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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary
devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Whiteness, to Ishmael, is horrible because it represents
the unnatural and threatening: albinos, creatures that live in extreme
and inhospitable environments, waves breaking against rocks. These examples
reverse the traditional association of whiteness with purity. Whiteness
conveys both a lack of meaning and an unreadable excess of meaning
that confounds individuals. Moby Dick is the pinnacle of whiteness,
and Melville’s characters cannot objectively understand the White
Whale. Ahab, for instance, believes that Moby Dick represents evil,
while Ishmael fails in his attempts to determine scientifically
the whale’s fundamental nature.
Ishmael frequently bemoans the impossibility of examining
anything in its entirety, noting that only the surfaces of objects
and environments are available to the human observer. On a live
whale, for example, only the outer layer presents itself; on a dead
whale, it is impossible to determine what constitutes the whale’s
skin, or which part—skeleton, blubber, head—offers the best understanding
of the entire animal. Moreover, as the whale swims, it hides much
of its body underwater, away from the human gaze, and no one knows where
it goes or what it does. The sea itself is the greatest frustration in
this regard: its depths are mysterious and inaccessible to Ishmael. This
motif represents the larger problem of the limitations of human knowledge.
Humankind is not all-seeing; we can only observe, and thus only
acquire knowledge about, that fraction of entities—both individuals
and environments—to which we have access: surfaces.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!