Melville’s Moby Dick is widely recognized as one of the most complex and brilliant allegorical novels in American literature. As an allegory, the events, places, people and conflicts depicted in the novel represent not only the obvious surface-level elements of the novel, but stand as indications of the novel’s philosophical and metaphysical themes. The allegory of Moby Dick involves an examination into the nature of reality and also into the nature of good and evil, as defined for Melville partially by America’s Puritan heritage. Understanding the allegorical content of the novel is necessary for fully understanding Ahab’s spoken explanation for why he hunts the white whale.
Melville wanted to portray the essence of evil in a symbol, which was the whale, Moby Dick. To establish this literary symbol, he relied partially on the narrative techniques developed by Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Hawthorne had shown Melville that “one American was expressively aware of the evil at the core of life,: he had also provided a narrative strategy suitable for Melville’s own literary confrontation with evil.” (Vincent, 1949, p. 37) The narrative technique involved building a literary semblance of Platonic philosophical idealism, wherein visible and experienced phenomena are merely shadows of their ultimate, imperceptible forms.
When Ahab says “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.” he is echoing the allegorical construction of the novel in which each thing, such as the whale, Moby Dick, is merely a “pasteboard mask” which hides the true essence beneath, an “unknown but still reasoning thing” which “puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.” For Ahab, the white whale is the mask which disguises truth and the revelation of the nature of reality.
In this sense, the white whale becomes a symbol for whatever it is that holds mankind back from the perception of absolute reality. Ahab emphatically reveals his Platonic beliefs when he says “If man will strike, strike through the mask! 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.” In this sense, the whale represents oblivion, the “naught beyond” which in Ahab’s mind is plainly associated with death. It is toward the heart of the nature of reality that Ahab strikes with his blood-sealed harpoon, not merely a fish in the ocean. For Ahab the white whale represented both ultimate reality and the wall which separates man from ultimate reality.
Ahab’s view of nature and reality is that the visible world and all of the events, people, and actions in it are indicators of deeper, more profound, metaphysical ideas and experiences: when he hunts the white whale which represents evil and oblivion, he is hunting the absolute nature of evil, not merely one of its beasts.
The intense hate that Ahab feels for the white whale helps to distinguish Ahab’s view of reality as presented in the novel form the vision of reality Melvile was trying to establish by way of the allegory of the novel. While Ahab believes the white whale to be the symbol of evil, Melville’s depiction of evil through the allegorical structure of Moby Dick is shown, ironically, through Ahab himself and not through the symbol of the whale. Instead, for Melville, the whale symbol indicated the cosmic universe and was exhaustively related through his use of cetalogical detail and science. In this way, Ahab’s obsession and hate are shown to be a tragic flaw along the lines of some of Shakespeare’s heroes, after whom Ahab’s dialogue explaining his motives for hunting Moby Dick are clearly derived.
Vincent, Howard P. The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1949.