All visible objects . . . are but as pasteboard masks. . . . How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall . . . I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and . . . I will wreak that hate upon him . . . Talk not to me of blasphemy . . . I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.
Taken at face value, Ahab is arguing that even though the whale appears to act on a purely instinctual level, there is a pool of intent, an a priori sensibility, which rests behind its mask of unreason.
This smoldering harangue against the white whale also reveals an unrelenting, punitive temperament boiling within the captain; he has grown bitter, hardened with old age. In the same passage, he proclaims, “Truth has no confines.” According to Ahab, neither beast, nor spirit is above retribution. It is this incendiary drive for revenge, or justice, which has eroded the captain’s prosperity. Consider the end of chapter 34: “So, in his inclement, howling old age, Ahab’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed upon the sullen paws of its gloom!”
Masks and the idea of digging beneath the surface are critical motifs in Moby-Dick. Throughout the novel, Herman Melville creates a series of situations where first impressions and initial perceptions often lead to false convictions. The precept of looking beyond the exterior is first hinted in the beginning of chapter 3. Ishmael enters an inn and catches sight of a large oil-painting. “So thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced . . . it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it . . . that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose.” This assessment of Ishmael’s is further reinforced at the end of chapter 7 when he ponders, “. . . in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will . . . it is not me.” Though more transcendental in implication, the basic idea presented therein remains wholly relevant to Melville’s theme.
As Ishmael pondered the depths beyond mere surface level, he failed to heed the musings of his own ruminations. Upon first laying eyes on his mysterious roommate, Queequeg, Ishmael convinced himself that his roommate was a heathen and would, potentially, kill him. Because of his ignorance regarding the strange habits of his foreign friend, Ishmael immediately assumed the worst and confessed he was “as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself.” Eventually Ishmael comes to rectify his blunder and befriends the Kokovoko native. In the former half of chapter 10, he muses, “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face . . . his countenance yet had a something in it which was by no means disagreeable. You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooing, I thought I saw the tracings of a simple honest heart...”
The story of an old captain’s vengeance with the whale who took his leg is a front. Like the many fragments that constitute the whole, Herman Melville’s narrative is littered with sapient metaphors and profound allegories, and requires discernment well beneath the surface. Deep down, beyond the flesh and away from faith, Captain Ahab is searching for the truth. He is imprisoned by his own need for answers, searching for a revelation swimming in a deep blue body of water. “How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall,” he asks. “To me, the white whale is that wall . . .” Bound, burdened and beset by this tempestuous quest, Ahab continues to sail upon the flukes of the belly of the beast, kept afloat by the old adage that “the truth will set you free.”