The Color White in Moby Dick and Billy Budd

Categories: Billy Budd Moby Dick

Herman Melville is the author behind one of the most infamous books of all time, Moby Dick. Arguably one of the most talented writers of all time, Herman Melville (1819-1891) was born and raised in a wealthy middle class family in New York City and was the son of a merchant. However, after one of his father’s business speculations failed and his father’s early death, the debt left behind notably diminished the family’s fortune. Although Melville had to begin working early to help support the household, he studied classical literature in school and began writing in the 1830s.

In the early 1840s, he left for a series of whaling voyages and gained experiences from which he would draw from to write his short stories, novels, and poems. Much of his works were also influenced by his religion and Dark Romanticism which stemmed from the writing period at the time, Romanticism. In contrast to Romanticism which placed emphasis on human benevolence, Dark Romanticism focused heavily on human fallibility and natural evil.

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As a Calvinist, Melville struggled with his faith. In 1850, one year before Moby Dick was published, he visited Jerusalem in hopes of recovering his religious faith but returned disappointed. Moby Dick, Melville’s most famous work, was published in 1851 but caused him to fall out of favor with the public. Although Melville had previous successes with his works such as Typee, which was the first novel written after his whaling voyages and sold about 16,000 copies in the United Kingdom and the United States, only about 3,700 copies of Moby Dick were sold.

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While the sudden decrease in popularity of Melville’s works was due in part to how different Moby Dick’s writing style was from his first novel, it also had to do with Melville’s conflicted exploration of Christianity in his new novel. Billy Budd was written during the last few years of his life, and it was not published until after his death in 1924. Billy Budd sparked a renewed interest in Melville’s works and finally led to the reevaluation and recognition of Moby Dick. Although written years apart, Moby Dick and Billy Budd both have a common theme of exploring the truth and use various symbols such as fog, nature, and the color white as the cloak for the truth.

In Moby Dick, white is used to disguise the truth, so it would only make sense that in addition to being fascinated what the truth is, the narrator of Moby Dick, Ishmael, also explores the meaning behind the color white. In fact, Moby Dick has an entire chapter dedicated to the color white and is called, “The Whiteness of the Whale” which explores the concept of the color white or what white means if taken at a face value. Melville or rather the narrator Ishmael, notes that in most cultures, white is used to represent “the symbol of the divine spotlessness and power” (Melville 190). In general, white does, indeed, represent holiness and all that is good. However, to Ishmael, white has a deeper meaning behind it. According to Ishmael, the color is elusive and “strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood.” (Melville 190) “Elusive” is used, because it describes white as part of the truth and something that is used to conceal the truth which makes the truth hard to grasp or pursue. Ishmael says the fear of white is greater than the fear of mortality. The given reason for it is that when the honorable symbolism attached to the color is removed, white is found is horrid things such as the polar bear and the white shark. The symbolism of goodness associated with white is nothing more than a cloak for something more underneath, the truth — if you will. Most notably, white is also something that has the potential to hide evil. While Ishmael acknowledges that many things that are white are not necessarily bad, Ishmael cannot help but also mention that white often shows in unfavorable situations. Ishmael uses the example of a sailor whose fear of “the shrouded phantom of whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost” (Melville 195), because the fog hides dangers such as sharp rocks which could sink ships. Ishmael stresses the fog’s color, white, and he also uses the adjectives “shrouded” and whitened” further highlights the color’s ability to manipulate and disguise.

This example of fog is not only limited to Moby Dick, and a similar idea is referred to in Billy Budd in Billy Budd’s social blunder: Whereat the fortopman looked a little foolish, recalling that it was only one person, Board-Her-in-the-Smoke, who had suggested what to him was the smoky idea that this master-at-arms was in any peculiar way hostile to him (27). In this awkward situation, Board-Her-in-the-Smoke refers to the old Dansker whose wisdom is respected on the ship. He had warned Billy Budd of Claggart’s evil nature which is hidden under his appearance. Claggart’s appearance itself is described as hinting “of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood” (Melville, 20). Melville also explicitly states this when he says that Claggart was born containing “the mania of an evil nature” (Melville, 30). However, his general appearance is deceiving and suggests that he was a man or high social and moral quality, again perpetuating the idea that appearances deceive and hide the truth.

Board-Her-in-the-Smoke is a nickname derived from the scar on Dansker’s face that resulted from one of the Dansker’s boarding of another ship, and the name could represent his conventional wisdom and his ability to see some part of the truth through the veil of what goes on around him. The Dansker is the first to anticipate Billy Budd’s downfall, and his expression while observing Billy Budd is often one of “speculative query as to what might befall a nature like that” (Melville, 25) when Billy is initially introduced to the hostile environment of Bellipotent. He is also the one who warns Billy of Claggart’s ill-willed personality, which Billy remembers as a “smoky idea.” While “smoky idea” can be interpreted as a murky memory, there can also be a deeper meaning to underscore the Dansker’s ability to see past the facade and identify the truth — in this case, Claggart’s real nature. As previously mentioned, Moby Dick’s Ishmael is also interested in the truth behind the color white’s meaning. Ishmael offers several other explanations for the color white that is closely connected to what is more subtly stated in Billy Budd. Referring back to the chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” Ishmael ponders further upon what white means: Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows - a colorless, all- color of atheism from which we shrink? (Melville, 196)

While Ishmael acknowledges earlier in the chapter that white is not the sole reason that amplifies the fear of terrible things, he now speculates the truth hidden within the reason why white is the “very veil of the Christian Deity” (Melville, 196) despite the fact that white is often is the amplifier of awful things. According to this quote, white could mean two things: everything and nothing. White is the visual lack of colors but through a scientific definition, the combination of all colors. If the definition of white is taken to be “the concrete of all colors,” then what’s hidden in white represents the truth, because the truth is composed of everything, including both good and evil. In this way, white could also be interpreted as a symbol of the divine or even God Himself, because God is the creator of these things. On the other hand, white could also be interpreted as the representation of nothing or in other words, atheism. Melville seems to be leaning in that direction, because in the following passage, Ishmael says: ...all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, … (Melville 196)

Even nature, Ishmael claims, does nothing but deceive. Her beauty covers up the inevitable death, and light is made up of all colors is white or colorless. Ishmael suggests that perhaps there is no meaning in the color, and this idea could even imply that there is no God or a truth behind the universe.

Ironically, at the end of Billy Budd, after Billy Budd’s death and his final words, “God bless Captain Vere!” (Melville, 70), the warship that Billy died on, Bellipotent, is attacked by the ship Athee, meaning atheist. The ending could potentially criticize the lack of meaning behind God during times of war, because Christianity is also used to justify Billy’s death sentence. It could also suggest the idea of a lack of God, because Billy Budd’s death may have been caused by a lack of God’s justice.

Interestingly enough, in Moby Dick, the whale is not described a fully white. Similar to other Sperm Whales, he has a “peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead, and a high, pyramidical white hump,” yet “the rest of his body was so streaked, and spotted, and marbled with the same shrouded hue” (Melville 184). The only justification for Moby Dick’s other name, White Whale, is the sea foam that Moby leaves in the wake of his gliding through the sea which may cause the illusion of a white whale. The sea acts a cloak for Moby Dick. Furthermore, Ishmael later describes the front of a Sperm Whale as a “dead, blind wall” (Melville 326). This indicates that Moby Dick may represent the truth behind God or even God. The “dead, blind wall” is also described earlier as the “peculiar snow-white wrinkled forehead” which could imply that the innocent white that Moby Dick hides behind is a facade for Moby’s wrongdoings and mutilation if not death of all those who have tried to pursue him. If Moby Dick represents the truth, then the ocean serves as a veil for the truth. This idea is again reiterated in Billy Budd. Captain Vere whose name means “truth,” is given the nickname “Starry Vere.” His character is not only representative of the truth through being one of the only ones who could actually vouch for Billy Budd’s innocence but the meaning of his name is also obsereved through his personality. Captain Vere is an intellect. Despite being more practical than most on the ship, Captain Vere “would at times betray a certain dreaminess of mood” and “would absently gaze off at the blank sea” (Melville 17), hence the adjective, “starry” in his nickname, “Starry Vere.” Given the fact that Vere is known to be an intellectual person, Captain Vere may be searching for the truth or something more in the sea. On the other hand, the sea’s surface also acts as a barrier for what is underneath. It is also the same sea in which Billy Budd who is a representation of white is discarded. Moby Dick and Billy Budd both observe the truth in two different ways. In Moby Dick, the whale is seen as the truth, and according to Ishmael, “For unless you own the whate, you are but a provincial and sentimentalist in the Truth” (Melville 327). Through finality of the Pequod’s relentless pursuit of the truth or Moby Dick, Captain Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, is allowed direct confrontation to the whale but ultimately dies and also leads to the demise of the entire ship, with Ishmael as the lone survivor and the one who will live to tell the story. Perhaps Ahab’s failure to actually grapple the meaning of the truth was due to the size of the truth too, because “clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter; how small the chances for the provincials then” (Melville, 327). Salamander giants, mysterious and conservative creatures, are the only ones who will ever know the truth, so what is the chance that a mere peasant will come to know the truth? Referring back to the meaning of white, if Moby Dick is a representation of God, then the whale could represent an evil God or a lack of God’s benevolence. It could be also be argued that the Moby Dick represents nothing at all and that the meaning of the encounter was a useless chase after the absence of a truth. In contrast to the way that Melville confronts the overarching concealed truth in Moby Dick, Billy Budd takes on a different approach:The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact. Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial. (Melville 75)

Billy Budd, oddly, is narrated through the third person, an omniscient speaker or perhaps another sailer on the ship. “The symmetry of form attainable in pure fiction cannot so readily be achieved in a narration essentially having less to do with fable than with fact.” suggests that the narrator is telling some version of the truth. However, the truth is not completely clear at all times, because the “[t]ruth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges.” The truth is not only difficult to understand but often times does not clean up nicely like a story does but rather, had “ragged edges.” The same could be applied to Moby Dick. Ishmael’s story is nothing but another version of the truth, but since Ishmael is the only one to survive, his truth is the only existing version of what happened.

Captain Ahab seeks the overarching truth behind God and ultimately perishes in his encounter with the truth or the lack of meaning in the truth. Moby Dick serves as a vessel for the truth but is often hidden under the veil of white. The color white serves as a cloak for the truth, whatever it may be. In Billy Budd, the color serves as a symbol of innocence but the final truth is when Billy Budd is buried at sea, another disguise for the truth, because only the surface of the sea is ever seen. What goes on in the sea is a mystery and acts as a shroud for the truth.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The Color White in Moby Dick and Billy Budd. (2024, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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