While Moby-Dick may tell the tale of a hunt for the elusive White Whale, Melville’s most famous work lives up to its reputation as a classic piece of American literature for the ways in which he uses its central plot as a vehicle for exploring the racial, political, and gender dynamics of his era. Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal nature and Moby Dick’s inscrutability both take on different layers of meaning throughout the novel, a flexibility which reflects the text’s overarching theme of unknowability or uncertainty. The novel’s literal conflict is the ongoing struggle between Ahab and Moby Dick that emerges as the captain’s desire to avenge his missing leg continues to fester, but the broader tension that Melville depicts is the fight to impose a single view on a world which is inherently undefinable. He examines this desire to maintain a sense of power through a political lens by contrasting Ahab’s authoritarianism with the democracy of the crew, a racial lens by discussing interpretations of whiteness, and a gendered lens by highlighting his wounded masculinity. All of these approaches challenge the reader to evaluate the power dynamics of 19th century America, and ultimately reveal the consequences of seeing certainty as a virtue.
Right from the beginning of the narrative, Melville hints at his interest in the role of interpretation in a world of ambiguity. The Extracts chapter, which outlines the massive legacy of whales through various individual perspectives, establishes the figure of the whale as something mythic and almost God-like due to how wide-reaching its impact has been historically. Presenting these different meanings works to obscure the reader’s understanding of what a whale actually is, thus suggesting there are limits to how much an individual can truly know. Similarly, Queequeg’s introduction in Chapter 3 as a symbol of “the other” challenges Ishmael’s ethnocentric worldview, and their ensuing friendship serves as a microcosm of New Bedford’s broadly diverse community.
With this groundwork establishing the significance of interpretation in place, Ishmael’s arrival on Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, functions as the novel’s inciting incident. The multinational, multiethnic composition of the crew that Ishmael joins, which reflects the globalization of American mercantilism, has a democratic impulse which stands in stark contrast to Ahab’s authoritarian nature. This dynamic reflects the political aspect of the novel’s central conflict as Ahab co-opts the free spirit of the diverse crew and transforms it into a commitment to support his hunt for Moby Dick. Through these events, Melville calls attention to the threat that a single perspective can pose to a wider, more varied collection of worldviews.
The rising action continues as the Pequod sets sail in pursuit of Moby Dick, and as Ishmael learns more about his captain and the subject of his revenge, the deeper motivations behind Ahab’s hunt begin to emerge. Ahab feels that the loss of his leg authorizes him to act against Moby Dick, a perspective which reflects his need to reclaim a power and superiority that he feels he deserves. Melville’s inclusion of Chapter 42, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” invites the reader to see Ahab’s pursuit of the white-skinned whale as a metaphorical hunt for whiteness itself, adding a racial dimension to the overarching conflict between certainty and ambiguity. Ishmael emphasizes that whiteness, like everything else, has infinite interpretations, but Ahab sees it purely as a source of dominance that he aims to reassert over his world by killing Moby Dick. Comparing these two perspectives allows Melville to challenge assumptions regarding the relationship between whiteness and power as he emphasizes the multiplicity of meanings inherent in it.
As the journey drags on, Ishmael comes to embrace the fact that the world cannot be defined in absolutes and shows skepticism towards those who try to do so. Many of the chapters describing different aspects or depictions of whales, such as Chapters 55, 68, 79, and 85, allow Ishmael to offer information which is sometimes incomplete or incorrect in order to show that knowledge has its limits. He begins to imagine an alternative way of being in the world that would free him from the pressure of having a fixed purpose as Ahab does. At the same time, Ahab’s fury grows as Moby Dick continues to evade him. His sense of victimhood becomes exacerbated in Chapter 106 when his ivory leg, a symbol of his loss, breaks off and pierces his groin. This image reflects his wounded masculinity and offers the reader yet another lens through which to consider Ahab’s obsession with asserting control over others.
After reaffirming his belief that killing the White Whale is his fate, the climax of the novel arrives when Ahab spots and chases Moby Dick. The vision of home that Ahab sees in Starbuck’s eyes in Chapter 132, “The Symphony,” serves as a final reminder that an alternative path is possible, but his confidence in his individual responsibility to seek revenge inevitably dooms him. Over the course of three days, Ahab and his crew attempt to overpower Moby Dick, the ultimate symbol of uncertainty. Captain Ahab ultimately drowns after getting tangled in the harpoon’s line, and Moby Dick presumably escapes with his life. In these final moments, Ahab’s certainty proves to be his fatal flaw as the indefinable world resists the threat of his absolutist behavior. The falling action, which occurs in the Epilogue, reveals that a changed Ishmael is all that remains of the Pequod’s doomed voyage. Unlike his monomaniacal captain, Ishmael’s journey leaves him uncertain of just about everything, and his survival suggests that his broader, more flexible worldview is, in fact, a viable one.