Symbols in literature are usually objects used to represent or suggest important concepts that inform and expand our appreciation of the work. Moby-Dick offers some of the most widely known symbols in American literature. Being widely known, however, does not imply that the symbols are simple or easy to understand. Like the themes in the novel, the symbols are ambiguous in enriching ways.
Father Mapple's Pulpit
Father Mapple's pulpit in the Whaleman's Chapel effectively represents this former harpooner's approach to his ministry. Everything about the chapel reminds a visitor of life and death at sea. Father Mapple is the captain of the ship, the congregation his crew. The pulpit itself is shaped like the prow of a ship and features a painting of a vessel battling a storm near a rocky coast, an angel of hope watching over it. Without much effort, we can see that the pulpit represents the leadership of the pastor and implies that God himself is the pilot of this ship. Mapple's "shipmates," as he refers to the congregation, often find themselves battling storms on rocky coasts — either literally, in ships, or figuratively in the rest of their lives. They need the hope and consolation of God's grace, as represented by the angel.
Mapple ascends to the pulpit by climbing a rope ladder like one used to mount a ship from a boat at sea. He then pulls the rope up after him, effectively cutting off contact with worldly matters. In similar ways, the captain of a whaling ship assumes the pilot's role as he cuts off contact with land; the ship becomes a floating microcosm at sea. Melville makes effective use of contrast throughout the novel; here, it is between Mapple and Ahab. Mapple is an elderly but vigorous man of God who sees his role as leading his ship through rocky waters by gladly submitting to the will of a higher authority. Ahab is an ungodly man who doesn't mind wielding authority but resents submitting to it. He wears his defiance proudly. In this sense,...