Now that we’ve got church out of the way, it’s time to get real chummy with some dudes just bein’ bros. Just a real couple o’ old pals, pallin’ around! That’s it and that’s all, certainly no subtext here, no sirree.
These next few chapters make an interesting counterpoint to the harsh, literally sermonizing tone of the last little run. It’s a nice change of pace.
SUMMARY: Ishmael gets back to the Spouter-Inn, and finds Queequeg examining a book at the dining room table, counting its pages in awe. Ishmael decides to become friends with Queequeg, and strikes up a conversation. Queequeg is very receptive, and quickly declares them married, and after a while they go on up to their room. Queequeg divides his money evenly, giving half to Ishmael, they then get in bed together and share their deepest secrets with one another, as married couples are wont to do.
So, I mentioned before, back in The Counterpane, that there are a few parts in Moby-Dick; or, the Whale that could be construed, by modern readers, as a bit homoerotic. Queequeg sleeping with his arm around Ishmael, sure, that’s a little gay, but this chapter, hoo boy, there’s really no other way to read it than a budding romance.
I mean, let’s take it point by point. First, Ishmael finds himself merely interested in this strange “savage” who he was forced to sleep with the night before. But as he gazes at him, he takes note of his handsomeness, the fine shape of his head. He delves into phrenology and says that “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.“
Phrenology is a pseudoscientific theory from the 19th century that posited that the shape of the head indicated the shape of the brain, which, naturally, determined your personality. You could use some calipers to measure the lumps on a skull and tell if someone was a criminal, by the size of their Crime Organ. It’s pretty interesting, and all obvious hogwash, perfect material for the Sawbones podcast, one of my favorites, who have of course done an episode on it.
Let’s not beat around the bush, Ishmael is secretly checking out Queequeg while pretending to watch the storm outside, “Whilst I was thus closely scanning him, half-pretending meanwhile to be looking out at the storm from the casement.” He is enamored with the stoic personality of his bedfellow, the way he goes through life perfectly self-aware and ease with his own existence, warts and all. Even so very far from his homeland, among these people who must seem so strange to him, Queequeg never falters!
Also this passage, which I take as a personal attack on myself:
Surely this was a touch of fine philosophy; though no doubt he had never heard there was such a thing as that. But, perhaps, to be true philosophers, we mortals should not be conscious of so living or so striving. So soon as I hear that such or such a man gives himself out for a philosopher, I conclude that, like the dyspeptic old woman, he must have “broken his digester.”
And then, and he continues to stare longingly, we get this line
I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world.
Ishmael is just falling head over heels in love with Queequeg. He’s got a crush. There is simply no other way to read it, I’m sorry. Ishmael throws away all doubts relating to Queequeg’s origins, decides that since he hasn’t found any true kindness among his fellow christians, he’ll try being friends with a pagan.
There have been some hints and indications of it, but Ishmael is remarkably open-minded and tolerant for a man in the early 19th century. Indeed, after he finally works up the courage to start chatting with Queequeg and they share a smoke, get hitched, and go back to their room, Ishmael has no problem literally worshiping an idol with his best pal.
I really love the logic he uses for it:
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.
It’s hard to argue, frankly. A lot of the logic of religion is rooted in more ancient practices that are based in more polytheistic understandings of the world. You’re only supposed to worship your god because you’re on their team, essentially. But if you really believe that your god is the only real one, and all powerful, and all knowing, then why should they be so jealous of your worship? Would they really be so petty as to punish you for being kind to a friend?
Now, as the new married couple settle in to bed for the next chapter, I will entertain some argument about their status as clear and obvious homosexual lovers. There’s nothing explicit here, of course, and I hear you saying that friendship was different in those days.
Long, long ago, before modern society, there was a strange place called The Past, and they have strange habits and customs that look odd to our modern eyes. We may see some men hugging each other, being physically intimate, and think “goodness, how homoerotic!” But, in that time, it was simply more acceptable for men to express physical affection for one another with no sexual subtext whatsoever. They were, in fact, just dudes bein’ bros. Or companions being bosom chums, whatever the 19th century equivalent phrase is.
So what I am reading as something more than friendship was actually just that, and would have been understood to be that at the time.
But I say to you: Yes, things were different in the past, but that cuts both ways! You simply could not speak openly about these things, which were especially common among sailors. There is a famous saying, that the traditions of the Royal Navy amount to “rum, buggery, and the lash” (or something like that). Men cooped up together on a ship for months and months, it’s no surprise, frankly. And there’s no way that Melville, who was a sailor for his entire youth (even if he only went on one whaling voyage) would be naive to these facts.
The language employed in this chapter, I posit, frames this more as a crush and budding romance than anything else. If Melville intended a mere close friendship, he could have written it differently, and who cares what he intended anyway, he’s not around to argue. Interpretation is creative! I say: they’re gay, and make a good couple.
Ah, if this were a serious bit of writing, I would go track down some more sources to cite and whatnot, really develop a strong argument. But hey, I’m just havin’ fun here, not doin’ this for a grade. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Up next, The Nightgown, in which we get an intimate portrait of the young lovers in bed, and one of the most #relatable bits in the whole book!
Until next time, shipmates!
First four from this article, last two from this one. All anonymous photos.