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Exploring the Symbolism of Moby Dick

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1247 words Published: 18th Aug 2021

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Moby Dick is a story of a journey, with the common plot of struggling to achieve a goal. Many books have followed this storyline such as Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, but few have a tragic hero so obsessed with their goal in life. Ahab is the tragic hero of Moby Dick, with his major tragic flaw being displayed through his unethical decision making, distorted values and false symbolism. He is obsessed with revenge, and this obsession blurs his sense of common sense. Ahab is a monomaniac with only revenge in his mind. Ahab has a great passion, based on many reasons, to get revenge against Moby Dick. The most obvious reason is the loss of his leg. This loss is also what triggered Ahab to begin his quest to hunt down the whale. All of the other reasons for the quest began to develop in Ahab’s mind after he lost his leg and became insane. The injury was merely a spark for the many reasons Ahab detested Moby Dick and committed his life to hunt it. Peleg states this in the story by saying, “I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody-desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off.” Ahab’s obsession did not pass off, but got even worse as his struggle to hunt Moby Dick went on.

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The first sign of Ahab’s tragic flaw is evident through his symbolism of Moby Dick. Ahab abhors the whale not only because it took his leg, but also due to the fact that he view it as more than a whale. He perceives it as the embodiment of all evil. This is indicated through his famous speech to his crew members, “He tasks me; he heaps me; I see him in outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” This speech illustrated Ahab’s hate against the whale to his crew members and convinced them to also view the whale as the symbol of evil. Ahab will do anything to get the crew to help him out in the struggle and keep them convinced that he is right about going on the chase. Ahab also symbolizes himself as the hero. He views himself as the one to destroy Moby Dick, therefore destroying the source of evil. Ahab says, “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me,” claiming that he would even attack the sun if it harmed him. This further proves the indistinct idea he has about the possible dangers and consequences of his journey to hunt Moby Dick. Ahab thinks that he is more than mortal when de facto; he is merely a human being. He compares himself to Gods when he calls himself as proud as a Greek God. He also baptizes the harpoon in the name of the devil, showing disregard to God. This also shows he regards himself as God’s equal, refusing to worship anything else but his own will.

The second indication of Ahab’s tragic flaw is apparent through his unethical decision making. Ahab risks the lives of his entire crew just for his own selfish reasons. He disregards his crew and claims he will search forever in order to find Moby Dick. “Aye, Aye! and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and rounds perdition’s flames before I give him up” Also, despite all of the warnings that are directed towards Ahab, he continues to search for the whale. There are many examples of events that Ahab should have taken notice of and stopped his chase of Moby Dick. The first instance is when he learns from two different ships that each one has had a crew member killed by Moby Dick. The captains of both ships recommend Ahab to stay away from the whale. Pip, one of the captains of the ships told Ahab, “Ha, ha! old Ahab! the White Whale; he’ll nail ye!” Ahab ignored the warning and just continued his journey, impaired by his want for revenge. Ahab furthermore shows his unethical decision making when he decides to ignore the warnings when the navigational aids malfunction. The quadrant won’t give Ahab the position of the whale and then he destroys it. Then the compass malfunctions, showing a course that would take the Pequod away from its chosen path and the whale. He still decides to seek Moby Dick after the navigation aids are useless. Ahab resorts to using the primitive method of navigation, using a log and a line to find the direction of Moby Dick. Even after that fails to work, Ahab denies that the failures are warnings and continues to overlook them. Ahab’s unethical decisions eventually get him and his entire crew killed, leaving only one survivor.

The last suggestion of Ahab’s tragic flaw is seen in his values. Ahab values his hunt for Moby Dick more than the lives of his crew mates. He risks their lives many times just in order to fulfill his goal of getting revenge against Moby Dick. Starbuck, tells Ahab, “I am game for the crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow; but I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance,” arguing that he would be glad to fight to the death against Moby Dick if he came in the path of the ship but the main purpose of this trip is not to hunt Moby Dick, but to make profit. Ahab ignores Starbuck’s argument since he values revenge over anything else. This is further shown when Starbuck is trying to extract from a whale a valuable material used to make perfume. Ahab says that there is no time for collecting and that the chase must go on. He is clearly valuing the hunt for the whale more than the crew, who need to make money in order to support their own lives. Later in the book, Ahab claims, “What business have I with this pipe? This thing that is meant for sereneness, to send up mild white vapors among mild white hairs, not among torn iron-grey locks like mine. I’ll smoke no more—-.” The pipe symbolizes the happiness in Ahab’s life and his obsession for revenge has overshadowed his value of his own happiness. By throwing the pipe overboard, Ahab signifies that he no longer can enjoy simple pleasures in life; instead, he dedicates his entire life to the pursuit of his obsession, the killing of the white whale, Moby Dick. His value of gams (meetings between ships to have fun) is also overpowered by his quest. Instead of having fun, he constantly uses these meetings to seek more information about Moby Dick and his whereabouts. His values and morals are all distorted by his obsession over Moby Dick and outline his main tragic flaw of being controlled by his need for revenge.

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In conclusion, Ahab’s tragic flaw of obsession is portrayed by his unethical decisions, false symbolism and immoral values. His flaws are the reason that the Pequod got destroyed and his whole crew was killed by Moby Dick. Ahab wants revenge; he struggles to get it, and fails. The sinking of the Pequod marked the end of Ahab’s journey and showed that there was no turning back. Ahab would either have to kill the whale or be killed by the whale. “Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone.” This is ironic because he is eventually killed by the whale that he sought revenge on for his whole journey. His obsession is what killed him, continuing to pursue Moby Dick in spite of the numerous warnings from people around him.


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