Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Notable Savage

Who doesn't love Queequeg? Queequeg is a good-natured and devout cannibal and an equally devoted friend, and he is the first character of any depth to whom Ishmael introduces us. Queequeg is generally fairly quiet and genial, with a good sense of humor, and, like Ahab, speaks with an accent. Queequeg's accent, from a place "not drawn on any map" as "true places never are", is sometimes strange to parse, and of carefully ambiguous meaning as a result. More often, Ishamel or Melville (as to Melville's voice: note that in parts of the book we leave Ishmael's narration, and I will generally refer to these sections as "Melville" speaking for convenience, making finer distinctions when warranted.) speaks for Queequeg, and we only receive the report of his actions and statements.

Queequeg's presence often sets Ishmael to musing on his own self and character, his religion, and his place in the world, or sets Melville off on a philosophic jaunt applicable to us all. Queequeg is a carrier of things; he always seems to have some totem in his hand: a harpoon, a hat, a shrunken head, a personal diety, his tomahawk pipe. Objects find interesting and often important associations and uses with Queequeg. In many ways, Queequeg is part of the glue that binds the more philosophical layers of the book to the more dramatic layers. Listen to Melville and Ishmael as they tell you about Queequeg's things, and you'll find some richness in the book that is easy to miss.

Melville was widely known as a man who lived among the cannibals, and his embrace of native tribes and his often bitterly sardonic criticism of the self-righteous misssionaries let loose on them was a trademark of a Melville book. Melville's readers would have looked more for Queequeg than Ahab. But Melville goes deeper here, and as you step back from the book and think about Queequeg and his objects, you'll find the simple and genial Queequeg to also be a critical part of a beautifully tortured id underlying the story.

Here's a nice example of a paragraph from the chapter about when Queequeg gets dreadfully ill, and expects to die, and has a coffin made for himself:

Leaning over in his hammock, Queequeg long regarded the coffin with an attentive eye. He then called for his harpoon, had the wooden stock drawn from it, and then had the iron part placed in the coffin along with one of the paddles of his boat. All by his own request, also, biscuits were then ranged round the sides within: a flask of fresh water was placed at the head, and a small bag of woody earth scraped up in the hold at the foot; and a piece of sail-cloth being rolled up for a pillow, Queequeg now entreated to be lifted into his final bed, that he might make trial of its comforts, if any it had. He lay without moving a few minutes, then told one to go to his bag and bring out his little god, Yojo. Then crossing his arms on his breast with Yojo between, he called for the coffin lid (hatch he called it) to be placed over him. The head part turned over with a leather hinge, and there lay Queequeg in his coffin with little but his composed countenance in view. Rarmai (it will do; it is easy), he murmured at last, and signed to be replaced in his hammock.

Yojo, Queequeg's totem that is actually a totem, is itself a minor character appearing periodically through the book to provide advice to Ishamel and Queequeg. This is a charmingly little curiosity of a tale, and a chuckle-inducing little image, but it is also a mythological little sketch, jam-packed with a variety of stuff if you're up for the deconstructing, and a fine passage to form the basis of any sunday sermon.


  1. An additional comment: Queequeg is also a character for the groundlings: that harpoon of his is used as a phallus, and Melville periodically throws in a bit of rawer sexual humor.

  2. Man, I'm beginning to get excited about taking another crack at Moby Dick! When I first tried reading it, Queequeg's character was my favorite. Although I understand his character assumes a lesser role later in the book. Too bad.

  3. This will be fun! I think Queequeg's later appearances also have a bit less of groundling humor in them, as the drama of the final chase builds, but I have to keep an eye on that as I read into it this time.