In the epic novel Moby-Dick, Herman Melville employs the symbolism of the white colored whale to present his theme of duality. Specifically, in the chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Melville presents the importance of the meaning duality in the world, as opposed to labeling something as having only one meaning. From this, the intention of the color relies mainly on the individuals experiencing that one object and attribute. Due to this notion, both Ishmael and Ahab are central to Melville’s elaboration of his theme and each contrastingly differs on how they view Moby-Dick’s whiteness.
Experiencing a traumatic encounter with Moby-Dick and losing his leg, Ahab deeply believed that the whale symbolized the evil within the world, thus by Ahab claiming the whale to be only one thing it gives way to his downfall and death. Moby-Dick then shifts to be the main reason for all of the immorality agencies found in the world. Ahab yearns to turn Moby-Dick into a symbol of every conception of evil that exists, “it was Moby-Dick that dismasted me; brought me to this dead stump. ” (pg. 56) Descriptive words such as “dismast” and “dead stump” provide the sense that Moby-Dick is so completely wicked that he took away Ahab’s independence, in a literal and metaphorical sense. Ahab now must rely on a prosthetic leg and is emotionally distraught over what happened. Ahab consistently describes Moby-Dick as inscrutable, but that is the only way Ahab can make sense of the evilness that Moby-Dick instills in the trials and tribulations that Ahab experiences with hunting him down. Moby-Dick represents the mysteriousness in life thus alluding to evil; people avoid making certain commitments to understand the object of their dread.
With this, Ahab refutes Starbucks’s statement of pure beastly instinct, because the ignorance makes it easier to categorize Moby-Dick as pure malevolence. “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. ” (pg. 157) Ahab’s choosing to wreak his hate upon Moby-Dick is an attempt to turn the white whale into something sentient; not just a carrier of evil, but a creator of evil. On the other hand, Ishmael sees that the color white offers an array of significance and has many meanings to different people.
Ishmael realized that the color white can represent beauty; “whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls” (pg. 185). Another characteristic of the color white is strength, such as that of the polar bear or the great white shark. Unlike Ahab, Ishmael saw the duality in white as he also understood that white could very well be amazing, even fearsome, as man gazes across the white wastes of the prairies covered with snow and ice, or the white foaming sea hurled upon the rocky coasts by a frightful storm (pg. 96). Due to Ishmael’s ability to view the whiteness of Moby Dick through many viewpoints as opposed to Ahab’s strict one belief, it allowed him to survive on the disastrous voyage of the Pequod.
Ishmael holds a belief that no matter how difficult we have a hard time of understanding the world, it is still there for us, “some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher. ” (pg. 70) Whiteness then attracts a number of things to interpret, thus the whale’s whiteness astounds Ishmael because simultaneously it offers contradictory meanings in addition to no meaning whatsoever. Ishmael argues that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (p. 200). A notable difference between the viewpoints of Ishmael and Ahab is that endless mystery is unacceptable. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?
To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough” (pg. 178). Ahab believes that knowledge of Moby Dick is only achievable through literal confrontation, and it allows human comprehension of the whale’s evilness to slide by. Perhaps Ishmael survives because, although he is just as attuned as Ahab to the existence of Moby-Dick, but his inability to coin the whale with evil dissuades him from becoming obsessive. Melville presents the various meanings of the color white, he reveals that ot one thing is set in stone indefinitely and that the meaning arises from what that individual brings to the object. Melville allows white to mean both good and evil, it only depends on what character you are observing and the plot that they are experiencing. Therefore, the white whale does not just have just one single meaning as Ahab believed, but instead he is a symbol of almost everything in the universe. Melville utilizes the symbolism of the white whale to reveal the danger of viewing life in terms of a simple single view.
The color white is used to develop Melville’s theme of duality of meaning. Captain Ahab viewed Moby-Dick as the symbol of all evil in the universe. This faulty view of white and life led to his death. Contrastingly, Ishmael viewed white in terms of duality of meaning. White means purity, power, and danger. Melville reinforces this more realistic view of life as the more proper in that Ishmael is the sole survivor of the tragically focused voyage. The color white and in fact the meaning of all things depends on the experiences and perception of the person viewing that object.