and duality to make his book more interesting to its readers.
At the beginning of the novel, the characters Ishmael and Queequeg are introduced. Ishmael is the narrator of the story. He is also a merchant seaman who signs up for a whaling voyage to see the world- and the only crewmember to survive and tell us the story. Queequeg is a tattooed cannibal from the South Seas. He is courageous, as well as kind-hearted. (Cavendish) After becoming friends with Ishmael, he also signs up for whaling and becomes a harpooner.
Melville chose to depict brotherhood as a symbol in a couple different ways. In the hotel room before boarding the Pequod, Ishmael and Queequeg share a room together, where they both sleep. One such morning when Ishmael awakes, he recalls:
How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg- a cozy, loving pair (Melville 68).
This closeness that Melville creates conveys that the relationship between these two characters is a close one.
In the chapter A Squeeze of the Hand, brotherhood is addressed yet again. The crewmembers of the Pequod cut the blubber out of the whales to make it liquid again. While their hands are in the blubber, they meet, as if everyone is holding hands. Ishmael states, “I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget(398)” This is significant because of the importance of comradeship. This situation was used as an excuse to be closer to people then a normal situation would normally allow. This chapter is contrasted to the previous chapter to that of isolation, which will soon be addressed.
Yet another symbol of brotherhood in Moby Dick was when Ahab split his wooden leg jumping back onto the Pequod. Ahab depended on the carpenter to make him a new leg, therefore partly bonding and making a friendship.
Ahab’s monomania grows increasingly as the story moves forward. While on the ship, Ahab addresses his crewmembers with a doubloon, which symbolizes the act of drawing everyone into the vortex of monomania by Ahab. He uses this coin to focus everyone’s attentions and goals into finding Moby Dick.
However, the coin incident is not the only symbol that Melville uses to display Captain Ahab’s monomania. As they are sailing, the Pequod passes various ships along their journey. Upon meeting with these ships, Ahab asks them if they’ve seen a white whale, and refuses to help them because he is afraid that it will interfere and delay the process of capturing Moby Dick.
Because of Ahab’s monomania, in the beginning of the novel Ahab isolates himself from the rest of the crewmembers until they are out on the sea. During the early stages of this novel, Ahab avoids bonding with anyone else, which can be found when at the dinner table. All the mates are silent, and they must leave in the reverse order from which they came, with the third mate having to leave first; the harpooners eat last. It is because of this order that demonstrates how Ahab tries to isolate him and his crewmembers. ” In the cabin was no companionship; socially, Ahab was inaccessible. Though nominally included in the census of Christendom, he was still an alien to it. Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom! (156)”
Away from the concept of monomania is Melville’s use of duality in Moby Dick. This duality adds a twist that makes the story more interesting and keeps the reader in suspense as to what other symbols in the book might have dual meanings.
Because of the nature of this novel, various things symbolize duality. For example, the color white is commonly associated with such things as wholesomeness, pureness, cleanliness, honesty, innocence, and goodness. However, it is ironic how Herman Melville decided to make Moby Dick white, seeing as though the whale is seen by Ahab as evil, bad, and mean- the opposite of what most people associate the color of white with.
The concept of duality can also be expressed when talking about Queequeg’s coffin. As the journey went on, Queequeg progressively became weaker, and drew nearer to death. The carpenter was called upon to make Queequeg a coffin, expecting that he would be dying very shortly. However, Queequeg recalled some duties that he had to fulfill, and that he couldn’t possibly die then. ” at a critical moment, he had just recalled a little duty ashore, which he was leaving undone; and therefore he had changed his mind about dying (455)” Since the coffin was made for death in the first place, it is ironic how it is used as a life boat for Ishmael in the end of the story. At the end, it represents life and survival- in the first place it was made to symbolize death and life coming to an end for Queequeg.
After describing the character of Queequeg, Melville tells of his religion in the chapter The Ramadan. During Queequeg’s Ramadan, he worships his god with Yojo, a black wooden doll, for one day. Melville writes:
There sat Queequeg, altogether cool and self-collected; right in the middle of the room; squatting on his hams, and holding Yojo on top of his head. He looked neither one way nor the other way, but sat like a carved image with a scarce a sign of active life (96).
This chapter introduces and describes a different religion, trying to make the connection between Christianity and Queequeg’s religious practices.
Herman Melville successfully uses the symbols of brotherhood, monomania, isolation, religion, and duality to make the readers of this book interested and thinking about what important symbols are added to complete this novel. (Tucker) The author uses a number of symbols to develop plot, characters, and to give the reader a deeper interpretation of the novel. In the 19th century novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville describes a great number of characters and symbols. Symbols are often incorporated in many great works of literature to add depth. These various symbols make it more interesting to the readers by making connections from one idea to another.
Cavendish, Marshall. Great Writers of the English Language: Exotic Journies. Volume 9. New York. 1989.
Tucker, Martin. Moulton’s Library of Literary Criticism. Volume 4. Frederick Ungar Publishing Company. New York. 1967.
Various authors. Critical Survey of Long Fiction. Volume 5. Salem Press. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1983.