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Moby Dick: Metaphor Analysis

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Moby-Dick, The White Whale
The whale in general is invested with mythic significance and power, starting in the beginning extracts, showing the lineage and reputation of this largest sea “monster.” The book looks at whales realistically and scientifically, and from the perspective of many cultures and traditions. Ultimately, we are left with only a sense of its mystery, which is what the author wants. A symbol needs mystery; it has to be suggestive. For Melville, this is the nature of life.
For one thing, the White Whale is large, kills or maims men, cannot be caught or killed. It is ancient and survives, no matter how many harpoons it has in its back. Its wrinkled brow is blank and unreadable. It actually attacks and sinks boats. Still, Captain Boomer, whose arm was taken off by Moby Dick, does not make a symbol of it. Ahab, on the contrary, “identify[ies] with [the whale] 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” (41. 180).
For more prosaic men, the whale is just a source of livelihood. Starbuck calls it a “dumb brute.” Ishmael, however, understands how Ahab could see the whale as a symbol of evil in “The Whiteness of the Whale.” It is the ambiguity of the color white that strikes terror into the heart, for what power is it that could create such a brute? This fear finally infects the whole crew. Melville makes it clear that it is we ourselves who create our own symbols. The whale in itself means nothing. The natives worship it as a god; for others it means money, and in a mystic moment, Ishmael even sees the whale as a symbol of his own inner peace.
The Catskill Eagle
Throughout the book, opposites are evoked as the nature of life—beauty and ugliness, life and death, friendship and hatred, intelligence and ignorance, love and brutality. They always seem to come together, creating a sort of confusion and terror for the weak. These opposites drive Ahab mad and Pip as well, when he is left alone in the ocean, dodging sharks, yet seeing “God’s foot on the treadle of the loom” (93. 411)
Ishmael, though he can’t explain the mystery, is able to appreciate opposites, and thus, becomes the “Catskill eagle” who can fly in and out of the mouth of hell. This is evident in a chapter like “The Grand Armada” when, though the whale boats are in a dangerous position near a herd of whales, he sees the beauty and peace of the moment, the beauty of the whales.
The chapter, “The Try-Works” creates the impression of the Pequod as Hell, as the ship sails in search of its devil, Moby Dick. The scene is dark, and the try-works, or the furnace lit on deck to boil the blubber, is casting frightening shadows. The smoke stinks, and everyone is scorched. In this firelight, the men look savage and evil. Ishmael feels infected with darkness and almost falls asleep at the tiller. He awakens to save the ship from capsizing. He compares coming out of such darkness of soul like “the Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces” (96. 421).
This eagle ability is rare, but it is how Ishmael is able to take a voyage into the heart of darkness and return with his goodness intact.
The Coffin-Lifebuoy
Queequeg, thinking he is on his deathbed, orders a coffin made and asks that it be a canoe, as in the tradition of his people. When he recovers, he makes the coffin into a sea chest. Later, when the ship’s buoy is destroyed, the coffin is caulked and made into a life-buoy. It is the coffin-lifebuoy that becomes the means of Ishmael’s resurrection after the shipwreck. Melville sees the irony of the double nature of the events of life. Nothing is as it seems. A coffin is a life-buoy. A deadly whale gives precious sperm oil for lamps and medicine. The opposites are woven into the fabric of life.


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