“All of us run into (and sometimes use) [allusions], these sideways references that are intended to add color and vigor to language. But they are lost on us if we have forgotten or never knew what they mean,” writes Elizabeth Webber, co-editor of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions. So that invites the question, when one encounters an allusion in a publication or book, where do we look it up? Most dictionaries, of course, only provide very precise definitions of discrete words, excluding phrases and allusions. Enter the Dictionary of Allusions, which is an absolutely incredible reference work; Webber describes it as “a collection of those tricky allusions that appear without accompanying explanations in our daily reading… The terms come from literature, sports, mythology, Wall Street, history, headlines, Shakespeare, politics, science, standup comics and Sunday comics, and venues from the locker room to the board room.” Today we will turn our attention to the allusion “Moby Dick.”
Many will recognize the title of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick, considered the Great American Novel, published in 1851. And they may be familiar with its basic plot, told by Ishmael, the sole survivor of the voyage aboard the whaling ship the Pequod: Captain Ahab obsessively pursues the great white whale, Moby-Dick, seeking revenge for the whale that took his leg many years before. In the novel, Moby-Dick functions as a symbol on many levels: cetological, religious, philosophical, ontological, epistemological — to name a few. Similarly, as an allusion, Moby Dick refers to one of several general meanings: the incarnation of evil, an obsessive, perhaps impossible quest (that may result in the pursuer’s death), a representation of God (hidden, mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable), and finally, a representation of unknowable truth or reality.
Now you understand why Moby-Dick is a whale of a tale…
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