Symbols in literature are usually objects used to represent or suggest important concepts that inform and expand our appreciation of the work. Moby-Dick offers some of the most widely known symbols in American literature. Being widely known, however, does not imply that the symbols are simple or easy to understand. Like the themes in the novel, the symbols are ambiguous in enriching ways.
Father Mapple's Pulpit
Father Mapple's pulpit in the Whaleman's Chapel effectively represents this former harpooner's approach to his ministry. Everything about the chapel reminds a visitor of life and death at sea. Father Mapple is the captain of the ship, the congregation his crew. The pulpit itself is shaped like the prow of a ship and features a painting of a vessel battling a storm near a rocky coast, an angel of hope watching over it. Without much effort, we can see that the pulpit represents the leadership of the pastor and implies that God himself is the pilot of this ship. Mapple's "shipmates," as he refers to the congregation, often find themselves battling storms on rocky coasts — either literally, in ships, or figuratively in the rest of their lives. They need the hope and consolation of God's grace, as represented by the angel.
Mapple ascends to the pulpit by climbing a rope ladder like one used to mount a ship from a boat at sea. He then pulls the rope up after him, effectively cutting off contact with worldly matters. In similar ways, the captain of a whaling ship assumes the pilot's role as he cuts off contact with land; the ship becomes a floating microcosm at sea. Melville makes effective use of contrast throughout the novel; here, it is between Mapple and Ahab. Mapple is an elderly but vigorous man of God who sees his role as leading his ship through rocky waters by gladly submitting to the will of a higher authority. Ahab is an ungodly man who doesn't mind wielding authority but resents submitting to it. He wears his defiance proudly. In this sense, the pulpit represents the proper position for a ship's captain, performing his duty in leading his congregation toward an understanding of performing God's will.
The symbolism of Queequeg's coffin changes as the novel progresses. Initially, the coffin represents Queequeg's apparently impending death and his nostalgic link to his home island. The coffin is shaped like a canoe because of the custom on Kokovoko of setting the corpse adrift in such a craft. The belief was that eventually it would float over the ocean to the sky, which connects to the sea, and ultimately to one of the islands (stars) in the sky. Queequeg saw similar canoe coffins in Nantucket, and the custom of setting the corpse adrift is widespread among sea-faring people around the world.
The coffin represents ongoing life when it becomes Queequeg's sea chest after he decides not to die. It represents hope for renewal and a practical means of saving life when it is rigged to serve as a life buoy. Finally, the coffin is a symbol of hope and even rebirth when it springs from the vortex of the sunken Pequod to provide Ishmael with a means of staying afloat until the Rachel rescues him.
The White Whale
The White Whale is one of the best known symbols in American literature. What it represents depends entirely on who is noticing. To Starbuck, Moby Dick is just another whale, except that he is more dangerous. Early in the novel, Starbuck challenges Ahab's motives for altering the ship's mission, from accumulating oil to killing the White Whale. On the quarter-deck in Chapter 36, Starbuck calls it "blasphemous" to seek revenge on a "dumb brute . . . that simply smote thee from blindest instinct!" If Starbuck sees anything beyond that in the whale, it is that Moby Dick represents the captain's madness and a very serious diversion from the ship's proper mission.
The Samuel Enderby's captain, who has lost an arm to the White Whale, sees it as representing a great prize in both glory and sperm oil but seems very reasonable in his desire to leave the whale alone. He says to Ahab, "There would be great glory in killing him, I know that; and there is a ship-load of precious sperm in him, but, hark ye, he's best let alone; don't you think so, Captain?" (Chapter 100) Ahab points out that the "accursed thing is not always what least allures."
To some, the White Whale is a myth. To others, he is immortal. But one significant question is, What is the White Whale to Ahab? Ishmael grants that Ahab views the whale as an embodiment of evil. Ishmael himself is not so sure. The narrator often sees both sides of a question, never more so than in Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale." There he tells us that Moby Dick's whiteness might represent good or evil, glory or damnation, all colors or the "visible absence of color."
For Ahab's interpretation, it is helpful to consider the captain's comments in the pivotal Chapter 36. There, the captain says he sees Moby Dick as a "mask," behind which lies a great power whose dominance Ahab refuses to accept. Ahab sees that inscrutable power as evil. Some scholars argue that it is not the whale, or the force behind the whale, that is evil; the evil is in Ahab. Others see the captain as simply insane. Ahab is out of control as he rants about attacking the force behind the façade of Moby Dick. He wants to kill the whale in order to reach that force. Ahab seems to want to be a god. As great and charismatic a man as he can be in his finest moments, the captain is destructively egocentric and mad for power. To Ahab, we might conclude, the White Whale represents that power which limits and controls man. Ahab sees it as evil incarnate. But perhaps it is just a big, smart fish.