Striking Through the Pasteboard Mask

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Striking Through the Pasteboard Mask

Student Contributor

In these troubled times of the twentieth first century, I see a little of Captain Ahab in the air. Edward Said, in response to these distressing times, stated that the current war on terror "uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick" and indeed it does (Said, 2001). As the United States continues its war against the invisible enemy I hear the voice of Captain Ahab roaring through the waters: "If man will strike, strike through the mask!" But hasn't Melville already showed us that behind the mask there is nothing but an "unreasoning" force? That even if we succeeded in striking through the mask, we would not find the answers we were looking for? Much as George Bush continues on with his war in search for that "accursed" Osama bin Laden in hopes to find a reason for 9/11, Captain Ahab searches for his white whale in hopes to find a reason for his missing leg. This search for the unattainable is nothing more than an illustration of the human desire to make reason out of "unreason". To find truth behind the mask. This paper will examine the function of the mask in Melville's Moby Dick, particularly the Quarter-deck scene where Captain Ahab confesses to the crew his intention to chase the white whale and strike through the mask.

In chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck, Captain Ahab announces to his crew that they are to set sail in search of Moby Dick. He is met with roaring cheer and collective excitement by all those aboard the Pequod except for Starbuck. Starbuck pleads with Ahab to give up on such vengeful fantasies and resume the normal whaling mission of killing whales and extracting their sperm oil. Ahab does not relent and proceeds with his philosophy behind the mission: "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event in the living act, the undoubted deed there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!" (Melville, 140) How can the prisoner escape his prison, Ahab continues, except by charging through the wall? According to Ahab, the mask is this wall that functions to imprison us in the prison of a socially-constructed reality. He cannot accept that his prior encounter with Moby Dick, an encounter that left him without a right leg, has happened for no adequate reason. He expresses a desire to thrust through the unreasoning reality as he knows it, through its pasteboard mask, and come face to face with that which is controlling what he believes the very foundation of existence.

Melville, whom I believe is speaking through Ahab in this particular chapter, states that all visible objects are but pasteboard masks. This implies that all objects, including human beings, are concealed beneath an externalized projection emanating from either the object or an independent source Melville does not make it clear where the pasteboard mask comes from. In addition to visible objects, he argues that there exists an unknown, reasoning force that gives meaning to existence from beneath what appears to the casual observer nothing more than an unreasoning force. The unreasoning force serves as the mask for the unknown, reasoning force, and Ahab desires to strike through this mask, which in his eye is the white whale, in order to confront the reasoning force that exists behind it. It is not clear what the reasoning force is meant to illustrate God, higher power, nothingness but Melville's point is clear: to challenge this unknown, reasoning force is to risk monomania and, in the Pequod's case, even death.

It is interesting to further examine the source of the pasteboard mask. As stated above, Melville does not explicitly mention how these masks are created but he treats the mask that conceals reasoning force in the same manner as he treats the mask that conceals all visible objects. It is possible that the source of the pasteboard mask does not emanate from within existence but independent of it, the source being a representation of a God or higher power. In this case, the mask is a pre-destined externalization that the object has little control over. Ralph Ellison, in his novel The Invisible Man, argues that the source is not a higher power but indeed emanates from within existence, namely from within society itself. In the novel, the narrator has opted for an invisible identity to escape those perceptions that are immediately imposed on him because of the color of his skin. He prefers to ascend from the ranks of visible objects and assume the role of the invisible man, free from the confinements of the pasteboard mask. I would argue that Melville's line of reasoning closely follows Ellison's rationale because he gives no indication that religion plays a significant role in the characters' lives. In fact, his outlook on religion is illustrated in many chapters of the novel, like that in A Bosom Friend where Ishmael reasons that he must worship Queequeg's little black wooden god to do the will of the Christian God, namely, that religion is a matter of loose interpretation and is subject to social constructions.

If the mask is subject to social constructions then the mask itself is loosely defined; it is these very same loose definitions that the narrator in The Invisible Man finds difficult to grapple with. It is these very same loose definitions that puzzle Captain Ahab, and even George W. Bush. What is evil but a mask we externalize from our own personal bias? Did the white whale really threaten Ahab's existence? No, but in his mind Moby Dick was the epitome of evil and that is why he gave chase. In the same manner, the wars with Iraq and Afghanistan are but an opportunity for Bush to strike through the pasteboard masks and find the reasoning force, this reasoning force being his "axis of evil" and the king of all terror, Osama bin Laden, in hopes to come face to face with what drives his monomania. I don't know what he will find if he does succeed to strike through the mask, but something tells me he won't find the crux of all evil waiting to meet with him.

Melville was a master of observation, he saw the inner workings of the world in the simple actions of human beings, and it is a shame that we have yet to learn his greatest observation: Nothing good ever comes from chasing our imaginations.

Ellison, Ralph. The Invisible Man. Vintage Books, New York: 1980
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Norton & Company, New York: 2002, 1967
Said, Edward. "Islam and the West are Inadequate Banners." Available On-line at,6903,552764,00.html Visited on 4/18/2004

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