, or the White Whale, is not just the dominant symbol of the novel Moby Dick
—he is also one of the most recognizable symbols in 19th-century American literature. At various points throughout the novel, Ishmael
and other characters compare Moby Dick directly to a god—an all-powerful, seemingly unstoppable being, one that cannot be defeated, and who imposes its desires on the world around it. Ishmael, Ahab
, and Starbuck
(the “least courageous” and most doubting of the ship’s mates) understand that the search for Moby Dick is not simply a mission of vengeance—although it is that, in part. They believe, instead, that the hunt is a microcosm of all humans’ struggle against nature, fate, and death itself. The crew remarks on this apparent symbolism—that the whale-hunt stands in for a life of human struggle—throughout the journey, as Ahab disregards typical whaling protocol, and announces explicitly that the goal of the voyage is the death of one whale. That Moby Dick escapes at the end of the novel, killing everyone aboard the Pequod except Ishmael, further indicates that the Whale cannot be defeated, cannot be tamed or even understood. Witnesses, prophets, and missionaries will continue to make “pilgrimages” to the White Whale in order to see it, to believe in it, and to wonder at its terrible power.