religious symbolism in moby dick by alvinbowen

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									  The soteriological implications of polyphonic interpretation of the
inscrutable and the locus of meaning in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

                                                    TYSON V AUGHAN / 11.20.01

                                       ENGLISH 186B / PROF. HILTON OBENZINGER

This book is a mirror. When a monkey looks in, no philosopher looks out. —G.C. Lichtenberg

Who is the Master who makes the grass green? —Zen koan

YOU WANT IRONY? INTERPRET MOBY-DICK. Unravel Herman Melville’s Gordian

Knot of images, characters, events, themes and ideas. Analyze the strands. As you

do so, realize that by such an act you have taken a lay with the crew of the Pequod.

That knot in your hands may as well be the tackle of the old whaler herself, and you

high in her rigging. Just as you struggle with its perplexities, the crew struggles to

comprehend the mysteries of the universe which constantly confront them in forms
both mundane and extraordinary, natural and supernatural. Like the buffeted

mainmast of the Pequod, the problematical act of interpretation stands at the center

of Moby-Dick.

         Symbolism saturates the novel. Symbols nest within symbols, meanings

within meanings. Even relatively mundane objects “are but as pasteboard masks” that

must be “struck through” to discover their deeper, truer significance. But as you will

see, in the inscrutable world of the Pequod, the act of interpretation does not pierce

the “pasteboard mask” to reveal an absolute truth behind it, but rather paints a

subjective truth upon its surface. In Moby-Dick, Melville asserts that the act of

interpretation shifts the locus of meaning from the object itself to the mind of the


         Interpretation, of course, requires both an agent and an object, and typically

results in some kind of conclusion regarding the object or its relationship to the

agent. For convenience, call interpretation that results in a single conclusion

monophonic and that which results in multiple conclusions, such as the interpretation

of Moby-Dick itself, polyphonic. In Moby-Dick, Melville demonstrates at least four

variants of interpretation, delineated along axes of scope (the number of agents or

minds) and meaning (the number of conclusions), as shown in Figure 1.

                                       SINGLE MIND                    MULTIPLE MINDS

      MONOPHONIC                        the painting                     The Candles

       POLYPHONIC               The Whiteness of the Whale              The Doubloon

                                                                                        FIG 1.

       Upon Ishmael’s entrance at the Spouter Inn, a perplexing painting confronts

him. “Puzzled and confounded,” his language reflects the strangeness of the image:

chaos, unaccountable, dim, nameless, indefinite, unimaginable, marvellous, “a boggy, soggy,

squitchy picture truly.” His instinctive reaction to it mirrors ours to Moby-Dick, or

for that matter to the universe itself: “Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-

attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you

involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what [it] meant.” The methods

he uses to solve this conundrum also reflect the methods we use to interpret a great

work of art or to understand our own lives: “it was only by diligent study and a series

of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way

arrive at an understanding of its purpose.” He further states: “But by dint of much

and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings […] you at last came to [a]

conclusion […].” Ishmael rifles through a number of hypotheses, opening the

possibility for a polyphonic conclusion, but eventually settles upon a single, exclusive


               Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you

               through. —It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale. —It’s the unnatural

               combat of the four primal elements. —It’s a blasted heath. —It’s a

               Hyperborean winter scene. —It’s the breaking up of the ice-bound
               stream of Time. […] In fact, the artist’s design seemed this, a final

               theory of my own. […] The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a

              great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three

              dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to

              spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself

              upon the three mast-heads. (Ch. 3)

Ishmael’s final interpretation remains only a “theory,” as he admits, and one which

we may judge as only slightly more plausible than his initial hypotheses. Therefore,

as in the cases of Moby-Dick and the universe itself, we do not ever find out what this

painting really “is,” nor what its creator intended it “to be.” But, like Ishmael, we do

know that a human being created the painting, resulting in the possibility that it may

indeed possess a single intended interpretation. What happens when we, and our

fellow crew members of the Pequod, attempt to interpret a (super-)natural


       In Chapter 119, “The Candles,” the crew encounters a violent storm, and as

Starbuck vainly attempts to persuade Ahab to cut the sails, the ship ignites with St.

Elmo’s Fire. Ahab’s “enchanted” harpoon, forged of hard steel and tempered with

pagan blood, shines with the “ghostly light.” Starbuck interprets these signs as ill

omens from God and implores Ahab to “square the yards […] and make a fair wind of

it homewards.” The rest of the sailors overhear him:

                  For the moment all the aghast mate’s thoughts seemed theirs; they
              raised a half mutinous cry. But dashing the rattling lightning links to

              the deck, and snatching the burning harpoon, Ahab waved it like a

              torch among them; swearing to transfix with it the first sailor that but

              cast loose a rope’s end. Petrified by his aspect, and still more

              shrinking from the fiery dart that he held, the men fell back in dismay,

              and Ahab again spoke:—

                  “All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine;
              and heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that

              ye may know to what tune this heart beats; thus I blow out the last

              fear!” And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame.

              (Ch. 119)

The men “run from him in a terror of dismay.” They share a single interpretation of

this event: that while Starbuck may speak truly, they indeed must obey Ahab by dint

of their oaths as well as their fear of this man who appears to wield supernormal

powers. Although we enlightened readers of the 21st Century might be able to

explain the happenings of the chapter with the aid of physics, meteorology and

psychology, in the minds of the crew, they have indeed witnessed a preternatural

event. Thus, “The Candles” describes a collective act of monophonic interpretation.

       This contrasts with a different scene in which the crew confronts and

interprets something else that appears (to some) to be imbued with supernatural

qualities: “The Doubloon” (Ch. 99). Not merely a mundane coin, Ishmael tells us

that because of its role in their oath to slay Moby Dick, “the mariners revered it as

the white whale’s talisman.” While Ishmael himself stops short of interpreting the

meaning of the coin, he does attach significance to its material, its Ecuadorian

birthplace, and to the symbolic figures stamped upon its face. He proceeds to relate

the collective polyphonic interpretation of the doubloon by eight idiosyncratic men:

Ahab, the three mates, a mariner, two harpooneers, and Pip, as delineated in Figure
2, below. Each man’s interpretation could be considered to be a discrete act;

however, through the form of including each interpretation consecutively within the

same chapter, mediated largely through Stubb, Melville clearly intends the

interpretations to be considered as a group.

       At the beginning of the chapter, Melville openly declares interpretation to be

its subject: “one morning, turning to pass the doubloon, he seemed to be newly

attracted by the strange figures and inscriptions stamped on it, as though now for the

first time beginning to interpret for himself in some monomaniac way whatever

significance might lurk in them.”

  CHARACTER              TYPE                            INTERPRETATION

      Ahab             egomaniac                                himself

    Starbuck           Christian         choice between good and evil; Christian metaphysics

     Stubb              carefree                        superficialities; “jolly”

      Flask              selfish                           monetary value

   Manxman            superstitious                superstitious prophecy of doom

   Queequeg              pagan                           anatomical map (?)

    Fedallah           demoniac                              fire deity (?)

      Pip           metapolyphonic                 polyphonic interpretation itself

                                                                                         FIG 2.

       What does Captain Ahab, that egomaniacal monomaniac, see in the shiny

gold doubloon? He sees himself: “The firm tower, that is Ahab; the volcano, that is

Ahab; the courageous, the undaunted, and victorious fowl, that, too, is Ahab; all are

Ahab.” He goes on to read in it a description of the birth of both his life and his

quest, and a prophecy of their mutual end: “Methinks now this coined sun wears a

ruddy face; but see! Aye, he enters the sign of storms, the equinox! and but six

months before he wheeled out of a former equinox at Aries! From storm to storm!

So be it, then. Born in throes, ‘tis fit that man should live in pains and die in pangs!”

       First mate Starbuck, the Christian, also finds grim truth in the coin, but his
truth differs considerably from his captain’s. He sees a representation of Christian


              A dark valley between three mighty, heaven-abiding peaks, that almost

              seem the Trinity, in some faint earthly symbol. So in this vale of

              Death, God girds us round; and over all our gloom, the sun of

              Righteousness still shines a beacon and a hope. If we bend down our

              eyes, the dark vale shows her mouldy soil; but if we lift them, the

              bright sun meets our glance half way, to cheer. (Ch. 99)

Starbuck then bemoans the fact that once we choose the dark path, the sun provides

no solace, and he leaves, “lest the Truth shake me falsely,” his comment echoing

Father Mapple’s sermon. The coin reminds him of humanity’s God-given free will to

choose between good and evil, and that he and his shipmates have indeed chosen the

path of evil. His fear and shame chase him.

       Stubb, the carefree second mate, has observed both Ahab and Starbuck

interpret the doubloon and depart grimly. “And all from looking at a piece of gold,”

he marvels, perceiving without fully understanding the significance of interpretation.

His superiors’ profound reactions do not match the mundanity of the object, so that

puzzles him, but he knows that they derive from their own internal interpretations

of it. He initially assumes (and what is an assumption but an interpretation

concluded prior to cogitation) that it is a completely mundane object, a coin like any

other, with which he could have fun partying or employing prostitutes. He thinks of
interpreting the doubloon as a game, a puzzle to solve.

       When he decides to “try [his] hand at raising a meaning out of” the coin’s

markings, he enlists the aid of a reference book, feeling incapable (or perhaps too

lazy) of descrying the puzzle’s solution on his own. Using the almanac, he

successfully perceives the image’s individual parts without penetrating beyond their

surface appearance or comprehending their relationships to each other. Unsatisfied,

he chides the book: “you books must know your places. You’ll do to give us the bare
words and facts, but we come in to supply the thoughts.” Again he shows that he

almost understands that meaning resides in the mind of the interpreter, but he

remains convinced that the key to solving the doubloon’s puzzle is in the doubloon

itself: “Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders! There’s

a clue somewhere, wait a bit.”

       After further consideration, Stubb thinks that he has figured out the solution:

the zodiacal markings depict an allegory of man’s life from birth to death. But he

reveals his interpretation, superficially plausible, to be incomplete and unsystematic.

He fails to consider the markings in the coin’s center, and his explication of the 12

steps of a man’s journey through life reveals no system, no coherence among the

parts. He concludes that the sun proceeds around the image “jollily.” So we see that

ultimately, like Ahab (and Starbuck), Stubb sees himself in the coin’s markings. He

lives his life “jollily,” without a conscious system of goals or principles, reacting to

each moment separately from the last and the next.

       After Stubb hides himself to observe others interpreting the doubloon, he

watches Flask eye the coin. The third mate, a lazy and selfish man, opines, “I see

nothing here, but a round thing made of gold. […] So, what’s all this staring been

about? It is with sixteen dollars, that’s true; and at two cents the cigar, that’s nine

hundred and sixty cigars.” Like Stubb initially, Flask sees only the superficial

significance of the doubloon. But he does not bother to dig deeper, satisfied with his
menial, practical interpretation.

       One of the common sailors, the old Manxman, who had told the crew

superstitious stories about Moby Dick, next looks at the coin. He claims, “I’ve

studied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the

old witch in Copenhagen.” He notices the horseshoe hung on the opposite side of

the mast from the coin and proclaims a superstitious interpretation of doom for the


       Following the Manxman’s proclamation, Stubb remarks upon the polyphony

of interpretation he has been witnessing: “There’s another rendering now; but still

one text. All sorts of men in one kind of world, you see.”

       Next he observes Queequeg and then Fedallah take their turns. Because they

do not vocalize their analyses, we only get Stubb’s guess-work interpretation of their

interpretations. Queequeg, a pagan savage, connects the coin’s image with his own

earthly body, apparently considering it to symbolically correspond with human

anatomy. Fedallah bows to the doubloon. Stubb thinks that he worships fire and

reacts to the image of the sun, though we might consider that he pays homage to

“the talisman of the white whale” which symbolizes his quest, his prey and his


       Finally, Stubb watches Pip, the “idiot” cabin boy, approach the doubloon.

Though opaque to Stubb, we see that Pip’s reaction encompasses all of the previous

interpretations. He metapolyphonically observes, “I look, you look, he looks; we

look, ye look, they look.” Pip alone understands what has passed in the procession of

interpreters. He understands that each man has made his own interpretation. Each

man “looks” at a coin or a whale or a world with a unique gaze, and therefore sees

something that uniquely reflects himself, a notion that Ahab grasps in the midst of

his own interpretation: “this round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which,
like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own

mysterious self.”

       Melville exploits this mirror-like quality of interpretation to delineate both

specific and general character (i.e., the individual characters within the narrative and

the personality types they represent), and to demonstrate the various ways in which

interpretation, shaped by the choices people make, in turn shapes the world around

them (as they experience it). Stubb has chosen not to take the world too seriously
and to be “jolly” at all times if possible; when he interprets the doubloon’s

symbolism, he convinces himself of a “jolly” conclusion, reinforcing his preconceived

world-view. Melville asserts that the only way to break this cycle is to interpret

experience polyphonically. That way lies nirvana.

       In “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Ch. 42), Melville presents an extended

example of just such a polyphonic interpretation within a single mind. We do not

know the degree to which Ishmael articulated this interpretation while he served on

the Pequod, or how much he cogitated upon the issue between that time and the

time of his writing the story. Most likely he considered it extensively and did not

complete his articulation of his ideas until well after his rescue by the Rachel.

Though not conclusive, Melville may value reflective interpretation more highly

than, or otherwise differently from, immediate interpretation.

       Ishmael sets up his interpretation of the whiteness of the whale immediately

by signaling its symbolic inscrutability, “so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it,

that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form.” He launches his

explication of its possible meanings with a 39-line sentence which can be summarized

thusly: Whereas the (non-)color white often signifies such “sweet, honorable and

sublime” things as A, B, C, etc., “there yet lurks an elusive something in the

innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness

which affrights in blood.” For the majority of the rest of the chapter, Ishmael
proceeds to detail numerous instances in which whiteness connotes the terrible. But

after several pages of ruminations upon the subject, including an acknowledgment

that the reader might accuse him of insanity — “thou sayest, methinks this white-

lead chapter about whiteness is but a white flag hung out from a craven soul; thou

surrenderest to a hypo, Ishmael” — he notes that “not yet have we solved the

incantation of whiteness.” He asks, how can that quality simultaneously signify so

many disparate things? In the chapter’s final paragraph he offers a possible solution
for this paradox:

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               that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly

               hues […] are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but

               only laid on from without [by human consciousness]. […] pondering all

               this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers

               in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their

               eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental

               white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. (Ch 42)

If absolute meaning does not exist within the things around us but only within our

minds, then those who refuse to interpret their environment see nothing at all. But

it also allows for the possibility of polyphonic interpretation, the simultaneous

understanding of multiple, perhaps paradoxical, meanings. So he concludes: “And of

all these things the Albino whale was the symbol.”

       Ahab echoes Ishmael’s understanding of the creative role of interpretation in

“The Doubloon” when he says, “Great pains, small gains for those who ask the world

to solve them; it cannot solve itself” (Ch. 99). For Ahab, not “solving” the world

results effectively in non-existence; the only tenable option is to “solve” it, interpret

it, leading to meaningful life, but also leading intrinsically to suffering.

       But all of Ahab’s interpretations are limited, monomaniac, monophonic.

Indeed, Ishmael appears to be the only member of the Pequod, besides possibly the
insane Pip, who consistently either withholds judgment (as in “The Doubloon”) or

who adopts a polyphonic interpretation of the world around him. So when he says

that “some significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the

round world itself but an empty cipher” (Ch. 99), his statement ironically contradicts

Melville’s essential assertion that meaning does not ultimately lie in things, but

rather within the human mind, and that understanding this fact, and comprehending

the polyphonic nature of interpreting the inscrutable, invests one with salvific power.
After all, it is Ishmael only who alone has escaped to tell us.

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