Meanings of the White Whale
Throughout the whole novel Melville undertook great pains to provide a vast network of associations in order to amplify the image of the whale for the reader. A glance at Melville’s sources proves that he had amassed a collection of general and mythological accounts of the whale even before he began to write Moby-Dick. Becoming ever more aware of the multiplicity of possible interpretations of the whale, Melville admitted in Chapter 104 that the main theme of the book is a “mighty theme,” brought to perfection in a “mighty book” (p. 349). Every description of a different concept of the White Whale from any culture brings with it a vast body of pictures and notions, each able to incite a reaction of associations within the reader; the result being necessarily a wide range of different meanings – almost one meaning for every reader. Cloaked in different accounts of the White Whale comes an amplification process. The reader is confronted with concepts of the Whale and his whiteness, each accompanied with a series of possible associations that finally give the White Whale its immeasurable plurality of meaning.
That Melville’s narrator had undoubtedly more than one meaning in mind for the whale tells Ch. 1:
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and drowned. But that same image we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. (p. 20)
The notion that everybody sees something different in a mirror elucidates the amplification process the narrator has in store for the reader. Just as a mirror, the novel serves as an instrument of self-assessment: the reader looks into the book, and combines personal background with the “raw material” of concepts that enable him to develop his associations that finally form his image of the whale.
However, it is certainly not Melville’s intention to provide his great symbolic leviathan with a such a plurality of meanings that it might border on sheer relativism. Apart from the meanings we personally derive from the novel for ourselves, meanings that cannot exist outside of what the reader himself brings into the book, there are basic meanings for the whale we can directly derive from Moby-Dick – or, more exactly, from the characters themselves and how they see the whale.
In the narrator(s) of Moby-Dick we meet a manipulation mastermind. Closely related to the question of the narrator is the question of the meanings of the White Whale. While Ishmael the narrator manipulates the reader’s personal view of the White Whale by providing him with a corpus of notions he can freely amplify with his associations and thus create a personal meaning for the whale, Ishmael in the forecastle, the young Ishmael we glimpse at through the eyes of the old Ishmael the narrator, provides different perspectives on the whale with every character described.
Just as the novel as a mirror provides the means of self-assessment for the reader, the gold dubloon Ahab pins to the main mast as a reward for him who first spots the White Whale is a mirror for the characters of the novel. As Pip, the sage fool, repeatedly puts it: “I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.” (Ch. 99, p. 335), so various characters look into it until they are half drowned in it, and the meaning of the dubloon, the touchable symbol of the hunt for the White Whale, varies with each character looking into it. That the dubloon has a meaning, or rather a plurality of meanings, is beyond doubt:
And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way. (Ch. 99, p. 331-332)
The plurality of meanings of the gold dubloon mirrors the plurality of meanings of the White Whale.