The Project Gutenberg ebook of Moby Dick; or The Whale, by Herman Melville

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as that unexampled, intelligent malignity which, according to specific

accounts, he had over and over again evinced in his assaults. More than

all, his treacherous retreats struck more of dismay than perhaps aught

else. For, when swimming before his exulting pursuers, with every

apparent symptom of alarm, he had several times been known to turn

round suddenly, and, bearing down upon them, either stave their boats to

splinters, or drive them back in consternation to their ship.
Already several fatalities had attended his chase. But though similar

disasters, however little bruited ashore, were by no means unusual

in the fishery; yet, in most instances, such seemed the White Whale's

infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death

that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an

unintelligent agent.

Judge, then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of

his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed

boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the

white curds of the whale's direful wrath into the serene, exasperating

sunlight, that smiled on, as if at a birth or a bridal.
His three boats stove around him, and oars and men both whirling in the

eddies; one captain, seizing the line-knife from his broken prow, had

dashed at the whale, as an Arkansas duellist at his foe, blindly seeking

with a six inch blade to reach the fathom-deep life of the whale.

That captain was Ahab. And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his

sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's

leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field. No turbaned Turk, no

hired Venetian or Malay, could have smote him with more seeming malice.

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal

encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale,

all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came

to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his

intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before

him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which

some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with

half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been

from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe

one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced

in their statue devil;--Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them;

but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he

pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and

torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice

in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle

demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly

personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon

the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt

by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a

mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at

the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the

monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate,

corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he

probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more.

Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long

months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one

hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape;

then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another;

and so interfusing, made him mad. That it was only then, on the homeward

voyage, after the encounter, that the final monomania seized him, seems

all but certain from the fact that, at intervals during the passage,

he was a raving lunatic; and, though unlimbed of a leg, yet such vital

strength yet lurked in his Egyptian chest, and was moreover intensified

by his delirium, that his mates were forced to lace him fast, even

there, as he sailed, raving in his hammock. In a strait-jacket, he swung

to the mad rockings of the gales. And, when running into more sufferable

latitudes, the ship, with mild stun'sails spread, floated across the

tranquil tropics, and, to all appearances, the old man's delirium seemed

left behind him with the Cape Horn swells, and he came forth from his

dark den into the blessed light and air; even then, when he bore that

firm, collected front, however pale, and issued his calm orders once

again; and his mates thanked God the direful madness was now gone; even

then, Ahab, in his hidden self, raved on. Human madness is oftentimes a

cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but

become transfigured into some still subtler form. Ahab's full lunacy

subsided not, but deepeningly contracted; like the unabated Hudson,

when that noble Northman flows narrowly, but unfathomably through the

Highland gorge. But, as in his narrow-flowing monomania, not one jot of

Ahab's broad madness had been left behind; so in that broad madness, not

one jot of his great natural intellect had perished. That before living

agent, now became the living instrument. If such a furious trope may

stand, his special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it,

and turned all its concentred cannon upon its own mad mark; so that far

from having lost his strength, Ahab, to that one end, did now possess a

thousand fold more potency than ever he had sanely brought to bear upon

any one reasonable object.
This is much; yet Ahab's larger, darker, deeper part remains unhinted.

But vain to popularize profundities, and all truth is profound. Winding

far down from within the very heart of this spiked Hotel de Cluny where

we here stand--however grand and wonderful, now quit it;--and take your

way, ye nobler, sadder souls, to those vast Roman halls of Thermes;

where far beneath the fantastic towers of man's upper earth, his root

of grandeur, his whole awful essence sits in bearded state; an antique

buried beneath antiquities, and throned on torsoes! So with a broken

throne, the great gods mock that captive king; so like a Caryatid, he

patient sits, upholding on his frozen brow the piled entablatures of

ages. Wind ye down there, ye prouder, sadder souls! question that proud,

sad king! A family likeness! aye, he did beget ye, ye young exiled

royalties; and from your grim sire only will the old State-secret come.
Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely: all my means

are sane, my motive and my object mad. Yet without power to kill, or

change, or shun the fact; he likewise knew that to mankind he did long

dissemble; in some sort, did still. But that thing of his dissembling

was only subject to his perceptibility, not to his will determinate.

Nevertheless, so well did he succeed in that dissembling, that when

with ivory leg he stepped ashore at last, no Nantucketer thought him

otherwise than but naturally grieved, and that to the quick, with the

terrible casualty which had overtaken him.
The report of his undeniable delirium at sea was likewise popularly

ascribed to a kindred cause. And so too, all the added moodiness which

always afterwards, to the very day of sailing in the Pequod on the

present voyage, sat brooding on his brow. Nor is it so very unlikely,

that far from distrusting his fitness for another whaling voyage, on

account of such dark symptoms, the calculating people of that prudent

isle were inclined to harbor the conceit, that for those very reasons he

was all the better qualified and set on edge, for a pursuit so full

of rage and wildness as the bloody hunt of whales. Gnawed within and

scorched without, with the infixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable

idea; such an one, could he be found, would seem the very man to dart

his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of all brutes.

Or, if for any reason thought to be corporeally incapacitated for that,

yet such an one would seem superlatively competent to cheer and howl on

his underlings to the attack. But be all this as it may, certain it is,

that with the mad secret of his unabated rage bolted up and keyed in

him, Ahab had purposely sailed upon the present voyage with the one only

and all-engrossing object of hunting the White Whale. Had any one of his

old acquaintances on shore but half dreamed of what was lurking in him

then, how soon would their aghast and righteous souls have wrenched the

ship from such a fiendish man! They were bent on profitable cruises, the

profit to be counted down in dollars from the mint. He was intent on an

audacious, immitigable, and supernatural revenge.
Here, then, was this grey-headed, ungodly old man, chasing with curses a

Job's whale round the world, at the head of a crew, too, chiefly made

up of mongrel renegades, and castaways, and cannibals--morally enfeebled

also, by the incompetence of mere unaided virtue or right-mindedness in

Starbuck, the invunerable jollity of indifference and recklessness in

Stubb, and the pervading mediocrity in Flask. Such a crew, so officered,

seemed specially picked and packed by some infernal fatality to help him

to his monomaniac revenge. How it was that they so aboundingly responded

to the old man's ire--by what evil magic their souls were possessed,

that at times his hate seemed almost theirs; the White Whale as much

their insufferable foe as his; how all this came to be--what the White

Whale was to them, or how to their unconscious understandings, also, in

some dim, unsuspected way, he might have seemed the gliding great demon

of the seas of life,--all this to explain, would be to dive deeper than

Ishmael can go. The subterranean miner that works in us all, how can one

tell whither leads his shaft by the ever shifting, muffled sound of his

pick? Who does not feel the irresistible arm drag? What skiff in tow

of a seventy-four can stand still? For one, I gave myself up to the

abandonment of the time and the place; but while yet all a-rush to

encounter the whale, could see naught in that brute but the deadliest


CHAPTER 42. The Whiteness of The Whale.

What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he

was to me, as yet remains unsaid.

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby Dick, which

could not but occasionally awaken in any man's soul some alarm, there

was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning him,

which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and

yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of

putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale

that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself

here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all

these chapters might be naught.
Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as

if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas,

and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a

certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old

kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all

their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings

of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard;

and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger;

and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome,

having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this

pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white

man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; and though, besides, all

this, whiteness has been even made significant of gladness, for among

the Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in other mortal

sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is made the emblem of many

touching, noble things--the innocence of brides, the benignity of age;

though among the Red Men of America the giving of the white belt

of wampum was the deepest pledge of honour; though in many climes,

whiteness typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge,

and contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by

milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the most

august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine spotlessness

and power; by the Persian fire worshippers, the white forked flame being

held the holiest on the altar; and in the Greek mythologies, Great Jove

himself being made incarnate in a snow-white bull; and though to the

noble Iroquois, the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was

by far the holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful

creature being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit

with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though directly from

the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive the name of

one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or tunic, worn beneath the

cassock; and though among the holy pomps of the Romish faith, white is

specially employed in the celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though

in the Vision of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and

the four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great-white

throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like wool; yet for all

these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable,

and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea

of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness

which affrights in blood.

This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when

divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object

terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds.

Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics;

what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent

horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an

abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb

gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his

heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or


*With reference to the Polar bear, it may possibly be urged by him

who would fain go still deeper into this matter, that it is not

the whiteness, separately regarded, which heightens the intolerable

hideousness of that brute; for, analysed, that heightened hideousness,

it might be said, only rises from the circumstance, that the

irresponsible ferociousness of the creature stands invested in the

fleece of celestial innocence and love; and hence, by bringing together

two such opposite emotions in our minds, the Polar bear frightens us

with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming all this to be true;

yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would not have that intensified

As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that

creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the

same quality in the Polar quadruped. This peculiarity is most vividly

hit by the French in the name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish

mass for the dead begins with "Requiem eternam" (eternal rest), whence

REQUIEM denominating the mass itself, and any other funeral music. Now,

in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and

the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him REQUIN.

Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of spiritual

wonderment and pale dread, in which that white phantom sails in all

imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw that spell; but God's great,

unflattering laureate, Nature.*

*I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged

gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch

below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the

main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and

with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth

its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous

flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered

cries, as some king's ghost in supernatural distress. Through its

inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took

hold of God. As Abraham before the angels, I bowed myself; the white

thing was so white, its wings so wide, and in those for ever exiled

waters, I had lost the miserable warping memories of traditions and of

towns. Long I gazed at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only

hint, the things that darted through me then. But at last I awoke; and

turning, asked a sailor what bird was this. A goney, he replied. Goney!

never had heard that name before; is it conceivable that this glorious

thing is utterly unknown to men ashore! never! But some time after, I

learned that goney was some seaman's name for albatross. So that by no

possibility could Coleridge's wild Rhyme have had aught to do with those

mystical impressions which were mine, when I saw that bird upon our

deck. For neither had I then read the Rhyme, nor knew the bird to be

an albatross. Yet, in saying this, I do but indirectly burnish a little

brighter the noble merit of the poem and the poet.
I assert, then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird

chiefly lurks the secret of the spell; a truth the more evinced in this,

that by a solecism of terms there are birds called grey albatrosses;

and these I have frequently seen, but never with such emotions as when I

beheld the Antarctic fowl.
But how had the mystic thing been caught? Whisper it not, and I will

tell; with a treacherous hook and line, as the fowl floated on the sea.

At last the Captain made a postman of it; tying a lettered, leathern

tally round its neck, with the ship's time and place; and then letting

it escape. But I doubt not, that leathern tally, meant for man, was

taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding,

the invoking, and adoring cherubim!

Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is that of

the White Steed of the Prairies; a magnificent milk-white charger,

large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with the dignity of a

thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning carriage. He was the

elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild horses, whose pastures in those

days were only fenced by the Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies. At

their flaming head he westward trooped it like that chosen star which

every evening leads on the hosts of light. The flashing cascade of his

mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings more

resplendent than gold and silver-beaters could have furnished him. A

most imperial and archangelical apparition of that unfallen, western

world, which to the eyes of the old trappers and hunters revived the

glories of those primeval times when Adam walked majestic as a god,

bluff-browed and fearless as this mighty steed. Whether marching amid

his aides and marshals in the van of countless cohorts that endlessly

streamed it over the plains, like an Ohio; or whether with his

circumambient subjects browsing all around at the horizon, the White

Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening through his

cool milkiness; in whatever aspect he presented himself, always to the

bravest Indians he was the object of trembling reverence and awe. Nor

can it be questioned from what stands on legendary record of this noble

horse, that it was his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him

with divineness; and that this divineness had that in it which, though

commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless terror.
But there are other instances where this whiteness loses all that

accessory and strange glory which invests it in the White Steed and

What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and often shocks

the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his own kith and kin! It

is that whiteness which invests him, a thing expressed by the name

he bears. The Albino is as well made as other men--has no substantive

deformity--and yet this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him

more strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this be so?

Nor, in quite other aspects, does Nature in her least palpable but

not the less malicious agencies, fail to enlist among her forces

this crowning attribute of the terrible. From its snowy aspect, the

gauntleted ghost of the Southern Seas has been denominated the White

Squall. Nor, in some historic instances, has the art of human malice

omitted so potent an auxiliary. How wildly it heightens the effect of

that passage in Froissart, when, masked in the snowy symbol of their

faction, the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murder their bailiff in the

Nor, in some things, does the common, hereditary experience of all

mankind fail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of this hue. It

cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality in the aspect of

the dead which most appals the gazer, is the marble pallor lingering

there; as if indeed that pallor were as much like the badge of

consternation in the other world, as of mortal trepidation here. And

from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud

in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to

throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a

milk-white fog--Yea, while these terrors seize us, let us add, that even

the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist, rides on his

pallid horse.

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious

thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest

idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.

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