This is the significance of the white whale—Nature in relation to life of man. The white whale must be seen as a symbol, not as an allegory Melville insists. For it is precisely a symbol which offers the widest reference and interpretation. Unlike Dostoyevsky, Melville places his characters in a very concrete environment, the environment of an industry, men doing the daily business of the modem world. Melville is to this day unique in his portrait of an industry. Where else does anything like this appear in literature? Certainly not in the sprawling, over-emotional novels of the modern propagandist novels, nor in the romantic sea-stories of Conrad. Not one great novelist even faintly approaches the realistic description of the process and personnel from the signing up of Ishmael and Queequeg, the preparation of the Pequod by the owners, to the final catastrophe. Melville’s sense of society was American—the opposite of the talkers, reasoners, arguers of Dostoyevsky.
The Pequod was doing a legitimate business, one of the greatest industries of the middle of the nineteenth Century. This cannot be over-emphasised for it is of the essence of Melville. Furthermore, Melville takes care to show that there had been whales which had terrorised whalers, and there had been captains who in the way of business, had sought out and destroyed such whales. Thus Ahab’s rnanaical quest is merely the exaggeration, the intensification beyond reason, of the legitimate and, in fact, necessary pursuits of men. This is precisely why it is so terrible and so dangerous.
"Whitman and Melville"