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Who Is Moby-Dick and Why Are We Scared of Him?

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick has received an almost cult-like status amongst the annals of classic literature. It is the white whale of voracious readers everywhere, the ultimate TBR challenge, the almost awe-inspiring book everyone knows about, but few of us ever read.

Moby-Dick may be the title of Melville's infamous masterpiece, but the reader doesn't actually meet the terrible white whale until Chapter 41. In this chapter, Melville finally talks at length about the namesake of his novel, though—due to his love for extensive foreshadowing—still doesn't allow the reader to physically 'see' Moby-Dick. In this way, Moby-Dick the book is exactly like Moby-Dick the whale: we've heard so many rumors and tales about it, we've built it up to something much more daunting in our heads.

So, now that we're a good way into our Moby-Dick Reading Challenge, let's pause and break down exactly who, or what, Moby-Dick is. Read on for three reasons why the white whale still scares us (as told by Herman Melville)!

The IDEA of Moby-Dick is frightening.

Have you ever heard the saying that the fear of pain can be worse than the actual pain? Well, Melville seems to make a similar point in his chapters on Moby-Dick; the fear of the whale may actually be worse than the whale itself.

Captain Ahab, who himself has faced off with Moby-Dick and lost a leg because of it, doesn't appear to fear, so much as hate, the enormous animal. It's the sailors who haven't seen Moby-Dick which are the ones who seem to fear him the most. Rumors swirl around the unseen whale, building him up to monstrous proportions, making him seem immortal, omnipotent, and otherworldly. As a result, early on in Moby-Dick the reader, too, is infused with a sense of dread. We don't need to see Moby-Dick to feel a terrible sense of foreboding on behalf of the characters in Melville's book.

The WHITENESS of Moby-Dick feels dooming.

Melville makes a point to speak in depth on Moby-Dick's spectral paleness in Chapter 42, The Whiteness of the Whale. In this chapter, Melville cleverly juxtaposes the positive attitude toward whiteness in colonialist 19th century America, against the negatives the color also represented.

At the time, white was a symbol of purity in young brides, and white skin was commonly believed to be superior to tan or darker skin. White could also be associated with covetable and valuable items such as pearls. But Melville wants to make sure you, the reader, understands the other side of white: the negative, and even frightening aspects of the color. Hence, the majority of Chapter 42 is dedicated to driving that very point home. There's the whiteness of a corpse, specters, and deadly mountain ranges. In those days albino people were considered freakish, and repellent to look at. More than anything, Melville points out the supernatural nature of the hue, and parallels it with Moby-Dick's strange ability to survive any attack carried out on him by whaling ships.

It's FATE that makes Moby-Dick feel inevitable.

A common theme throughout Moby-Dick is the idea of a fate which is outside of one's control. Captain Ahab is driven by such a fate; he doesn't seem to have any other choice but to nurture his hate of Moby-Dick, and to strive against all odds to kill the Leviathan.

Captain Ahab's peg leg, which is made from whalebone, seems to create an even closer bond of destiny between him and Moby-Dick. Almost from the moment we meet Captain Ahab, the reader gets a sense of how closely tied—even completely tangled at times—his and Moby-Dick's fates are. At the end of Chapter 41, Ishamael, too, seems to give himself up to this terrible destiny. He speaks of his fellow sailors taking on Captain Ahab's hate for the White Whale as if it were their own. It's almost as if they were handpicked by fate to help the spiteful captain achieve his ultimate destiny.

What about Moby-Dick do you find most frightening? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you're a fan of Herman Melville's work, check out our stunning Moby-Dick print, created using the actual text of the book.


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