The first time I read Moby Dick—properly called Moby Dick; Or, The Whale—all the way through, I was surprised. Though Herman Melville had published it in 1851—scrounging together his own funds to do so, as he was so in debt that there was no other way to get the book printed—his novel felt at once of its time and almost like a book from the next century. Its earliest readers were even more bewildered, as the British edition, simply titled The Whale, had its epilogue removed altogether, deleting the very section that confirms the narrator’s survival after his ship is destroyed near the end.
At the time, many American books were first published in Britain, to take advantage of British copyright laws, as international copyright laws did not yet exist, but this meant that British editors often trimmed and bowdlerized manuscripts without even telling their authors. As a result, Richard Bentley, a printer in London, simply converted many of Melville’s informational chapters, without his consent, into an appendix. As if to add insult to injury, the edition featured pictures of right whales, rather than sperm whales—Moby Dick is the latter—on its gold-emblazoned spine.
The American edition, though, arranged the book as Melville wanted it. And this version felt so strange—intentionally—and beyond-its-time partly because of its experimental patchwork structure and encyclopedic allusiveness, the sort of traits one might equally expect of Modernist writers of the next century, like Eliot’s The Waste Land turned into novel form. It was the kind of text that could justify, as with the poems of Rimbaud or the paintings of the Impressionists, a long view of European and American Modernism beginning in the 19th century, rather than the 20th. (There were many distinct Modernist movements, rather than a single thing called Modernism, around the globe.) Melville, in other words, had written a book that almost felt Modernist, half a century before American Modernism supposedly began.
I was struck by the whale of the title. Was Moby Dick just a cetacean, like any other, that a fanatical captain was seeking to destroy, like a person who had been bitten by a scared dog deciding, madly, to spend their life trying to eradicate that canine from the planet? Or was the white whale something supernatural, a leviathan greater than the one that had swallowed Jonah, a whale that was God or the Devil, or both, or something unrelated to either entity? Was Captain Ahab seeking, like Nietzsche, to kill a god? To kill the Devil?
I was struck, too, by how funny it was. There are only so many references to “fragrant sperm” one can read with a straight face. For all its gravity and erudition and megalomaniacal captains, Moby Dick was playful. If at stretches it felt dull, unending, other passages were hilarious. Like Whitman, this book contained multitudes.
Most of all, I was struck by the prominence of color in Melville’s novel. Whiteness, in particular, was everywhere. It isn’t just that Moby Dick is a white whale; Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, is obsessed with whiteness (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, blackness). “It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me,” he reflects. Moby Dick is one of the most wide-ranging, capacious explorations in literature of what the color (or non-color) white may mean, exemplified best, to me, by an extraordinary chapter in the book simply called “The Whiteness of the Whale.” In it, Ishmael muses on the many, often conflicting resonances of whiteness: its sleek beauty, its existential terror, its fullness, its funereal emptiness.
Melville’s novel explores how a single color can evoke life and hope as easily as it can suggest death and despair—and its references to whiteness and blackness are also connected to race, both explicitly and implicitly. Moby Dick is about many things, and racism is very much one of those, yet it is rarely discussed as a book about race. In many ways, it is a template for Melville’s, and our, America: a world populated as much with gestures towards racial equality as with casual racist assumptions.Ishmael muses on the many, often conflicting resonances of whiteness: its sleek beauty, its existential terror, its fullness, its funereal emptiness.
Moby Dick’s fixation with whiteness faintly echoes the ending of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which came out 13 years before Moby Dick. The closing paragraph of Poe’s book describes an all-encompassing, eerie whiteness, whereby “there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.” By contrast, Melville’s novel is a kind of constant snowstorm of whiteness, with a similarly huge white figure—this time a whale—looming over the narrative.
In “The Whiteness of the Whale,” a chapter devoted solely to ruminating about the color white, Ishmael tries to defamiliarize the color, challenging readers’ assumptions about what the color might convey to them. He begins with the idea of whiteness as beauty, creating an enormous list of objects and ideas from around the globe that seem to presume that whiteness is related to royalty, power, and goodness—the basic assumption, of course, that white European colonists used to justify dehumanizing black and brown peoples. In one of the most disturbing passages that Ishmael presents without comment, he claims that the idea of whiteness as authority “applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe.” But even as Ishmael presents this list, he begins with “Though,” setting up for a twist at the end of his list of beauties. “Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty,” he begins,
as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue. . . yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.
Whiteness, then, for all the associations he has mentioned, is frightening at its core. It contains a “nameless horror” that overwhelms, as cold and colossal as Lovecraft’s ancient monsters. Whiteness has a grave-pallor to it, a signifying of something terrible.
Ishmael’s ultimate goal is to show that whiteness can be—and perhaps is at its core—terrifying. This becomes clear by the end of the chapter, where he reflects on white not as a color, but as the “absence of color,” something suggesting voids, nothingness, emptiness:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?
If white contains all colors, and also represents utter emptiness, the universe itself, for Melville, is bleak and boreal, full only of “dumb blankness.” The colors we smile at mean nothing, and there is no god in this hollow cosmos to reassure anyone. All the world is a chill, meaningless snow—blanketed, perhaps, with the little quilts and fires we invent to give life some sort of meaning, but ultimately worthless in of itself. It is as depressing a view of the universe as one can imagine, comparable to the twist at the end of Mark Twain’s late, angst-ridden novella, The Mysterious Stranger, in which Satan reveals to the narrator that his friends, family, and world are all sad solipsistic illusions, for “nothing exists; all is a dream. God—man—the world—the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars—a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space—and you!” Angst, indeed.
In this interpretation, chasing Moby Dick, that avatar of whiteness, means fighting against the meaninglessness of the world, hoping that, through some bloody violence, life-purpose will bloom into existence. Ahab pursues the whale out of a manufactured anger, in a quest to give his life some vague value; without the whale and his ire, Ahab has nothing (a depressing view that ignores his wife, amongst other things).
Ishmael goes further still, arguing that color itself is a lie:
Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge…. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol.
Nature, then (ignoring Ishmael’s sexist assumption that “harlots” are bad), is “painted” to look pretty; beneath this, there is nothing but a necropolis, a death-place. All things are like this, he muses, “blank.” And Moby Dick symbolizes these contradictory meanings of whiteness.
Melville’s novel becomes an existential voyage to see if life has any meaning—but we are never told, chillingly, what to do if we find that it does not.
Over and over, Melville’s novel makes the point that, under our skin’s complexion, all humans (and whales) are equal. Yet the book also contains many racial tropes about nonwhite “savages” and “dusky” tribesmen, and casually uses bigoted racial tropes even in sections ostensibly unrelated to race.
When, for instance, comparing the material used to make whale-lines—hemp or Manilla—Ishmael imagines each as an ethnic figure. Manilla “is much more handsome and becoming to the boat, than hemp,” he says. “Hemp is a dusky, dark fellow, a sort of Indian; but Manilla is as a golden-haired Circassian to behold.” As Toni Morrison has argued in Playing in the Dark, her seminal study of race in literature, references to whiteness and blackness in literature are often related to race, even if race may not initially seem to be the subject of that reference, and Moby Dick is almost as fixated with race as Ahab is with his cetacean.
Ishmael is a conflicted figure. At times, he speaks like an abolitionist trying to tease white supremacists by showing that all humans, regardless of skin color, are equal; at other times, he sounds as unselfconsciously prejudicial as Conrad’s Marlowe in Heart of Darkness. Ishmael—whose very name would have been more common for slaves and freed black people in America—is an avatar of a white America unceasingly at odds with its self-definitions, on the brink of a racially charged civil war.
Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or George Herriman’s Modernist comic, Krazy Kat—in which a black cat sometimes becomes white and vice versa, echoing how its African-American author passed as white for most of his life—Moby Dick contains many images of white things becoming black, or black white, symbolizing that, like white light containing all colors, people of all races are related.
Early on, when Ishmael meets Queequeg, a brown sailor, he describes Queequeg in ways that echo the racist tropes of Melville’s era, but that also “mix” white and nonwhite persons. “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed,” he declares, a statement seemingly meant to ennoble Queequeg by comparing him to the white figure of Washington, while also preserving stereotypes about brown men being cannibals in the first place. Similar imagery animates Melville’s later novella, Benito Cereno, in which Babo, a black man aboard a Spanish slave ship that the slaves have taken over, is described as saliently intelligent, having a “brain the white men fear.”
When Ishmael observes people giving him curious looks for walking together with Queequeg, he remarks on the persons “who marvelled that two fellow beings should be so companionable; as though a white man were anything more dignified than a whitewashed negro.” Ishmael is meant to be accepting here, even progressive, underneath the racialist language he employs without a second thought. Despite his frequently problematic rhetoric, this particular comparison is electric; it is telling that this basic sentiment, that we are more similar than we are different, is still so triggering and terrifying to many white Americans, even the white Americans who claim they are nothing like white supremacists. Even today, some of Ishmael’s claims have the power to shock a white America that still would rather live in places and times as close to segregation as possible.
Later in the book, a black boy, Pip, implores the “big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness” to “have mercy on this small black boy down here” and meditates on the fact that his bones are white, even as his skin is black. There are racist confrontations on the boat, as when a sailor tells Dagoo, a black harpooner, that “thy race is the undeniable dark side of mankind—devilish dark at that”—yet the ship can only function, as during the torrential storm that suddenly follows this bigotry, by everyone, regardless of race, working together.
The whales, too, are black-white mixtures: underneath the dark skin and blubber of the cetaceans is “a peeled white body” that “flashes like a marble sepulchre.” Black contains white; white contains black. There is no room here for racial supremacy here; racism is contradicted by the very bodies—black or white or brown—that the characters have. Of course, this is contradicted by the narrator’s countless statements that do separate people by ethnicity.
Ultimately, Melville leaves us with a text that is deeply, inescapably complicated. It is America itself, then and now, where no single message about racial justice dominates. It is the America we inhabit now, where we protest the barbarism of police profiling and brutality against black bodies at the same time that the President has made week after week of racist remarks, first against congresswomen of color, then against Baltimore and Al Sharpton.
Moby Dick, read as a meditation on color in its various forms—skin color, hues in art, color in light itself—is profoundly uncomfortable, and deliberately so. It is a book that is, as Eliot says of the true names of cats in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, “ineffable effable / Effanineffable,” which is to say that it is a book that aims to be inscrutable, and will always remain partly clear and partly murky, like the shifting seas of a life.
Melville’s grand novel remains central to understanding the language of America itself—and that should make us happy on the one hand, and furious and afraid on the other.