Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow

Today we’ve got another nice little chunk of narrative, after those low-key backstory and religious chapters. But, it also finds plenty of time for fun little asides and bits of philosophy here and there, so it ends up being quite long.


I’m trying to get out of the mode of going through the whole chapter point by point. There’s just too much in this book, and its very existence warns against that kind of close analysis as a sisyphean task. So, I will try to restrict myself to the points and observations I find most interesting.

SUMMARY: Ishmael and Queequeg have breakfast at the Spouter-Inn and then set off with all their luggage in a borrowed wheelbarrow to find the ferry over to Nantucket. They ramble through town and chat some more, exchanging anecdotes as they go. They board the ferry, a schooner called “the Moss”, and are revived by the sight and smell of the sea. On the trip to Nantucket, Queequeg is mocked by a couple of green country bumpkins, causing him to throw one into the air, flip him around, and land him on his feet. The bumpkin complains to the captain, who warns Queequeg against further mischief. That very same bumpkin falls in the water when a boom flies loose, and Queequeg then not only secures the boom but rescues the bumpkin, saving his life.

As I said, quite a bit going on here. Let’s hit some notable points.

There is a running theme in this chapter of people reacting to the close friendship of Ishmael and Queequeg, an ordinary New Yorker and a cannibal from the other side of the world. Even the other whalers in the Spouter-Inn mock them, and they really ought to be worldly enough to accept such things. They get stares on the streets of New Bedford, and then endure mockery at the hands of bumpkins aboard “the Moss”.

You can see a couple of interesting things here. One is that while we’ve been assured that the presence of strange folks from all over the world is considered No Big Deal in the whale fishery or on the streets of noted whaling town New Bedford, the friendship between one of them and a white sailor makes everyone look twice. It’s okay for “savages” to be around as long as they act and are treated properly, as outsiders. It is necessary to have them around, but they are not to be brought in and integrated into the social fabric. They must keep their own counsel, any actual mixing between races, even in friendship, is shocking and forbidden.

You can see where I’m going with this, it’s the old colonial/slave trade fear of miscegenation. It’s always struck me as very strange, something really “of the past”, but there are people still living who are violently opposed to it. It’s an ancient idea, really, the whole separation of in-groups and out-groups and whatnot, but the way it was applied to the scheme of racism in the colonial Americas is really particularly vile.


Ah, but I shouldn’t get too far off track. The purpose of these passages in this particular chapter is a little different. This mockery is there so that Queequeg can respond to it, and thus again prove his superiority.

You see, Queequeg doesn’t really care. He is above such petty concerns as what other people think of him. He is stoic in the face of this mockery, and takes a longer and wider view. After relating a story of not knowing how to use a wheelbarrow when he first arrived in America, he tells a story about some visiting traders in his own homeland were ignorant of dining customs. Everyone has something they can laugh at other people about. No need to get all riled up about it, it’s all in good fun.

Which is not to say that he will allow himself to be mocked, as we see on “the Moss” when he tosses that bumpkin into the air, but again it’s just teasing back and forth. The general rule, again, is to just take things in stride. Queequeg knows that he can rely on his physical power to make up for any social shortcomings. He walks around town with a razor sharp harpoon in his hand, those New Bedford townies can say whatever they like behind his back but they’re not going to disrespect him to his face.

Ishmael follows his lead, but instead of an inner confidence he’s simply too distracted by internal philosophizing and the joy of his new friendship to really care. When they arrive at the docks, both Ishmael and Queequeg are revived:

Gaining the more open water, the bracing breeze waxed fresh; the little Moss tossed the quick foam from her bows, as a young colt his snortings. How I snuffed that Tartar air!—how I spurned that turnpike earth!—that common highway all over dented with the marks of slavish heels and hoofs; and turned me to admire the magnanimity of the sea which will permit no records.


And we see here again that disdain for the land and love of the sea. The land is common and pedestrian, set in its ways, but the sea is mysterious and ever-changing. It allows escape from the boring everyday life, and even toil upon it is more exciting and inspiring. Remember that this book began with a description of the way that all humanity is drawn to water.

Anyway, this chapter also has one of my favorite bits of prose:

But there were some boobies and bumpkins there, who, by their intense greenness, must have come from the heart and centre of all verdure.

Ishmael really has no patience for country bumpkins whatsoever. It is his one prejudice.

Ah, another long chapter down. Next time, we’ll finally get to Nantucket! And hoo boy does Ishmael have some things to say about that venerable speck of an island.

Until next time, shipmates!

Image credits:

A beggar carrying his wife in a wheelbarrow (1470-1490), by B x G

September (1638), by Paulus Furst

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