Ishmael uses this chapter as a space to muse upon the whiteness of Moby Dick, which he believes to contribute to that whale’s strange dread power. Ishmael states that, in many cultures around the world, whiteness is seen as a sign of nobility, of high birth, of royalty, or of leadership—he notes signs from various flags of Europe, from Native American rituals, and the white skin of Europeans themselves, which Ishmael claims “sets them above” the other races. Ishmael then states that white, when embodied in certain animals, lends them a kind of splendor, as in the albatross, the white shark, or the white horse.
Ishmael devotes an entire chapter to Moby Dick’s color, as it is his most striking characteristic, and the epithet by which many, including Ahab, refer to him—the White Whale. Ishmael, once again employing “rhetorical,” or persuasive, tactics in assembling this chapter, begins with the characteristics most commonly associated with the color white: a certain purity, perhaps even a holiness, as white is often identified with heaven’s angels.
But Ishmael says that whiteness has another dimension—that of shadows, of ghosts, of things that are haunted. He points here to albino men and women and to spiritual apparitions as embodiments of this other, stranger whiteness. Ishmael muses that white carries a supernatural, alien quality because it is the absence of color, because it is so rarely found in nature in its purest form—without any other color contaminating it—and because “by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe.” Ishmael says it is both the beautiful, appealing quality of white and its upsetting, ghastly, supernatural quality that imbue the search for the white whale with special significance.
But then Ishmael takes the color on a more philosophical turn, arguing that white is an “absence,” and therefore whiteness has a mysterious or “ghostly” quality to it, which adds to the mystery of the White Whale itself. Again, Ishmael, like Ahab, finds ways to make the search for Moby Dick a quest not just for one animal, nor just for revenge, but for a kind of metaphysical satisfaction. Ahab wishes to destroy the whale and the “idea” behind the whale—whatever that idea might mean. Ishmael, meanwhile, is seeking meaning in Ahab's quest and in the object of his quest—the White Whale—and no matter what tactic Ishmael uses he continues to face void, immensity, the unknown. And it can certainly be said that all people face just the same thing as they face and try to understand the world, so not so starkly as Ishmael does.