Whiteness in Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The Marble Faun’

Whiteness in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun

 

On 5th August 1850, as Moby Dick neared completion, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne for the first time at a ‘literary picnic’.[1] Fourteen months later, Melville published Moby Dick with the following dedication: ‘In Token of My Admiration for His Genius This Book Is Inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’.[2] The long, fourteen-month interim between Moby Dick’s almost-complete state and its final publication has been attributed by some to a large scale rewriting of the novel, inspired by Melville’s new acquaintance and ensuing relationship with Hawthorne.[3] Whether or not this claim is true, the literary focus of much of their correspondence shows that the relationship between the two undeniably influenced their respective literary production.[4] Walker Percy goes so far as to say that ‘Moby Dick was not only dedicated to Hawthorne, it was written at him […] for Hawthorne’s approval at the very least. At the most, it was written to amaze Hawthorne, to out-Hawthorne Hawthorne’.[5] It is this last expression of Percy’s, on Melville’s aim ‘to out-Hawthorne Hawthorne’, that will direct this essay’s line of enquiry.

In ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, Melville’s oft-cited review of Hawthorne’s work – which Melville’s wife, Sofia, said was written by ‘the first person who has ever in print apprehended Mr. Hawthorne’ – Melville writes: ‘Now it is that blackness in Hawthorne […] that so fixes and fascinates me.’[6] A similar blackness, Melville argues in the same review, is what makes Shakespeare ‘the profoundest of thinkers’.[7] It is worth quoting Melville’s expansion of these thoughts on ‘blackness’ in full here. He continues:

 

But it is these deep far-away things in [Shakespeare]; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality: — these are the things that make Shakspeare, Shakspeare [sic].[8]

 

For Melville then, this blackness signifies not necessarily a chromatic gloom, but philosophical explorations into the depths of ‘far-away things’, ‘intuitive Truth’, and the ‘very axis of reality’. It is this which ‘so fixes and fascinates’ him. Although, for Melville, Hawthorne is not yet as accomplished at this as Shakespeare, he acknowledges that ‘Not a very great deal more, and Nathaniel were verily William’.[9] An explanation for Hawthorne’s shortcomings is found in a sentence often neglected by critics, in which Melville qualifies the presence of darkness in Hawthorne’s writing. He says, ‘But this darkness but gives more effect to the ever-moving dawn, that for ever advances through it, and circumnavigates [Hawthorne’s] world.’[10] The philosophical depth of Hawthorne’s darkness is curbed, therefore, by its servile purpose, emphasising the dawning lightness which ‘for ever advances through it’. This essay, then, will look at the relationship between darkness and lightness in both Hawthorne and Melville’s work, and consider lightness’s, particularly whiteness’s, bearing on philosophical explorations into the darkness of ‘deep far-away things’. In light of Hawthorne’s acknowledged influence on Moby Dick, I will focus on this epic, alongside Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun – chosen not only because its titular subject points to an engagement with whiteness as pervasive in the novel as that found in Moby Dick, but also because as Hawthorne’s last complete novel, it stands as a final representative of Hawthorne’s chromatic intent. A study of these two texts reveals that in Moby Dick, Melville attempts to do what Hawthorne falls short of – to ‘out-Hawthorne Hawthorne’, as Percy observes, and match the dark profundity of Shakespeare’s thinking. David Dowling supports this, suggesting that Melville so expertly highlighted the lights and darks of Hawthorne’s fiction in his review so as to prepare the reading public for an appreciation of his own novel to come.[11] Unlike Hawthorne, who uses whiteness in The Marble Faun as a teleological signifier of its expected allegorical associations (innocence, purity, salvation, etc.), in Moby Dick, whiteness is ontological – a quality whose inherent characteristics posit philosophical enquiries into the ‘darkness’ and renders a literary substantiation of their answers.

 

The observation that colour in The Marble Faun is morally allegoric is hardly new. In 1942, Walter Blair observed that ‘The Marble Faun, a story illustrative of the moral and educative effects of sin, appropriately utilizes the “white” Hilda, the “dark-faced” Model […] and Miriam – compound of brightness and darkness’.[12] The longevity of this reading (and its applicability to much American literature) is still recognised more than fifty years later. As Blythe Ann Tellefsen glosses, ‘The Marble Faun is unexceptional in its division of good into white (Hilda and Kenyon) and evil into “black” (Miriam and Donatello) characters.’[13] Yet in this later criticism, Tellefsen suggests not just a chromatic allegory, but also a racialized one – the ‘racialization of sin’.[14] That the novel’s allegory could not be restrained to chromatics is hardly surprising – any American literary product of Hawthorne and Melville’s contemporaneity (and still now) even when not directly appealing to it, is inextricably bound up with America’s dominating discourse of race. The Marble Faun’s blatant engagement with chromatics and aesthetics, therefore, makes this tie all the more inevitable. Yet it is not only sin, I would argue, that is racialized by teleological whiteness in The Marble Faun, but also its aesthetic judgement. This is evident in the novel through its engagement with its titular subject – sculpture, and the medium of marble.

The positive signification of Hilda’s whiteness, as prescriptive of purity, innocence and celestial virtue, also extends to the novel’s aesthetic judgement – a judgement which supports a contemporaneous American distaste for polychromatic sculpture. To many Americans, marble, in what Walter Pater calls its ethereal ‘moral sexlessness’, was a safe medium which represented ‘the nude figure’ rather than ‘the naked body’.[15] This was favoured over the multi-coloured sculptural practice of polychromy, which invested subjects with an all too realistic, fleshy and known earthliness which might incite visceral reactions in the viewer. Emulating the ancients in all other ways, neoclassical Americans refused to repeat the practice of polychromy – it was ‘impossible for [those] moderns to accept this practice of the ancients’.[16] As Charmaine Nelson notes, polychromy ‘detracted from the ‘true’ intention and purpose of sculpture – purity and form.’[17] This opinion is echoed in the novel, when the narrator describes marble as ‘a pure, white, undecaying substance […] marble assumes a sacred character’ (MF, p. 105). In describing marble as ‘pure’ and ‘white’, Hawthorne’s narrator also ‘openly reject[s]’ the paradox of marble’s true heterogeneous and complex form, its marbled nature and the fleshy insinuations of its veins, investing it instead with an abstract, ‘sacred character’ of ‘moral sexlessness’.

For some, this cultural aversion to chromatic sculpture stemmed not just from a fear of contaminating art and beauty with earthly sensuality and sexuality, but particularly with the representation of subjective skin-colour, and so, race.[18] Marble’s ‘pure’ whiteness was preferable not necessarily as the beautiful epitome of a white skin tone, but rather as a skin without tone – like Ishmael describes in Moby Dick, a ‘colorless, all-color’ (MD, p. 196). What Walter Pater calls marble’s ‘ineffectual wholeness of nature [emphasis added]’, then, was the appeal in these cases – the effacement of a racial or political effect, leaving a solely artistic intent.[19] For as Nelson documents, ‘the symbolic privilege of neoclassical whiteness mask[ed] the possibility of racial difference.’[20] In The Marble Faun, it is this evasive, masking nature of marble’s ‘symbolic privilege’ that is highly valued. In Kenyon’s sculptor’s studio, Miriam says, ‘“I will not touch clay; it is earthy and human […] I have come to try whether there is any calm and coolness among your marbles”’ (MF, p. 91). She then jealously notes Kenyon’s ability to ““turn feverish men into cool, white marble”’ (MF, p. 94). That this is not just a fear of earthly, sexual sensuality is signified by the fact that it is Miriam who says these words. Miriam is of uncertain ancestry, rumoured to either be the ‘heiress of a great Jewish banker’ or have ‘one burning drop of African blood in her veins [which] so affected her with a sense of ignominy’ (MF, p. 20). This suggestion, that Miriam is a racial “Other” – Jewish or mulatto – therefore inextricably racializes the novel’s preference of marble. In the race-less ‘mask’ of marble’s ‘symbolic privilege’, Miriam sees a ‘calm and coolness’ which may relieve her from the ‘ignominy’ she feels towards the antithetical ‘burning’ of her ‘drop of African blood’. There is a paradox here – in hinting at the value of racial evasion, especially through a character of contested racial origins, Hawthorne implicitly racializes this supposed racial absence. A similar paradox exists in Hawthorne’s own words, which support the suggestion that this repugnance towards polychromy in The Marble Faun is an attempt to avoid racial engagement. In the preface to The Marble Faun, Hawthorne explains the reason behind the supplanting of his American characters into an Italian setting:

 

No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a Romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a common-place prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.

(MF, p. 4)

 

In this passage, underneath the guise of aiding literary Romance, there is not only a racial exoticizing of the foreign subject but also a deeper subtext of racial significance. Speaking of America as a country of ‘common-place prosperity, in broad and simple daylight’ is heavily ironic, considering that less than two years after the time of writing (1859), the country’s racial tensions would explode into a civil war. In this false representation, Hawthorne not only avoids racial tensions, but does not even acknowledge their existence. (This conscious blindness is made all the more obvious by his use of chromatic language – ‘shadow’, ‘gloomy’, ‘daylight’ – and its racial allusion.) He takes his characters outside of America not only for the sake of ‘Romance’, but also so that his aesthetic engagement may retain a morally allegorical meaning over and above a racial one. His language removes race from the subject just as, for American neoclassicals, marble removed race from sculpture. Yet again, like in Miriam’s desire, there is a paradox here. In the very absence of racial politics, in this negative space, they become most transparent. By ignoring race, attempting to be ‘above’ or oblivious to it, Hawthorne cannot but enact a suppression, which contaminates this evasion with racism. This is mirrored in Miriam’s reaction to the infamous, polychromatic statues of John Gibson. She talks of his ‘“coloured Venuses, (stained, I believe, with tobacco-juice)”’ which she ‘“would be glad to see as many heaps of quick-lime in their stead!”’ (MF, p. 96). The labelling of ‘tobacco juice’ as the contaminating pigment, its dark colour and negative status as a ‘stained’ waste product, racializes this comment. It demonstrates that this is not a fear of universal colour and fleshiness, but particularly of dark, ‘tobacco-juice’ flesh, which is attributed a status similar to that of lowly ‘quick-lime’. There is an undeniable racial allusion which leans towards white supremacy (highlighting Miriam’s ‘ignominy’ towards her ‘drop of African blood’). As Tellefsen notes, ‘thus the turbulent historical conflict amid which The Marble Faun was written […] emerges in a narrative that, ostensibly, is fundamentally distanced from America by both its setting and its subject matter.’[21] This illustrates the multi-faceted nature of Hawthorne’s teleological use of whiteness in The Marble Faun. In order to illustrate and highlight his chromatic moral allegory above all else, Hawthorne avoids direct racial politics, yet in this exclusion there is a fundamentally racial statement (and, indeed, Hawthorne consciously chooses to speculate over Miriam’s African heritage) which permeates into the novel’s aesthetic discourse. The Marble Faun’s chromatic allegory extends through morality and aesthetics to race – with whiteness always at the top of the hierarchy it presents.

 

Whiteness serves a more autonomous purpose in Moby Dick, as apparent from the oft-discussed chapter ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’. An entire chapter is devoted not to the whale, but to the subject of its ‘Whiteness’. Already, therefore, Melville appears to delve deeper than Hawthorne’s chromatic allegory; whiteness itself is of ontological interest, rather than serving as a teleological signifier. He attempts what Hawthorne falls short of, exploring the ‘very axis of reality’, of being – explorations into the ‘darkness’ which he so admired in Shakespeare. This contradicts Monika Gehlawat, who says that ‘The whiteness of the whale then does not carry any implicit meaning, but in its refusal to signify it provides a passive blank space upon which meaning, desire and loss may be inscribed’.[22] I argue the opposite – that it is the ‘implicit meaning’ of whiteness and its inherent nature which interests Melville, and that its ‘refusal to signify’ generates not a ‘passive blank space’, but epistemological enquiries into the ‘very axis of reality’ and concrete literary substantiations of the answers.

As with the allegorical reading of The Marble Faun, there are already a plenitude of critical accounts which take Ishmael’s statement that ‘It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled [him]’ (MD, p. 189) and assert that Melville attributes this appalling consequence of whiteness to its ineffable, infinite, and paradoxical nature –  the fact that it not only ‘refiningly enhances beauty’ (MD, p. 189) but also ‘heighten[s] terror to the furthest bounds’ (MD, p. 190).[23] This limitless ambiguity recalls a Kantian conception of experiencing the sublime, and explains that whiteness’s terror is due to ‘the feeling of estrangement and being overwhelmed by infinitude […] the feeling of perceiving the vastness of nature’.[24] Whiteness’s universally intensifying nature stretches outside of man’s limited perception, to the infinitude of ‘the invisible spheres […] formed in fright’ (MD, p. 196). Taking this further, I will demonstrate that Melville does not just ‘out-Hawthorne Hawthorne’ by prioritising whiteness’s ontology over its teleology, in order to posit these philosophical ideas, but also aims to provide a literary substantiation of their answers in the rest of the text itself. This is prefigured by Ishmael’s observation that ‘whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors […] from which we shrink [emphasis added]’ (MD, p. 196). The paradoxical nature of whiteness, whose abstract, epistemological inferences cause one to ‘shrink’ in fear (as they highlight the shrinking consequence of man’s place in the universe), are not just posited in ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, as a ‘metaphysical search for foundational truth and authority’, as Paul Hurh notes, but also concretely answered later on in the text.[25]

An epitomising example of this is found in the representation of lightning in a scene towards the end of the novel, set during a violent storm. Delirious, Ahab addresses the lightning as ‘“white flame”’, the ‘“clear spirit of clear fire”’ (MD, p. 476), whilst its ‘pallid fire’ ‘silently burn[ed] in that sulphurous air’ the ‘tri-pointed lightning-rod-end with three tapering white flames’ (MD, p. 475). Melville physically places whiteness into the scene through lightning, whose sublime associations are not only recalled by lightning’s issue from the liminal sphere of the sky, but also by the infernal associations of the ‘sulphurous air’ and the flaming, tridental lightning rods. The ‘“white flame”’ of lightning acts in the scene not as a ‘passive blank space’ as Gehlawat might argue, but as a physical embodiment of the inferences drawn from whiteness’s ontology – a literary rendering of the infernal spheres that exist outside of man’s perception. This embodiment of whiteness is a concrete application of the hypotheses Melville arrives at in ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, which ‘out-Hawthorne Hawthorne’ not just in their jump from teleology to ontology, but also in the unrelenting, dark unknown of the conclusions themselves. This is encapsulated when Ahab shouts at the lightning, ‘“Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!”’ (MD, p. 477). Ahab inverts lightning’s issue to his own ends, figuring as a defiant satanic power of ‘darkness’ which stems ‘out of light’ itself. In the same way, Melville uses the ontology of whiteness to his own philosophical ends, exploring ‘out of light’ the darkness of ‘deep far-away things’ just as he admired in Shakespeare. He then physically places whiteness back into the text through lightning, inverting whiteness into a literary substantiation of the answer these conjectures arrive at – the dark, concrete unknown which lies beyond our perceptual limits. Whilst within Hawthorne’s darkness, Melville finds the lightness of an ‘ever-moving dawn, that for ever advances through it’, in Moby Dick, there is the opposite – a consummating ‘darkness leaping out of light’ itself.

This is not to say that there is no sense of the unknown, or the limits of human perception, in the allegorical whiteness of The Marble Faun. Hilda’s sublime whiteness, existing ‘above the ordinary level of men’s views and aspirations’ (MF, p. 42) is, therefore, just as unknown to man as the infinitude of the sublime spheres that the whiteness of Moby Dick reminds Ishmael of. Yet Hilda’s whiteness ‘“soothes”’ Kenyon (MF, p. 88) whereas in Moby Dick, whiteness conjures only the dark appellations of terror and fright. Ishmael’s description of whiteness as ‘a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink [emphasis added]’ (MD, p. 196) suggests an explanation of this juxtaposition. Whilst both accounts of ineffable perception allude to the Kantian sublime, The Marble Faun offers this in a devout context, whereas the dark conclusions in Moby Dick establish an atheistic one. Whiteness soothes characters in The Marble Faun because their Puritanical beliefs conceive of mankind’s limitation through a net of religious safety, attributing the unknown to God, and thereby his comfort. The liminal, unknown realms which Hilda represents are not full of dark fears, but ‘“white thoughts”’, where ‘“the Virgin”’ is a ‘“household friend”’ (MF, p. 88). It is this religious safety that manifests as the ‘ever-moving dawn, that for ever advances through [Hawthorne’s] world’. In Moby Dick, however, there is no religious salvation. This is shown by the following exchange between Pip and Ahab:

 

“Faith, Sir, I’ve—”

“Faith? What’s that?”

‘“Why, faith, Sir, it’s only a sort of exclamation-like – that’s all, Sir.”’

‘“Um, um; go on.”

(MD, p. 494)

 

Ahab will not accept mention of the alien concept of ‘“faith”’ on his ship, interrupting and contesting Pip’s use of the word. He only relaxes and allows Pip to continue when he is appeased that there is no religiosity to Pip’s usage, ‘“only”’ a linguistic expression. Maurice Lee observes that ‘what most coherently links the color of Moby Dick to atheism is […] the absence of causal logic connecting whiteness to the feelings it brings’.[26] Yet it is not just this absence of causal logic which links whiteness in Moby Dick to atheism, but also the inability to explain its absence – to come to terms with the inexplicable – through a subjective safety net of religion.

Hurh also notes this absence of comfort, which is where Melville diverges from Kant’s definition of the sublime.[27] Whilst for Kant, ‘although we found our own limitation when we considered the immensity of nature’, still ‘the subject’s own inability uncovers in him the consciousness of an unlimited ability that is also his’.[28] In perceiving our limits, Kant argues, one paradoxically exposes the mind’s limitless potential, and so the sublime is stripped of terror. In Moby Dick, however, there is certainly no final ‘consciousness of an unlimited ability’. The ‘Whiteness of the Whale’ instead ends with the following image:

 

[…] like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him.

(MD, p. 197)

 

The ‘wretched infidel’, the atheist, without the filter of religious belief (like those without ‘coloring glasses’ in Lapland) is incapacitated – not possessed of ‘unlimited ability’ as Kant would have, but ‘gazes himself blind’ – by the immensity of ‘all the prospect around him’, which assumes the figure of a ‘monumental white shroud’. Once again, in this ‘monumental white shroud’, Melville physically places whiteness into the text as a substantiation of the conclusions of his earlier philosophical expositions (which stemmed from whiteness’s ontology), this time acknowledging their religious bearing (or lack thereof). Melville exposes to the reader the finite limits of what we might know – the ‘monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him’ – yet there is no supposition that there is anything, or any God, after this. All that is left is the journey up to this point – the ‘fiery hunt’ for the ‘Albino Whale’ which ‘of all these things […] was the symbol’ (MD, p. 197).

 

Whilst Melville asserts that this epistemological journey does exhaust itself (mirroring the defining mortality of the human condition whose limits it exposes) and that there is nothing behind the ‘monumental white shroud’, this is not a static conclusion. Acknowledging that one is only left with the ‘fiery hunt’, Melville strives to make this exploratory journey as dynamic, energetic and illuminating as possible – whilst he hunts towards the ‘Albino Whale’, symbolic of the darkness beyond man’s limits, Melville also pushes the limits of the exploration itself to their furthest bounds. As Hurh notes, ‘Melville’s blackness […] seems less a flat reaction than a formative mode of perception.’[29] This is shown not only by the widely acknowledged breadth and eclecticism of the topics, themes, and literary styles contained in the dynamic, (generally) short pulses of the novel’s one hundred and thirty-five chapters, but also in the kinetic representation of the whiteness which substantiates this journey’s conclusions in the text.[30] Consider, for example, the ‘white flames’ of lightning which ‘sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb’ (MD, p. 472), ‘“leap[ing] out of darkness”’ with ‘sudden, repeated flashes’ (MD, p. 477). Lightning, as a literary substantiation of the limits of human perception, is explosive, dynamic and ephemeral. Its fleeting and energising nature depicts the epistemological void which Melville’s philosophy arrives at as a kinetic burst into the static ‘cloudless sky’. This kinetic ephemerality also enforces Melville’s divergence from Kant, as it grants only a fleeting perception of these limits, preventing a conclusive understanding and ensuing mastery of them, such as found in the Kantian sublime. Through lightning’s brevity, Melville recreates ‘those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in [Shakespeare]; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality’ which he said Hawthorne was ‘not a very great deal’ far off. The energy and movement of these representations is sustained throughout Moby Dick; in the epilogue Ishmael is ‘drawn towards the closing vortex’ of The Pequod’s wreckage, a ‘creamy pool’ which he went ‘Round and round […] ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle […] Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst’ (MD, p. 536). Again, in a changed form, Moby Dick’s epistemological suggestions, the dark answers of its ‘probings’ at whiteness, life’s ‘axis’, are substantiated as dynamic entities within the text itself which intrinsically join whiteness with darkness – in a ‘creamy pool’ from which ‘the black bubble upward burst’. That this sequence can be read as such is supported not only by the use of ‘axis’, which recalls Melville’s abovementioned praise of Shakespeare, but also by its similarities to Ahab’s exchange with lightning. The ‘black bubble’ which ‘upward burst’ from the ‘creamy pool’ chromatically echoes Ahab’s cry that he is ‘“darkness leaping out of light”’ – a dynamic arrival at the ‘vortex’ of our epistemological journey’s end.

The dynamic quality of whiteness in Moby Dick is made all the more apparent when it is compared with the static nature of whiteness in The Marble Faun. Whilst whiteness in The Marble Faun is multi-faceted in its application to both morality and aesthetics (and implicitly through both, race), the allegorical meaning of its application is the same across all cases. Whiteness is fixed in the novel; it plays a static role (signalling ‘good’ things) as an allegorical emblem. As expected, then, the entities which place this fixed, teleological whiteness into the text of The Marble Faun are not dynamic, like in Moby Dick, but inert. Like the marble of whiteness’s artistic association, Hawthorne’s ‘white’ characters are also petrified – Kenyon is ‘“as cold and pitiless as [his] own marble”’ (MF, p. 100) and Hilda is a ‘merciless’ (MF, p. 162) ‘marble woman’ (MF, p. 329). The static nature of the allegory extends to the characters it is attached to; Kenyon and Hilda’s marble natures are never moved by suffering to mercy or pity. Indeed, this difference is even signalled by the novels’ titles – ‘Moby Dick’ refers to a live, white whale, whereas ‘The Marble Faun’ freezes its subject in white stone.

 

To conclude, I turn towards the end of The Marble Faun, when Kenyon muses over the following:

 

“Is Sin, then – which we deem such a dreadful blackness in the Universe – is it, like Sorrow, merely an element of human education, through which we struggle to a higher and purer state than we could otherwise have attained.”

(MF, pp. 356-357)

 

In Hawthorne’s novel, which explores the ‘dreadful blackness in the Universe’ through the fixed framework of ‘Sin’, even this ‘blackness’ leads to the light of a ‘higher and purer state’ through moral education. The whiteness of morality ultimately overpowers, and is the telos of, the novel’s darkness. This reading is reinforced right at the novel’s close, when Hilda wonders over the fate of her sinful friends: ‘For, what was Miriam’s life to be? And where was Donatello? But Hilda had a hopeful soul, and saw sunlight on the mountain-tops.’ (MF, p. 358) This supports Melville’s original observation, that ‘this darkness but gives more effect to the ever-moving dawn’ in Hawthorne’s fiction. Darkness is eclipsed by the ‘sunlight on the mountain-tops’ – a visual manifestation of the sinners’ salvation. The end of Moby Dick, however, could not provide a vision more dissimilar to this. In the final chapter, Moby Dick destroys The Pequod and its crew, as ‘the solid white buttress of his forehead smote the ship’s starboard bow’ (MD, p. 534) until ‘all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago’ (MD, p. 535). One final time, Melville confronts the reader with a tangible demonstration, the tangible demonstration, of mankind’s limited perceptions. The destructive ‘solid white buttress’ of the whale’s forehead and the ‘great shroud of the sea’ recalls the ‘monumental white shroud’ discussed earlier, of which ‘the Albino Whale was the symbol’ (MD, p. 196). This confirms that here, lightning’s ephemeral ‘flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth’ are hardened into the ‘solid white’ of Moby Dick, and the epistemological journey reaches its concrete end. Unlike in Hawthorne, no further education is possible from these explorations into the ‘dreadful blackness of the Universe’ – once we have perceived our human limits, there is nothing further to know, only destruction and overpowering nature. Ahab encapsulates this when he addresses lightning with the following: ““Oh, though clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.”’ (MD, p. 477) The epistemological explorations of Moby Dick are ‘“madest” out of whiteness’s ‘“fire”’, yet this journey finds nothing at its end other than the ‘monumental white shroud’ of whiteness itself, which Melville takes and ‘“breath[es] it back”’ into the novel’s pages.

 

 

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[1] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Marble Faun (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. xlix. Further references to this work are given after quotations in the text.

[2] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 3. Further references to this work are given after quotations in the text.

[3] Yukiko Oshima, ‘Dreaming a Dream of Interracial Bonds’, in Ungraspable Phantom: Essays on Moby-Dick, ed. by John Bryant, Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, and Timothy Marr (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2006), pp. 238–54 (p. 240).

[4] J. Lasley Dameron, ‘Melville and Scoresby on Whiteness’, English Studies, 74.1 (1993), 96–104 (p. 96) <https://doi.org/10.1080/00138389308598844&gt;.

[5] Walker Percy, Signposts In A Strange Land (New York: Picador, 2000), p. 200.

[6] Sofia Hawthorne, quoted in Hershel Parker, Herman Melville: A Biography, i, p. 769; Herman Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, The Literary World, VII (1850), 125–27 (p. 126).

[7] Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, p. 126.

[8] Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, p. 126.

[9] Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, p. 126.

[10] Melville, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses’, p. 126.

[11] David Oakey Dowling, Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010), p. 134.

[12] Walter Blair, ‘Color, Light, and Shadow in Hawthorne’s Fiction’, The New England Quarterly, 15.1 (1942), 74–94 (pp. 78–79) <https://doi.org/10.2307/360231&gt;.

[13] Blythe Ann Tellefsen, ‘“The Case with My Dear Native Land”: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Vision of America in The Marble Faun’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 54.4 (2000), 455–79 (p. 457) <https://doi.org/10.2307/2903013&gt;.

[14] Tellefsen, p. 457.

[15] Walter Pater, The Works of Walter Pater (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 221 <https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139062213&gt;.

[16] Anne Brewster, quoted in Charmaine A. Nelson, ‘White Marble, Black Bodies and the Fear of the Invisible Negro: Signifying Blackness in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Neoclassical Sculpture’, RACAR: Canadian Art Review, 27.1/2 (2000), 87–101 (p. 89).

[17] Nelson, p. 89.

[18] Nelson, p. 89.

[19] Pater, p. 221.

[20] Nelson, p. 90.

[21] Tellefsen, p. 456.

[22] Monika Gehlawat, ‘The Aesthetics Of Whiteness: Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the Paintings of Robert Ryman’, Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 88.3/4 (2005), 371–91 (p. 382).

[23] See, for example: Paul Hurh, American Terror: The Feeling of Thinking in Edwards, Poe, and Melville (Stanford University Press, 2015), pp. 161–202; Jeffrey Downard, ‘The Color of the Sublime Is White’, Contemporary Aesthetics, 4 (2006) <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0004.016&gt;; Frank G. Novak, ‘“Warmest Climes but Nurse the Cruellest Fangs”: The Metaphysics of Beauty and Terror in “Moby-Dick”’, Studies in the Novel, 15.4 (1983), 332–343.

[24] Hurh, p. 14.

[25] Hurh, p. 162.

[26] Maurice S. Lee, Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 9 <https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199797578.001.0001&gt;.

[27] Hurh, pp. 14–15.

[28] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. by Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pp. 120, 116.

[29] Hurh, p. 165.

[30] Larzer Ziff, ‘Introduction’, in Moby-Dick, Everyman’s Library (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), p. x.

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