Moby Dick: Chapters 41-42
Chapter 41, “Moby Dick”
Ishmael admits he was one of the crew who had shouted support for Ahab: “Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine” (41.174). Ishmael reviews all he has learned about Moby Dick. He is reported to be larger than other sperm whales, has a crooked jaw, wrinkled white brow, high hump, and many harpoons in him from previous hunters. More than that, superstition has it he is thirsty for human blood, for he turns on his pursuers to attack. He is thought to be ubiquitous and immortal, a malignant intelligence that Ahab believes to be the embodiment of all evil. Moby Dick is Ahab’s monomania, his one obsession: “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another” (41.180). Ahab’s insanity on the subject gives him cunning and strength. Unfortunately, the crew “seemed specially picked . . . by some infernal fatality” (41.183): Starbuck is good but too weak to act; Stubb is indifferent; Flask, mediocre. Ishmael admits he, like the others, gives himself up to the moment.
Chapter 42,“The Whiteness of the Whale”
Ishmael goes on with his own speculations on “the whiteness of the whale,” wondering if that is the origin of its terror. He admits that white is usually thought of as a benign and innocent color, associated with purity, divinity, holiness, justice. But “there lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul” (42.185) White is elusive and therefore the color of “transcendent horrors” like ghosts and lepers. He goes on to prove the supernaturalism of white with frightening examples, all having to do with bleakness, loneliness, and evil. He concludes it is through “its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe . . . a dumb blankness” (42. 192).
Analysis Chapters 41 and 42
Ahab knows he is mad in his motives, but he is sane in his methods of getting what he wants. Thus, he was able to feign sanity long enough to become captain of the ship. His monomania, once discovered by Starbuck, would justify the first mate in taking over, since Ahab is acting illegally. The first mate, however, like Hamlet, seems aware but unable to act.
The fact that Ishmael himself was caught up demonstrates how infectious Ahab’s madness is. Ishmael’s dissertation on the terror of whiteness and his own conclusion that “Though in many of its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible spheres were formed in fright” (42. 192) leads us to wonder if he too is breaking under the pressure. Even the great principle of light, he tells us, which is colorless, throws its blank tinge on “the palsied universe” (42. 192). Ishmael takes the voyage with Ahab to the bottom of his own soul where lurk unknown terrors. It remains to be seen if any will return whole.
These are two central chapters of the book, touching on the mystery of Moby Dick and why the voyage has been undertaken. Even deeper than Ahab’s revenge is the quest for the meaning of the universe. “The Whiteness of the Whale” shows that the qualities of objects, such as a whale, are not completely external, for much depends upon association. Ahab believes Moby Dick is the sum total of evil, and Ishmael thinks white is terrifying, but he also realizes these are not absolute truths.