Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Name Symbolism in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick

As I said in my last entry, I assume that in most written works authors include things deliberately—for instance, names of character.  In Melville’s case, some names might be chosen for the sake of authenticity, like Starbuck, which was a common Nantucket Quaker name amongst whalers.*  Others are subtly symbolic, the way a sledgehammer subtly drives home a nail:

Ishmael – means “God hears.”  The character in the Bible was the outcast son of Abram. Since he says “Call me” and never gives a first or last name, this probably is not his real name.  so he must have chosen this alias for a reason. 


Ahab – As I mentioned briefly, the Biblical Ahab was an Israelite king who “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30 NKJV) and was married to the evil Jezebel.  The Hebrew meaning of the name, “Uncle,” doesn’t really relate to the character, unless it’s that the crew views him as a pseudo-paternal figure.

Elijah – (“The Lord is my God”) One of the major prophets of the Old Testament, Elijah prophesied againsts the evil actions of Ahab and Jezebel, just as the character warns Captain Ahab of the consequences of obsessing over Moby-Dick. 

Bildad – The co-owner of the Pequod, Bildad acts uncharacteristically greedy and violent for a Quaker.  This may allude to the Biblical Bildad, who was the consoler/accuser of Job when he was suffering, saying that Job must have sinned in order to bring such pain upon himself.

Not all the symbolic names are Biblical.  The names Stubb and Flask carry vague connotations of worldly, vulgar sailors; “Stubb” is almost like a the name of a Shakespearean clown, alluding to his jesterlike character, and Flask acts almost drunk in his belligerence and lack of respect for anything.


Lastly, the name of the Spouter-Inn’s proprietor, Peter Coffin, echoes Ishmael’s “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses” as well as foreshadows Elijah’s prophesy of two coffins, and the method by which Ishmael escapes the maelstrom of the Pequod’s sinking.

*Proof that, contrary to popular belief, I was actually paying attention in class.

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