Ishmael sums up the meaning of Moby Dick to Ahab in this passage:
"All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."To Ahab, Moby Dick is a symbol.
In the book, it's also a symbol. Of what? God? Nature? Fate? Evil? Something forever mysterious, elusive and unknowable? etc. But before seeing Moby Dick as a symbol, I want to see it clearly, as a whale. This is what we know:
- a sperm whale
- "a peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead", "a high, pyramidical white hump" and a crooked, sickle-shaped jaw
- "3 holes punctured in his starboard fluke"
- "The rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue, that, in the end, he had gained his distinctive appellation of the White Whale; a name, indeed, literally justified by his vivid aspect, when seen gliding at high noon through a dark blue sea, leaving a milky-way wake of creamy foam, all spangled with golden gleamings."
- "unwonted magnitude"
- "his spout is a big one, like a whole shock of wheat, and white as a pile of our Nantucket wool after the great annual sheep-shearina"
- "he fan-tails like a split jib in a squall"
- said to be ubiquitous and immortal
- "that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults" invests the whale with natural terror