Ishmael explains what Moby Dick means to him (in contrast to what the whale means to Captain Ahab).
What really bothers Ishmael about the whale is its whiteness.
In a sentence-turned-paragraph, Ishmael describes all the natural and unnatural contexts in which whiteness is considered good or superior, including everything from pearls to white supremacy to priests’ white robes.
Despite all these things, however, Ishmael claims that the fundamental idea of whiteness "strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood" (42.3).
As a result, Ishmael claims, anything that is already terrible seems even more horrifying when it has a ghostly, eerie whiteness to it, like a white shark or a polar bear. (Apparently, Ishmael suffers from polarbearophobia.)
And then there’s the albatross: aren’t those creepy? (Never mind that they’re supposed to be good omens for sailors—focus on the creepiness.).
Next, Ishmael tells a supposed Native American legend of a divine White Steed, which inspires everyone who sees it with awe and terror.
The next example of disturbing whiteness is albino human beings, who, Ishmael claims, people instinctively fear. Just when we thought Ishmael was getting over this whole skin-color-prejudice thing by getting to know Queequeg, he comes out with something else.
Whiteness gets associated with evil things in Nature (the White Squall), evil things in civilization (the White Hoods of Ghent, a group of Flemish rebels who rose up against the French king Louis II), and metaphysical evil things (ghosts).
So, Ishmael argues, even if white can sometimes symbolize things that are "grand or gracious," it also "calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul" (42.11). In other words, even when it’s good, it’s bad.
What Ishmael really wants to know is why: why does something seem way more sinister if it’s white?
He lists lots of examples, but we’re thinking of the white storm trooper uniforms in Star Wars. Don't they seem way more evil than if they all wore khaki? And what about Saruman from The Lord of the Rings? Or, Heath Ledger’s Joker makeup in The Dark Knight definitely counts—that’s the kind of freaky whiteness we’re talking about here.
Of course, Ishmael admits that, when people are afraid of something white, they don’t usually think it’s frightening—because it’s white, especially if the object of their fear isn’t something they usually worry about in other colors. To clarify, Ishmael gives two examples:
First, mariners get scared when their ships are surrounded by white water. Sure, they’ll claim they’re just afraid of their ship hitting rocks in the shallows, breaking up completely, and everyone drowning, but Ishmael knows that what they really fear is the whiteness of the water.
Second, even though lots of people aren’t afraid of wide expanses of snow, sailors are terrified by the Antarctic seas. And no, it’s not the giant icebergs. So there.
Ishmael admits that some people might think he’s being a tad bit panicky, but he thinks that he’s reacting based on some hidden instinct, the way a horse who’s never been gored by or even seen a buffalo will freak out if it smells buffalo hide.
Finally, Ishmael suggests a few reasons that whiteness might seem alarming: because it’s indefinite, void, makes us think of non-existence and atheism, and is simultaneously the absence of color and a mixture of all the colors.
And all those things (everything above, this whole chapter) are what the White Whale symbolizes. So now do you see why everyone’s joining in the insane hunt-quest?