Queequeg: Control and Oneness with Nature
By Christopher Fannon
Before the larger-than-life Ahab comes on to the scene, the most intriguing and charismatic character in Moby Dick is undoubtedly the harpooner Queequeg. For a book full of tumultuous inner conflict, Queequeg provides the unique and vital role of a man in perfect harmony with who he is and what he needs to do. He is nomadic, enjoys simple pleasures, and speaks and acts with a blunt disregard for unnecessary social tact. Unlike Ahab, who must consciously and viciously make himself appear great, Queequeg never needs to prove anything. For that very reason, he is perhaps a truer example of greatness than his wild and reckless captain. Though he becomes a less prominent character later in the novel, his calm control over his self and his nature are needed to contrast the fanaticism of Ahab.
When Ishmael first meets Queequeg, he goes from being terrified at the image of the harpooner, to being comforted by his simple respectfulness. Being the philosopher that he is, Ishmael realizes that his first impression is simply due to his confusion. He admits, “Ignorance is the parent of fear” (34). There is something about the image of Queequeg, with his spotted tan and his intricate tattoos, that is terrifying for its bizarreness. When people meet Queequeg, they are shocked by his appearance. Yet he makes no effort to change the way these people perceive him. He has no concern for what his image is. The only one who sees the simple, good-natured man behind the frightening exterior is Ishmael.
In the early stages of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship, much is made of the nature of the pagan-Christian relationship. By creating a character as dynamic as Queequeg, Melville criticizes and satirizes many of the general opinions of race and religion of his time. In a jab at the so-called “science” of phrenology, Ishmael tries to learn something about Queequeg by examining his head. He concludes, “It reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him… Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed” (55). Not only is Queequeg great, but he is equated with the great American hero. What a fantastic irony it is to illustrate the greatness of a pagan character through phrenology, so often used by whites to argue for their superiority. Melville has turned that belief structure on its head. He does the same thing with religion. Most literature casts Christianity as the religion of compassion and honesty, and paganism as a series of empty rituals. Through Queequeg, Melville inverts these. Ishmael sees emptiness in the Christian societal conduct and politeness but finds humanist compassion in the form of Queequeg’s simple paganism. “I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy” (56). Queequeg’s greatness transcends both race and religion. He stands on his own, separate from any group or stereotype that might be pinned on him.
Along with race and religion, Melville expresses the unique friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg by toying with another taboo subject: sex. Ishmael frequently likens their friendship to a marriage. After their first night together, Ishmael awakes to Queequeg cuddling up next to him, “I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost though I had been his wife” (36). Tied together by the monkey-rope, with Queequeg hanging overboard, Ishmael sees their fates linked, “for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded” (255). All this is not to suggest that Ishmael and Queequeg are homosexual, but that their friendship disregards the normal rules of societal tact.
As the friendship develops, Queequeg’s most admirable trait becomes evident. He has an incredible amount of faith, both in Ishmael and in nature. He asks Ishmael to select the boat which they will sail on, completely giving up his future to the judgment of his friend. While cutting in to the whale, he again places his safety in Ishmael’s hands, as the two are tied together by the monkey-rope. “Poor Queequeg, I suppose, only prayed to his Yojo, and gave up his life into the hands of his gods” (256). Queequeg silently accepts whatever fate has in store for him, and does his duty.
His combination of selflessness and trust are best displayed in his two overboard rescues. With the first, it is not even a friend he is rescuing, but in fact someone who had insulted him. Queequeg out-Christians the Christians he sails with by risking his life to save an enemy. Even as the crew applauds his bravery, Queequeg shrugs it off and lights up a pipe, “He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies” (64). With the second, Queequeg demonstrates that he will not hesitate to act, knowing exactly what he needs to do and doing it, in one fluid motion-“But hardly had the blinding vapor cleared away, when a naked figure with a boarding sword in its hand, was for one swift moment seen hovering over the bulwarks” (271). Queequeg has a fantastic understanding of the interconnectedness of the human condition, or as Ishmael puts it, “a mutual, joint-stock world” (64). He and all his crewmates are linked together on their voyage, and the only way to survive it is through a selfless trust and mutual help.
His self-assuredness carries over in his unwavering faith in Yojo, the tiny idol which he worships. Ishmael tries to use logic to talk him out of some of his beliefs, but Queequeg simply does not pay attention. -“he somehow seemed dull of hearing on that important subject, unless considered from his own point of view” (83). Queequeg cannot be criticized because he simply ignores all criticism. He knows what he believes, and gives no worry what others think of him because of his beliefs. As absurd as his religion may seem, there is something very respectable about the strength of his faith. It is directly contrasted with Ahab, who violently and fanatically tries to prove his beliefs. Queequeg is not so imposing, practicing his religion with a peaceful confidence.
Though Ahab and Queequeg represent two very different types of greatness aboard the Pequod, there are only two moments where Melville gives any sense of the relationship between the two. Ahab holds a Machiavellian command over most of his crew, “their fear of Ahab was greater than their fear of Fate” (389). Much to his distress, he does not have that same control over the harpooners. “The pagan harpooners remained almost wholly unimpressed; or if impressed, it was only with a certain magnetism shot into their congenial hearts from inflexible Ahab’s” (389). Here, Melville is once again toying with traditional views of religions. In white European literatue, paganism is frequently seen to be rooted in superstition, and Christianity in reason and logic. Ahab tries to give off the image of a larger-than-life monster, so that his men will follow him out of some sort of supernatural fear. It is the Christian crewmates who are most afraid. The only ones who seem to remember that he is still just a human are Queequeg and the other harpooners.
Ahab’s lack of control is made even more explicit several chapters before the above quote while viewing Queequeg’s brush with death. If there is any moment that shows how essential Queequeg is to Moby Dick, it is Chapter 110- “The Coffin.” Here Queequeg shows a complete oneness and mastery over nature that sets him apart from the rest of the crew. Having come down with a fever, Queequeg prepares to die, having the ship’s carpenter build a coffin for him. He does not mourn, or sob and cling to life, but makes all the proper preparations before anyone else can. Then, almost as quickly as he came down with the illness, he recovers, driven apparently just by will power and a sense of duty. “They asked him, then whether to live or die was a matter of his own sovereign will and pleasure. He answered, certainly.” (364) Queequeg knows his body and accepts his nature, and consequently, that is a great source of power for him. Melville seems to be suggesting that true power comes from accepting nature, not fighting against it. This explains Ahab’s reaction, keeping in mind his own quest to conquer nature’s most destructive creation- the white whale. When seeing how Queequeg has recovered, Ahab is filled with resentment that he lacks that same sort of power. He says only one thing regarding Queequeg, “Oh devilish tantalization of the gods!’” (367)
The plot significance of Queequeg’s coffin comes during the epilogue. As Ishmael is spun around in the vortex produced by the sinking Pequod, he survives by grabbing hold of the floating coffin. Did Queequeg then decide to survive longer so that he could indirectly save Ishmael? After all, had he died, he would have been buried at sea in his coffin, and his friend would have nothing to grab onto. Though Queequeg says he made himself survive the sickness because he “recalled a little duty ashore”(366) it is somewhat unclear what that means.
Though Melville never explicitly says that Queequeg can see the future, he frequently hints at it. His elaborate tattoos, for one, were written by a prophet on his original island home. Supposedly, they contain, “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth” (366). The power of the tattoos further tantalizes Ahab, another power that he lacks and his harpooner has. Considering the romantic supernatural happenings of the novel, and considering how in tune Queequeg is with his own nature, it is safe to assume the harpooner has some prophetic abilities.
By creating a man who stands on the edge of both pagan and Christian societies, Melville constructs a completely unique character in Queequeg. He is both selfless and isolated, both charismatic and quiet, and both strong and trustful. In all ways, his character is defined through contrasts, never fitting any group, but only being Queequeg.
© Christopher Fannon