Summary and Analysis
Ishmael returns as narrator to tell us what he has heard of the White Whale. Because his information is all hearsay — something he has heard from others but cannot yet prove — he concedes that much of it may be exaggerated. In fact, Moby Dick has already become a sort of legendary figure, reputedly omnipresent (he supposedly appears at different places at the same time) and perhaps immortal and eternal, which Ishmael explains as being omnipresent in time. We learn more details of Ahab's loss of leg, and Ishmael considers the meaning of "whiteness."
Having presented Ahab's proposal and the crew's reaction in dramatic form, Melville returns the telling of the story to Ishmael. The narrator admits that he, like most of the crew, was overpowered by Ahab's charismatic appeal, although Ishmael anticipates the rest of the voyage with dread in his soul.
We already know a fair amount about the White Whale, which we might think of as a key character in the novel. In these two chapters, Ishmael expands on its physical description and considers reports that range from likely to fanciful. From Ahab and the harpooners (Chapter 36), and now from Ishmael, we learn that Moby Dick is an exceptionally large sperm whale with a snow-white head, a wrinkled brow, a crooked jaw, an especially bushy spout, and three holes in the right fluke of his tail. His hump is also white and shaped like a pyramid. The rest of his body is marbled with white. He fantails oddly before he submerges. One of Moby Dick's favorite tricks is to seem to be fleeing but suddenly turn on his pursuers and destroy their open boats. Sailors attribute great intelligence and malignity to the White Whale.
What is the White Whale to Ahab? Ishmael thinks that Ahab views the whale as an embodiment of all evil. It may be helpful to consider Ahab's comments in Chapter 36. The irrepressible captain there sees Moby Dick as a "mask," behind which lies a great power whose dominance Ahab refuses to accept. Ahab himself says (Chapter 41) that his means are sane but his motive and object are mad. However, Ahab may not be the best judge. We are told that he was attacking the White Whale with only a six-inch blade, like an "Arkansas duellist," the day that Moby Dick's lower teeth sliced away the captain's leg as a mower would a blade of grass. That method of attacking the whale seems insane, driven by the captain's excessive determination.
Many scholars, including most notably Harold Bloom (in Moby-Dick: Modern Critical Interpretations) consider Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," to be the "visionary center" of the novel and perhaps of all of Melville's writing. Students might note the rich ambiguity of Ishmael's inquiry into the significance of the whale's "visible absence of color." In that whiteness, Ishmael sees innocence and evil, glory and damnation in a nine-page chapter that is one of the most rewarding in the novel. We are not spoon-fed meaning by Melville. As with most great writers, he allows the reader to form his own conclusions. Ahab appears to be a great man but a madman; but what is Moby Dick?
malignity intense ill will, a quality of being harmful or dangerous.
erudite having or showing great knowledge gained from reading.
ubiquitous seeming to be present everywhere at the same time.
fathom six feet, a unit of length used to measure the depth of water or the length of nautical rope or cable.
legerdemain sleight of hand, tricks of a stage magician.