In Melville’s Moby Dick our narrator, Ishmael, has a unique view on the great white whale. “…all these are but subtle deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurement’s cover nothing but the charnel-house within…” By examining his remarks, we can tell he is a very down-to-earth man; however, Melville uses a common theme of “how do you know for sure”.
He is saying, many times throughout the novel, that maybe nothing has any meaning. Despite this, Ishmeal gives numerous examples of what white can mean (i.e. the horror of an albino, or beauty of a white steed etc.) and proceeds to say Moby Dick is all of these things, “Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” He is essentially asking us “if you lived in a world where nothing had any meaning, and a great white whale was taunting you to give chase, what would you do?”
My method of attacking the question, how would the three main characters from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter see the whiteness of the whale?, is going to be a comparison to Melville’s characters. The first comparison is between Hester Prynne and Ishmael. Hester Prynne is a brave lady who faces her sin, as seen in her ability to face severe ridicule on the scaffold. Ishmael is a brave young man who handles any conflict with a strong will, as seen in his agreement to sign onto a whaling ship without knowing the captain. It is also seen in his ability to share a bed with a stranger, and share in his religious activities, and to eventually make a lifelong commitment to the stranger. Hester Prynne is a loving woman who never reveals the identity of her lover to spare him, she puts someone else’s needs before her own. She accepts the consequences of the nature of her sin. It is clear that Ishmael has understanding and compassion, he too can live and accept the natural world. Hawthorne portrays Hester as a victim of many thing, especially as a victim to Chillingworth’s selfishness. Hester, while apologizing for not revealing the identity of Chillingworth, says “I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast and did hold fast through all extremity…a lie is never good even though death threatens on the other side.” Ishmael strives to be true also, he gave us a true meaning of what the color white was, it was merely a cosmetic. This is why I think that Hester would hold the same opinion as Ishmael does. “It is all of these things.”
The second comparison is between Arthur Dimmesdale and Starbuck. Arthur Dimmesdale was an intelligent man who was passionate in his religion. Starbuck was also an intelligent man, although it was a different kind of intelligence, he is wise enough to know Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick is wrong and dangerous. He too is passionate in his work, he is a realist who thinks that the primary concern of the ship should be to gather the oils of the whales so the crew can gain wealth. However intelligent, both men have tragic flaws. Dimmesdale’s tragic flaw is that he cannot admit to being Hester’s lover, he conceals his sin, which makes it a more severe sin. When Chiilingworth tries to press him, he clearly tries justifying his behavior. He allows Chiilingworth to make him feel guilty to the point where he almost goes crazy. After seven years, he overcomes his weakness and reveals he is Pearl’s father. Starbuck’s tragic flaw is his weakness to openly criticize his captain. When Ahab announces his mission to the crew, Starbuck questions him by saying “vengeance, on a dumb brute?” When Ahab pursues his questioning he can do nothing but sigh “God help me, God help all of us!” However, it doesn’t take him seven years to overcome his weakness, as it does Dimmesdale. In chapter one hundred and four, he confronts and challenges Ahabs ignorance regarding the oil vats. Ahab pulls a gun and points it at him, and Starbuck says “…let Ahab beware of Ahab.” This is why I feel Starbuck and Arthur Dimmesdale would ignore the whiteness of the whale and see it as a simple brute.
The final comparison is one between Ahab and Roger Chillingworth. These two are almost perfect matches. Both are delayed emergence characters who are physically deformed and at first portrayed as victims. Ahab and Chillingworth both appear calm and intelligent, completely hiding their anger, at least for a while. Chillingworth commits two severe sins, the first is against the nature of love. He does so in marrying Hester while knowing he wasn’t a suitable husband. His second is subordination of another human’s heart. He is willing to sacrifice another human to satisfy his own selfishness. Ahab also commits numerous sins. The first if these is his cheating of the nature of trust in lying to the ship’s owners about the goal on his mission. The second is his subordination of an entire crew in his hunt for Moby Dick. He is willing to sacrifice his entire crew to satisfy his desire for vengeance. Chiilingworth and Ahab both try to create a scapegoat for destroying themselves, but they both should accept responsibility for themselves. They both try and play a god-like-role and end up as devils. That is why they both would see the whale as purely a representation of all the evil in the world.
“The Albino whale was all of these things, wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?” The whiteness is purely a cosmetic, but as it always is, no one thing means anything definitely. The meaning lies in the value an individual gives to that object.
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