When I was a child I read the children's version of Moby Dick. I never read the complete version until recently and Melville, in my opinion is one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
Most of us know that Moby-Dick is the enormous white whale who torments Captain Ahab and Ahab is obsessed with finding and killing Moby-Dick as revenge for having lost a leg in a previous encounter with the whale. Ahab's crazed desire for revenge leads to his demise. At novel's end, Ahab finds and attacks Moby-Dick, but the terrible whale destoys Ahab, his ship Pequod, and all of its crew down to a watery grave with him, except for Ishmael, who is telling the story. Melville based his tale, in part, on the sinking of the real-life whaling ship Essex in 1820.
Several themes, motifs and symbols run throughout the story of Moby Dick such as limits of knowledge, the exploitative nature of whaling, whiteness, surfaces and depths, Queequeg's coffin, and even Moby Dick and the Pequod itself are symbols.
Though the captain and the crew of the Pequod use every bit of knowledge they can pool together, it isn't enough in the end. The men cannot see below the depths of the ocean, and certain things about the great whale are unknowable to humans, as certain things are unknowable about their god.
Thoughout the story, we are given the foreshadowing that the Pequod is doomed. I knew it was doomed because I have read the book before and had seen the film. But if I had not read it before, I would know that there was no hope for this fateful mission of a captain who is consumed with his quest for vengence.
The exploitative nature of whaling in those days is illustrated throughout the story, also. While the crew of the Pequod come from every part of the globe and all races, they seem to get along quite well together. At first Ishmael is uneasy when first meeting Queequeg (which is a quite amusing chapter of the book), but later he realizes it is better to have a sober cannibal on his side than a drunken Christian. The crew of the Pequod are paid quite well, but the exploitative nature of whaling is similar to buffalo hunts and unfair trade with indigenous people that characterize American and European territorial expansion. Non-white crew members are given the dirtiest and dangerous jobs.
The whiteness which permeates the story is symbolic of all things unnatural and threatening. The role of whiteness in Moby Dick is reversed from the usual symbolic meaning of purity and peacefulness.
The Pequod is a symbol of doom. It is painted black and covered in whale's teeth and bones, literally decorated with mementos of violent death. Decorated like a huge coffin, which the Pequod fatefully becomes.
Queequeg's coffin symbolizes both life and death. The coffin is built when Queequeg becomes deathly ill and the crew believes he is not going to pull through, but he does. Queequeg uses the adorned coffin to store his possessions in. In the end, the coffin provides a buoy to save Ishmael's life.
Moby Dick, the largest symbol of the book represents many things. To the crew he represents the dangers of their frightening job. To Ahab, Moby Dick is a manifestation of all that is wrong in the world and he feels it is his destiny that he eradicate this huge evil. Many critics say that Moby Dick represents an unknowable and mighty god. Moby Dick is also a profit commodity and represents the white expansion and exploitation of the nineteenth century, and also the destruction of the environment that is caused by such exploitation.
This book could be discussed in great detail for a whole semester of study. It's one of the greatest stories ever written.