::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Reading Moby-Dick: Part Two
Chapter Two: Queequeg

“And God created great whales.”

- Genesis

Is there a more unusual character in literature than the cannibal turned harpooner? One expects traditionalism when reading “Moby-Dick,” so when the reader is first introduced to Queequeg, well, call me surprised. We first meet this literary icon at the Sprouter-Inn in New Bedford.

Ishmael, on his way to Nantucket, ends up at the inn when in search for a cheap place to spend the night. He ends up in the dining area of this low-rent establishment on a cold and dreary evening. There’s no fire and Ishmael huddles around a barren table spooning dumplings and potatoes into his mouth.

His hunger sated, Ishmael begins to worry about where he’ll be sleeping. The landlord – a creaky old fellow – informs him that the inn is full. No more beds. However, the landlord is willing to sell Ishmael half a cot that he must share with a harpooner.

Ishmael balks at first. Instead, he finds a hard bench by the windows and tries to make due. But the cold is deep and seeps through the window glass. Finally, he reluctantly agrees to shard a bed.

He discovers that his bedfellow is “a dark complexioned chap. He never eats dumplings, he don’t – he eats nothing but steaks, and likes ‘em rare.”

Ishmael frets mightily about his decision. He learns that the harpooner may be returning to the inn late because he’s out selling a shrunken head. The news causes Ishmael to lose his patience with the landlord.

But exhausted, he climbs into his bed to await his mysterious roommate. Time ticks away and the night lapses into the wee hours of the morning. At last, Queequeg arrives carrying a lone candle. In the flickering light, Ishmael gets his first look at the head-peddling harpooner from the South Seas.

“Good heavens! What a sight! Such a face!”

Queequeg has a dark purplish, yellow skin tone with black, square tattoos running along his cheeks. He is completely bald, except for a “scalp-knot twisted on his forehead.” His back and chest are also covered in tattoos and he carries a tomahawk that doubles as a tobacco pipe.

Ishmael is shocked and terrified to be sleeping with this savage cannibal. He screams for help from the landlord – and a row nearly erupts. But there is something in the demeanor of Queequeg that calms the sailor and they end up fast friends.

Some say more than friends. The relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael has raised more than a few eyebrows. Many people see a sexual relationship. It’s easy to see why with passages like these:

  • “Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.
  • “Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him.”
  • “How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open to very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair.

Are Ishmael and Queequeg gay?

Probably not. “Moby-Dick” was written in 1851 and society was a different place. It wasn’t uncommon for straight men to share beds, to embrace and touch, to become bosom buddies in a short period of time. This, of course, would be considered homosexual behavior today. I tend to agree with Melville scholar Carl F. Houde who notes:

“There has been controversy about this imagery, some seeing a movement toward romantic love. But one must be very careful before pushing Melville’s language into special meanings.”

Certainly the bond between the two characters is a strong one – but not a gay one (although there’s nothing wrong with that).

Progress to date: Page 132 of 655.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
Clearly a bromance if nothing else. It reminds me of Lincoln and that guy he used to share a bed with.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Sometimes a spade is a spade. What was normal for 19th century male affection has often been exaggerated-- even then, Ishmael and Queequeg's interactions would be seen as kind of gay. Maybe less so than we would think now, maybe it was easier to slip by, but homoerotic behavior and emotions are clearly present. Which make sense for Melville to include, especially as there is obvious evidence that he was most comfortable with close male intimacy, and struggled with homosexual feelings-- to say nothing of the letters he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne that are pretty much love letters.

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