I bought an old copy of Moby Dick from a used bookstore a couple weeks ago, and finally finished it; right as the book was about to fall apart.
I admit, that as a literary scholar it’s shameful that it took so long to read one of the most revered books in history, with one of the most universally recognized symbols of all time: the white whale. In fact, I even heard a reference to it today on the radio, in the form of a car insurance commercial. (It’s the great, white WHALE of discounts!!!) but I never had the time or patience to stoop down and pick up this weighty book with enough patience and perseverance to truly enjoy it’s qualities.
And this book has so many! Can I just say that??? Never before have I felt so enriched in ancient sailing techniques, whilst drowning in metaphor layered upon metaphor. We have the floating casket, the gold dubloon, the ship itself, Queequeg, his little god talismen, the final spear captain Ahab uses, the ship Rachel, almost everything means something more than its original meaning. And that can make for some confusing readings.
But seeing that there have been countless papers, books, etc written about every singly finicky detail of Moby Dick, I don’t want to bash your head in with some heady analysis that you could find somewhere else online. What I wanted to concentrate on was two facts:
One: Moby Dick was a white whale.
Two: I’ve always wanted a black and white cat that I would of course, name Moby.
Let’s focus on the first part. Why white? What an interesting color choice because symbolically, we see white as something pure, holy, innocent, and inherently good. And now it’s being used as the primary characteristic of a crazy, violent, man-killing whale. And why is that so horrible?
I would like to venture a personal belief of mine: there is such a thing as too much of a good thing: moderation is key. When we temper ourselves, our emotions, our surroundings, we can handle nearly all situations. It is when we are overwhelmed with such things that they become scary. Fire? Romantic, warming, generally good. Forest fire? Not good. Inch of snow? Fun, cheerful, drivable. Two feet? The roof over your head collapses.
We think of plenty of things as white as being good: fabrics, roses, the foam on the tide, but when all that is combined, it becomes frightening, awesome, and nearly loathsome. Thus we get the image of Moby Dick: a monstrous, beautiful creature of the sea to be respected and revered. But his white skin shows him to be awkward, vile, and “impure” in a way, in the same way that putting a rather “loose” bride in a white wedding gown can incite titters and ironic comments from friends and family.
We also have the color itself: we tend to think of light as “white” and yet we know that when you hold a prism to it, all the colors appear. Thus “white” in itself is everything (all visual elements we can see with the naked eye) and nothing (a blank canvas with nothing to differentiate any aspect of it) we can thus see the white whale as signifying everything, and nothing (an interesting metaphor if you decide to apply it to any other important cultural/literary symbols…) he encompasses both good and bad, guilt and redemption, forgiveness and damnation etc etc. But then he also signifies none of that stuff; the poor sucker was just unlucky enough to be born albino and with a bad attitude.
We can also think of it in a metaphorical way concerning light and darkness. With light, we get illumination, understanding, and knowledge. So perhaps in that way dear Moby was bringing a message to the world, as in “for the LOVE OF GOD stop killing us people!”. Of maybe a message to Ahab and Ishmael, about their own inner passages of darkness that needed illuminating. Much in the same way that Jonah is alluded to in the novel; in that he found repentance and renewed understanding in the whale, Moby Dick was to be Ahab’s fish to swallow him alive.