Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


Whiteness, to Ishmael, is horrible because it represents the unnatural and threatening: albinos, creatures that live in extreme and inhospitable environments, waves breaking against rocks. These examples reverse the traditional association of whiteness with purity. Whiteness conveys both a lack of meaning and an unreadable excess of meaning that confounds individuals. Moby Dick is the pinnacle of whiteness, and Melville’s characters cannot objectively understand the White Whale. Ahab, for instance, believes that Moby Dick represents evil, while Ishmael fails in his attempts to determine scientifically the whale’s fundamental nature.

Surfaces and Depths

Ishmael frequently bemoans the impossibility of examining anything in its entirety, noting that only the surfaces of objects and environments are available to the human observer. On a live whale, for example, only the outer layer presents itself; on a dead whale, it is impossible to determine what constitutes the whale’s skin, or which part—skeleton, blubber, head—offers the best understanding of the entire animal. Moreover, as the whale swims, it hides much of its body underwater, away from the human gaze, and no one knows where it goes or what it does. The sea itself is the greatest frustration in this regard: its depths are mysterious and inaccessible to Ishmael. This motif represents the larger problem of the limitations of human knowledge. Humankind is not all-seeing; we can only observe, and thus only acquire knowledge about, that fraction of entities—both individuals and environments—to which we have access: surfaces.


Beyond the fact that a majority of the novel tells the tale of a voyage across the ocean, Melville uses references to movement in order to create a sense of instability or uprootedness among the characters. This sensation of not feeling connected to any given place speaks to Moby-Dick’s broader themes of uncertainty and fate, both of which are key to the novel’s primary argument that the world is inherently unknowable. Melville alludes to movement right away by opening the first chapter with the line “Call me Ishmael.” Given that the Bible’s Ishmael often appears as a nomad or wanderer, choosing this name allows Melville to emphasize his narrator’s unsettled nature before he even begins participating in the action of the narrative. Ishmael goes on to explain that he takes to the sea whenever he begins to feel out of sorts in his day-to-day life on land, a notion which ironically depicts the unpredictability of movement as a means of reestablishing an emotional or spiritual center. 

The motif of movement also appears as the Pequod has numerous chance encounters with other ships at sea. These seemingly fateful moments, made possible by the inherent randomness of movement, suggest that feelings of uprootedness are universal. Some of these interactions, such as the Pequod’s exchange with the Samuel Enderby in Chapter 100, elicit information about Moby Dick while the Rachel’s second appearance in the Epilogue ultimately saves Ishmael’s life. These individual journeys, however, are similar in that they represent a desire to achieve a sense of stability, whether that be through successfully killing a whale or finding children lost at sea. Allowing these different moving paths to intersect adds to Melville’s depiction of a world mired in uncertainty.