The following is from a work-in-progress called "Moby Dick: a Book Report" in which I read each chapter of Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and write about what I read.
In this chapter, the narrator Ishmael attempts to explain why Moby-Dick was so horrifying to him. There was, he says, “a vague, nameless horror concerning him…and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable it was, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me.” Ishmael acknowledges that this is difficult to explain, “and yet, in some dim random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.” Here Ishmael is saying that this difficult, ineffable explanation is central to understanding the book. What, after all, could be so scary about whiteness in America? What indeed.
Ishmael begins by acknowledging that, in many historical examples, whiteness has been identified not with horror, but with beauty, perfection, even the holy. In the 19th century, for example, white skin on people gave them a perceived social superiority, and “mastership over every dusky tribe.” Nobel Prize-winning American novelist Toni Morrison has a chapter on Moby Dick in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination in which she suggests that what Moby Dick represents is the horrifying paradox of whiteness in America. Indeed, white people in the U.S. have inflicted terrible atrocities on non-whites (slavery, genocide, segregation, discrimination) based on the bankrupt idea of some non-existent racial hierarchy.
Melville may have had this in mind, but he’s not really explicit about it. This chapter is more of a meditation on the instability of meaning than an explicit argument about race. Ishmael gives numerous examples of white things that are beautiful (white elephants, bridal dresses, white tigers, etc.), and white things that elicit horror (an albatross, dead bodies, ghosts). Perhaps, he suggests, the whiteness of Moby Dick is so scary because white is normally a color associated with beauty, and yet the whale is a monstrous thing—so it messes with our categories of meaning and perception.
Ultimately, the whiteness of the whale remains, for Ishmael, an appalling mystery. As he puts it: “By its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartiness 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.” Put another way, the whiteness of the whale represents a kind of existential dread which is really hard to explain.