Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

The White Whale Symbol Analysis

The White Whale Symbol Icon
Moby Dick, 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.

The White Whale Quotes in Moby-Dick

The Moby-Dick quotes below all refer to the symbol of The White Whale. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick published in 2002.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless procession of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

From the beginning, Ishmael notes that the White Whale, Moby-Dick, has haunted him - although it is not clear how Ishmael could have known about the existence of Moby-Dick while living in New York City, unless he had heard about it in legends whispered from sailor to sailor. At any rate, Ishmael tells the reader that Moby-Dick (here described in poetic, mysterious, semi-religious language) has occupied his thoughts even before he determines he ought to try his hand at being a sailor.

Thus Ishmael's understanding of free will, in this opening chapter, seems to reflect Ahab's later conception - that man can only choose so much of his fate, and that a great deal of one's life is set out for him in advance. Ishmael might have chosen another occupation - he might have decided to stay in New York. But something pulled him toward the open sea, to the Pequod and Ahab and the search for Moby-Dick. And even if Ishmael can't identifying what pulled him, he knows nevertheless that it is a strong force. 


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Moby-Dick quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!
Chapter 36 Quotes

It’s a white whale, I say . . . a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Ahab takes it upon himself in this section to explain, at least in part, what is so special about Moby-Dick. The whiteness of the whale, which will be described at other moments in the novel, is striking to Ahab - it is a reminder of how special that whale is. But it is not this alone that makes the whale Ahab's enemy. That, of course, has to do with Ahab's attempt on a previous voyage to kill Moby-Dick - an encounter that ends with Moby-Dick biting off one of Ahab's legs.

Starbuck and other characters will later beg Ahab to end his quest, which they consider foolish, to kill the animal that maimed him. They say this because revenge against an animal is, for them, fundamentally different from revenge against a human. Animals, they note, do not intend the violence they cause - it is simply in their nature. Moby-Dick does not hate Ahab - he merely wants to eat him, or keep from being killed himself. But, for Ahab, Moby-Dick's violence demands violence in return - an eye for an eye. Furthermore, Ahab seems wedded to the very idea of Moby-Dick as an horrifying, unbeatable force, a terrible challenge for Ahab to struggle against. It is not just hate, but also pride and even longing that drives him.

Chapter 42 Quotes

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation? . . . Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color . . . is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows . . . ?

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most famous chapters and passages in the novel. Ishmael wonders what exactly it is that makes Moby-Dick so special - and lands, as this passage indicates, on his color, and on the particular "terror of whiteness." White, according to Ishmael's logic, can be presence or absence - it can mean purity or lack of all characteristics - and it can belong to good or to bad things. What Ishmael settles on, at least in part, as that white connotes something special, apart from and beyond normal life - something worth pursuing, but also terrifying in its blankness and emptiness.

Ishmael also wonders why it is that Ahab has chosen to follow this white whale across the world. It is at this point in the novel that Ishmael realizes the whale might perhaps be secondary to Ahab's goal - that the whale might stand in for something larger than an animal, or revenge. The whale could, for example, be God himself - something divine and unreachable. Or it could be a goal toward which all humans strive - immortality, or the defeat of death. 

Chapter 68 Quotes

O, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. . . . retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 334
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is another instance in which Ishmael uses a feature of physical anatomy to derive a metaphysical, or philosophical, concept. Here, the layer of fat underneath a whale's skin Ishmael likens to a blanket that keeps the whale warm in cold weather and relatively cool in warm weather. This regulating blanket is the method by which the whale retains an equilibrium, and this enables a whale to roam the entire world, without regard to the temperature of the water in which the whale swims.

Ishmael is clearly taken by this kind of anatomical feature, and wishes that all men would be so capable of adapting to their circumstances. Here, the whale is no longer an enemy of man. It is instead a source of wisdom, of guidance for human life, and even a religious figure to look up to (the idea of "liv[ing] in this world without being of it" comes from the Bible). Ishmael holds up the whale as an example of human adaptability. And in doing so, he points out the frailty of the human body - something that can be so easily defeated by animals, by weather, by the roughness of the seas. 

Chapter 71 Quotes

Think, think of thy whale-boat, stoven and sunk! Beware of the horrible tail!

Related Characters: Gabriel (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 344
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel, like Old Thunder, is another one of the novel's prophets - a person who, though seemingly a normal human, has also taken on a religious quality that enables him, or so he claims, to see into the future, and to predict events that others might not be aware of. Here, Gabriel (another Biblical name, that of a messenger angel) warns that Moby-Dick is more powerful than any man - that no one would be able to defeat the white whale alone, and that perhaps only a beneficent fate could make such a battle even something a man might be able to live through.

Thus Old Thunder and Gabriel both believe that Moby-Dick is himself a god-like figure, one whose power is so far superior to man's that there is nothing a man can do to save himself. Gabriel, like Old Thunder, urges the men around him to consider man's relationship to the divine - that God is the master of all things, and that if God has sent this whale in his stead to rule the waters, man must respect the overwhelming force of that animal. 

Chapter 100 Quotes

He’s welcome to the arm he has, since I can’t help it, and didn’t know him then; but not to another one. No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me.

Related Characters: Boomer (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 482
Explanation and Analysis:

Boomer, the speaker of these lines, is the captain of an English vessel called the Samuel Enderby. Boomer excites Ahab, when the ships stop to speak to one another, by saying that he has in fact encountered Moby-Dick. At this point, Boomer emerges as a foil to Ahab, for he too is a man who has wrestled with the white whale. Boomer has lowered boats against Moby-Dick, and, falling off his boat, tore his arm, and a ship doctor then amputated it. Boomer feels that he has "given enough" to the white whale, and vows to go back home and preserve his life.

This, of course, is what separates Boomer from Ahab, and makes the two men mirror images of one another. After his encounter with the white whale, Boomer realizes the limits of his own human strength, and feels he has given his best to the fight - that he is simply not strong enough to defeat the whale. Ahab, however, has vowed after his first encounter with Moby-Dick to stop at nothing in trying to kill him. 

Chapter 133 Quotes

Men, this gold is mine, for I earned it; but I shall let it abide here till the White Whale is dead; and then, whosoever of ye first raises him, upon the day he shall be killed, this gold is that man’s, and if on that day I shall again raise him, then, ten times its sum shall be divided among all of ye! Away now!

Related Characters: Ahab (speaker), Moby Dick
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 602
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only does Ahab believe that he must be the man to kill Moby-Dick, and that it is fair to risk the lives of many men in order to kill the animal that (he believes) has wronged him; Ahab also vows that he was always fated to be the one to spot Moby-Dick, and that the doubloon he placed on the mast could have only one owner, and that is the man that placed it there.

In this passage, then, Melville displays Ahab's total megalomania, or belief that he, and he alone, is capable of defeating the whale, of spitting in the eyes of fate, of ensuring that order will be restored in the universe after the whale has taken his leg. No man could possibly think in these terms unless he were deluded, and yet Ahab really does think in them. And though he is single-mindedly set in his mission, he nevertheless manages, despite the metaphorical blindness of his obsession, to see the whale and to claim the money he placed before the crew. 

Chapter 135 Quotes

Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The White Whale
Page Number: 624
Explanation and Analysis:

Not only has the white whale defeated Ahab, despite Ahab's best efforts to kill him. Not only has the whale defeated the entire crew, the group of men Ahab has marshaled to aid in this attack. The white whale has, in fact, obliterated all remnants of the Pequod, all evidence that the boat even existed and once sailed the sea. These things are gone completely when the boat sinks and is sent to the bottom of the ocean.

The narrator, or Ishmael, in this scene thus relates how completely man is at the mercy of nature. Despite all Ahab's ravings and the power of his will and hate, there was nothing he could do to stop the boat from sinking, to prevent nature from taking over the scene and rolling the waves once more over the boat. For all his yelling that he controlled fate, fate has mastered Ahab here - and the rest of the crew along with him. 

Get the entire Moby-Dick LitChart as a printable PDF.
Moby dick.pdf.medium