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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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CHAPTER 42: THE WHITENESS OF THE WHALE

In this chapter Ishmael and Melville work to convince you of the universal significance of the great whale.

You've seen what the whale was to Ahab, but what was it to Ishmael? Ishmael tells us that the whale has many frightening features, and none is more frightening than its whiteness. Whiteness can enhance the beauty of marble and pearls. Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Christians regarded it as a symbol of holiness. But there is something about whiteness that terrifies. The terror we feel at Polar wastes or white sharks results not just from the danger they represent but from their bleak whiteness. Perhaps, Ishmael suggests, whiteness is so frightening because it isn't a color at all, merely the absence of color. All other shades-the tones of a sunset, the "gilded velvets" of butterflies, even the "butterfly cheeks" of young girls-are just a thin, false layer covering that absence. Whiteness seems to suggest that beneath the surfaces of the universe lies nothing at all.

NOTE:

You may agree or disagree with Ishmael's analysis of whiteness. Some critics have called it illogical, even hysterical. But Melville's technique of piling on symbol after symbol has power. You won't easily forget that for Ishmael the universe can be chaotic and empty, and that Moby-Dick can be a mighty symbol of chaos and emptiness.

CHAPTER 43: HARK!

Melville uses a common literary tactic to maintain suspense. Two crew members hear noises, indicating that someone may be hiding in the ship.

CHAPTER 44: THE CHART

As a squall strikes and the crew drunkenly celebrates the hunt for Moby-Dick, Ahab retreats to his cabin to study ocean charts, a practice he continues night after night. Someone unfamiliar with whales might think it impossible to find Moby-Dick among all the whales in all the seas. But Ahab studies, knowing that sperm whales tend to migrate in set patterns at set times and congregate in set feeding grounds. They gather especially at one time in one part of the Pacific-a pattern that is called the Season-on-the-Line.

For these reasons Ahab's search isn't impossible. But the search is taking its toll. As he pencils the charts it seems as if a matching "invisible pencil" were tracing lines on his forehead. He sleeps with clenched hands and wakes with his bloody nails digging in his palms; his dreams seem to create a chasm in him filled with the fire and lightning of hell. (Notice the hellish fire images again.) Ahab's mind and soul are given over to his obsession, which has a will of its own. The obsession eats away within him, like the vulture that in Greek mythology ate the liver of Prometheus.



NOTE: PROMETHEUS

Melville uses a classical allusion to show us the complexity of Ahab. Prometheus angered Zeus by stealing fire from the gods and giving it to man; it was an act of disobedience but also a noble act. By comparing Ahab to Prometheus, Melville wants to show that at least in some ways Ahab is a hero, and provides us with one interpretation of Ahab's behavior.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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