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The Literal (and Figurative) Whiteness of Moby Dick

For Herman Melville, the color white could be horrifyingly bleak.
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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.

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,