The Racial Discourse and Racial Perception in Melville’s Novel
When you meet someone new, perhaps the best thing to do is not to “judge a book by its cover,” but is not doing so that a possibility in the world we live in? Not only relevant to today, judgment based on physical attributes traces back to the 1850s, when enslavement of Africans was justified by whites having lighter skin color. The novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville explores the topic of race and how it correlates with status. Melville expresses the hierarchy of society with whites at the top, expressing their superiority over the non-whites, but simultaneously sheds a positive light on the non-whites, in some cases portraying them as more worthy of respect.
Moby Dick shows the ignorance of the whites through the stereotypes they make about non-whites, and their assumptions that any skin color deviant from the color white is considered “savage.” When Ishmael initially encounters Queequeg the native of Kokovoko, he solely relies on the makeup of Queequeg’s skin to determine if he was worthy or not of being a roommate. Ishmael observes and determines, “Such a face! It was of dark, purplish, yellow color… stuck over with large, blackish looking squares… he’s a terrible bedfellow; he’s been in a fight… falling among the cannibals” (Melville 23). These three assumptions Ismael immediately made were based upon a “story” he heard from another man, and he is simply applying the same negative associations with a stranger with certain marks on his body. Soon enough, however, although at first somewhat skeptical of Queequeg’s trustworthiness, Ishmael gains this “former cannibal” as his “other half,” and avoids clinging on to his first impressions. This proves that not only did whites have a solid opinion towards non-whites, but any man who overcame this barrier may have been capable of finding themselves wrong in stereotyping. It also shows that the bodily features of a man may not reflect his personality, but affect white men because they believe lightness makes them more superior, in effect affecting the way the non-whites are treated.
In the novel, the actions of the whites towards non-whites portray an unconditional superiority of the whites and submissiveness of the non-whites, and the whites as being reckless. The laborer hierarchy is determined by race; the Pequod is made up of men of many races, but the whites at times abused their powers. For example, Stubb’s cook was the negro Flask, and one night Stubb interrupted his sleep just to tell him that his shark dish was not cooked properly: “Stubb… cried… “Cook, you cook!– sail this way!” The old black… roused from his warm hammock…”don’t you think this steak is rather overdone?” (321). Stubb awoke his chef about a minuscule matter, and Flask could not do anything about it. This shows that non-whites think they have the right to do anything to favor themselves, even if it means a violation of the non-white or an inappropriate act. Stubb keeps his right to “power” by bossing Flask around simply for his own entertainment, and exerting his own importance before that of Flask’s. In the speech that Flask gives to the sharks, he implies that Stubb is also in some ways similar to the shark, and mis-aligns with Stubb’s thoughts of himself being exclusive in his abilities to do what he wants without being penalized. In addition, the same man, Stubb, received a black boy, Pip, who is frightened and periodically jumps off the ship, and Stubb warns him to not do so. He states, “Stick to the boat, Pip, or I won’t pick you up if you jump…We can’t afford to lose whales …. a whale would sell for thirty times what you would, Pip” (452). Not only does Stubb express his rules in simplified language to Pip, he also devalues Pip in relation to a whale. This demonstrates the white man’s social dominance and ability to explicitly place the black man under an animal, which is the way the white man perceived them to be. However, although the white men rule over the black ones, their motives prove themselves inferior in terms of morality, and dehumanizing the blacks show that they are not able to interact with others who differ from them.
Through Ishmael, Moby Dick also elaborates on the meaning of whiteness, creating a contradiction between the whites and the actual meaning of the color. Ishmael states, “Whiteness refiningly enhances beauty… in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man mastership over every dusky tribe…. yet … lurks an elusive something… which strikes more panic to the soul” (204-205). The traditional meaning of white is shown by him to be of religious significance, showing clarity and a high status. However, he interprets the whites to be the opposite, as creating confusion. Just as colors seen are those reflected, as white is a combination of all colors, the white men do not show their “true colors” and are difficult to understand, as is the white whale. On the contrary, some people may argue that although the white men are shown with having more power, the colored men are not shown to be more deserving of high opinion. One example may be of Pip when he is told by Stubb to stop jumping– Pip does not jump once, but does so twice after given the rules, and this shows that he is not able to follow the rules. However, Pip jumps because he is scared as anyone would be on their first day of a novel job, black or white. Either way, Stubb has no right to call Pip less worthy of being saved than a whale. In addition, there is a scene where a white man goes on top of a black one: “The sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo… the bearer looked nobler than the rider” (241). Although the white man here is on top of the black one, he is smaller and he is literally dependent on the non-white man for everything, as is a large portion of the Pequod for physical labor.
Moby Dick shows the white men as higher in status given their power over the whites, but also expresses their lack of sentiment and regard for others, placing the non-whites higher than them in terms of reverence and merit. The inability of the whites to interact in equal terms with the non-whites hinders the development of the Pequod, creating unnecessary conflict. The friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg provides Americans with the thought that regardless of the past, the future can be full of harmony between people of different races, and that they can coexist peacefully.
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