Chapter 12: Biographical

With this chapter, we briefly move back into one of Melville’s more comfortable, more popular subjects: The south seas, which is to say the islands of the southern Pacific ocean.

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As I mentioned before, this chapter isn’t an exact transcript of what Queequeg told Ishmael that night, but rather a sort of reconstructed narrative based on that, information later gleaned from Queequeg, and from other miscellaneous individuals who knew of the story.

SUMMARY: Queequeg was born on the island of Rokovoko, somewhere far to the southwest. He was the son of the island’s king, and nephew of its high priest, and grew up in the lap of luxury. But he wanted to go and learn from Christians about the wider world, so he tried to ship off on a whaling ship that landed there, but they refused to take him. So, Queequeg paddled out to the ship as it was sailing away, leapt up on the deck, and grabbed hold of a ring-bolt. He said that the only way to remove him would be either to welcome him as a crewman, or cut him to pieces then and there, so the captain relented and agreed to take him. Thus, Queequeg became a harpooneer. After hearing this story and asking a few questions, Ishmael finally lays back and falls asleep with his new friend.


I wasn’t quite sure how detailed to get with the summary, but it makes more sense to leave a few interesting tidbits for the full analysis. Don’t want the summary to get too long, it defeats the purpose.

So, there are a number of interesting things going on here. Let’s start with what this chapter is actually relaying, what sort of form it’s taking. This is a chapter in a book written by Future-Ishmael, relating the time that he heard the life story of his dear friend Queequeg, but also embellishing it with additional clarity and details gleaned at a later time. But with the interjected questions towards the end, and the bit with Past-Ishmael and Queequeg falling asleep, it’s still relating an event as it happened rather than being a fully cleaned up narrative.

We don’t find out exactly what details were revealed when, by who, because it doesn’t really matter. This is the relevant bits, the Story of Queequeg as Ismael has come to understand it. In this, we get some more foreshadowing of the fate of Queequeg, since there is no further story to tell.

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Something that I found interesting in this chapter is how Ishmael casually refers to Queequeg as a cannibal as if that isn’t some shocking truth, but a simple statement of fact. He never really casts judgment on the practice, it’s just the way things are done in the place that he’s from. There are a couple ways to read this:

– The judgment that “cannibalism is wrong” doesn’t really need to be made, it’s taken for granted. Merely by calling him a cannibal, Ishmael is drawing upon a wealth of cultural understand with regards to the dichotomy between the “savages” and the “civilized”.

– Who is Ishmael to judge his fellow man for their cultural practices? Are the wars that are fought between supposedly “civilized” nations really any better because we don’t eat the dead? It’s all relative, man, no need to get hung up on the details.

– Ishmael is trying to project a kind of worldliness that isn’t shocked or appalled by cannibalism, despite any feelings he may truly be harboring about it. He’s an experienced whaler, and he’s known tons of cannibals and it’s not even a big deal. Basically, being a bit of a show-off through nonchalance.

I think it’s some combination of all of them, really. Ishmael would obviously be appalled by cannibalism as a practice, but in the context of it being a thing his dear friend has done in the past, he’s not gonna let it get in the way. And he is highlighting in order to give a bit of that ol’ Gritty Realism for this book he’s writing.

This is also probably what Melville is doing. I mentioned before that this is his wheelhouse, and that’s because his earlier, much more successful novels were south-seas adventures, called Typee and Omoo. They were massively popular, and much more traditional is form. I’ve never read them.

It’s also just being used as shorthand for the fact that Queequeg is from a small south pacific island where the people were “savages”, of course. But many of the assumptions about his people are challenged in this and the next chapter. They’re not weird monsters just champing at the bit to eat more civilized folks, they’re just people. The expectations of some wild origin for Queequeg are effectively undermined.

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Similarly, Queequeg has his own expectations undermined when he finally gets back to the great Christian civilization he’s heard so much about. He doesn’t get into details, but when he saw how his fellow sailors acted when they got back to America, he decided that maybe Christians aren’t so great after all. This was supposed to be a great journey to acquire useful knowledge and philosophy from a faraway land, but it turns out he just ended up in another place like any other, or worse even than his relatively pure and peaceful island home.

Thus, Queequeg isn’t really on any grand quest, he’s just kinda going along, plying his trade. This would probably explain why he is so happy to have a friend in Ishmael, to finally have some close companionship that isn’t driven away by his outlandish appearance and origin.

Indeed, Queequeg decides right then and there that he’ll not only go to Nantucket with Ishmael, but he’ll go on the same ship and try to share the same watch with him. He is already deeply committed, ready to “share his every hap”.

The other question that Ishmael asks is if Queequeg would ever go back to Rokovoko and become king? His father must be dead by now, and his birthright is waiting for him. But Queequeg demurs, he’s spent too much time around Christians and fears that their bad influence has corrupted him. The pure pagan-ness of the throne of Rokovoko must be protected, after all.

It’s another interesting inversion of expected moral judgments. It doesn’t even feel to me like the old Noble Savage stereotype, the Rokovokans aren’t portrayed as being especially moral or superior. They’ve just got their own way of life, and Christians haven’t proven to be any better, certainly, so they have a right to want to keep things the way they are.

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One theme that is established here is the idea of Royalty as a sort of attitude towards the world, a material way of being. Ishmael compares Queequeg to Czar Peter the Great of Russia, who worked anonymously in foreign shipyards as a youth. Queequeg doesn’t care what kind of work he is asked to do or what sorts of ignominy or toil he must endure to accomplish his goals. As a true king, or at least prince, his concerns are higher than such things as his own health and safety.

Ishmael (and Melville) exhibit a classic American infatuation with the concept of royalty, while at the same time rebelling against it as a natural law. Certain people act like royalty, but nature is fundamentally democratic and meritocratic. It is their actions that make them royal, not their ancestry. This will come up again a lot, later on.


Whew, another big important chapter down. Still establishing some themes, we’ll follow up with a lot of this stuff in the near and distant future. Come to think of it, we get a lot more information about Queequeg’s backstory than we ever do about Ishmael himself. I’ll have to keep an eye out for scraps of information in that vein as we continue.

Next up is a rather eventful, fully narrative chapter, about the pair’s journey to Nantucket. Then they’ll actually be able to start looking for a whaling ship to sign onto!

Until next time, shipmates!

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