Chapter 18: His Mark

Now that Queequeg’s religious obligations have been dealt with, we can get back to the business at hand: going on a whaling voyage! Or at least preparing for one.

mark1

This is a nice little chapter, we get some more of Peleg and Bildad, and see the contrast of how they treat Ishmael and his bosom pal. We’ve got some real forward narrative momentum at this point, I don’t think there’s another fully non-narrative chapter until they’re off on the voyage proper.

SUMMARY: Ishmael takes Queequeg to the Pequod, where he is roundly interrogated by the owners. They are concerned that he has not yet converted to christianity, stating that it’s a requirement to join any voyage of the Pequod. But Ishmael gives an impassioned speech, claiming that all men are really a part of the same congregation, and that conversion is unnecessary. Peleg is convinced, both by this and by Queequeg’s incredible skill with a harpoon. Bildad still has reservations, and gives Queequeg a handful of religious pamphlets, but makes no headway. In the end, Queequeg is signed on with a 90th lay, much higher pay than Ishmael was given.


The title of this chapter is kind of a fun double reference. It is both the mark that Queequeg signs instead of his name, as he cannot write, and also the mark that he calls out to prove his skill with a harpoon. His illiteracy is irrelevant, only that he is able to perform his job at a high level of skill.

It’s interesting to compare this scene with Ishmael’s experience two chapters ago. The owners of the Pequod didn’t even ask him about his religion, it’s just assumed that he’s a member of some respectable church, given that he’s a white man in New England. But they go in hard on his conviction, asking if he’s really up to snuff when it comes to the will and bravery required of a good whaleman. When it comes to signing on, they try to pay him as little as possible, since he’s just another replaceable hand anyway. Ishmael really has to convince them that he’s even worth their time, and only through perseverance succeeds.

Queequeg is given the opposite treatment. The main concern is that he is a pagan, and would contaminate their christian ship by his very presence. Well, that’s not fair, even Bildad isn’t that bigoted, but they want to make sure that this random non-white individual is okay to have on their voyage. Proof of a conversion (literally called “his papers”) would be sufficient. But Ishmael’s vouching is also enough to satisfy that, as well as his philosophical argument (we’ll get back to that in a minute).

mark2

Peleg starts to go in on Queequeg the same way he did Ishmael, asking if he’s really ready for the rigors of whaling. But Queequeg takes it in stride, this is the part he knows, he’s got it all rehearsed. With aplomb, he hops into a whaling boat, and tosses his harpoon with perfect accuracy at a spot of tar floating on the water. After that, Peleg is eager to sign him up quickly, and starts coming up with his own excuses for his pagan-hood. They make better harpooneers anyway, he says, since they aren’t worried about the state of their soul all the time, making them more fearless.

Ishmael has to prove that he’s remarkable, even worth paying attention to. Queequeg is obviously remarkable, but has to prove that he’s worth taking a chance on. Ah, it is the great paradox of orientalism and the noble savage! They are different, not even really humans, but humans are terrible so maybe they’re better than us in some ways. But we certainly can’t have empathy for them, they must be held up as strange automatons, bizarre inhuman beings that operate on different rules.

This kind of thinking holds true even to this very day. You hear about how people in China act so differently they may as well not really count as people. The further away a person is from you, both in culture and literal distance, the harder it is to relate to them. To think of them as really, truly, the same as you are. But that is the truth! The same holds for time, as well. Humans have been the same, biologically, for some 30,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded history.

SONY DSC

The full reality of shared humanity can be difficult to wrap your head around. But this is, in fact, just what Ishmael uses to appeal to Peleg and Bildad:

Finding myself thus hard pushed, I replied. “I mean, sir, the same ancient Catholic Church to which you and I, and Captain Peleg there, and Queequeg here, and all of us, and every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.”

We’re all just trying to get along, none of us are truly better than another. The humanistic philosophy on display here is very interesting to see in a mid-19th century writer.

You could interpret this as some sort of thing where all religions are secretly leading towards christianity or are grasping towards the same grain of truth, but I prefer a more charitable reading. Ishmael is saying that everyone is struggling with the same problems, in the end, and we shouldn’t let small differences get in the way. Fundamentally, it is an appeal for the owners to see the humanity in Queequeg, to recognize his as a peer rather than an outsider. This interpretation seems more in keeping with the close friendship they have developed, especially after Ishmael’s initial wariness. It’s not just that he wants his buddy to get to be on the ship with him, he wants to defend him from this unfair scrutiny regarding his religion.

In reaction, we get more indication that Bildad takes his religion more seriously than Peleg. The latter is willing to sacrifice one little scruple, to turn a blind eye or be more easily convinced, in order to gain an advantage for their business. But Bildad is an inflexible old salt, and lays in with the old evangelical line:

“Son of darkness, I must do my duty by thee; I am part owner of this ship, and feel concerned for the souls of all its crew; if thou still clingest to thy Pagan ways, which I sadly fear, I beseech thee, remain not for aye a Belial bondsman. Spurn the idol Bell, and the hideous dragon; turn from the wrath to come; mind thine eye, I say; oh! goodness gracious! steer clear of the fiery pit!”

Man, I do love that Quakerish language, though.

The fundamental disagreement, though, is about something completely different than a simple type of religion. Bildad is of the opinion that your mind should always be on the state of your soul, how you will be judged if you were to suddenly die, which is always a possibility at any moment on a whaling voyage. This way you will always act in the best, most moral manner, as the fear of being thrown into the pit of hell will keep you away from less righteous activity.

But Peleg thinks it’s a mere distraction. If you’re thinking about that, you’re not able to focus on the actual important things: doing your job. In the middle of an emergency, worrying about whether you’re going to heaven or hell isn’t going to help anyone. What it does is reduce your ability to be brave in the face of mortal peril. If you’re worried that your soul isn’t in a fit shape to face St. Peter at the gates of heaven, then maybe you don’t want to go out in a whaleboat. It is another avenue of fear to enter the heart, to weaken your resolve.

mark4

This difference in character has some interesting thematic meaning. It represents the dual impulses of morality and commerce, and how opposed they can truly be. But really, it’s more complicated than that. Peleg doesn’t just bring up the example of getting in a whaleboat (to kill a whale and thus make money), but also Ahab and he saving the very ship they stand on in a storm, on a previous voyage. In order to save the lives of the crew, they couldn’t be worrying about their own deaths.

It’s more sort of a materialist vs spiritualist conflict. Which is more important, the material reality right in front of your, or your spiritual life? It’s all very well to have private beliefs, but how much should they affect your actual actions in day to day life?

In the end, Bildad doesn’t go all the way. He doesn’t insist on Queequeg converting, but gives up and accepts the pragmatism of his partner. After all, you can force someone to say whatever they want, but you can’t really change their true beliefs if they refuse to have them changed.


Well, there I go again, writing about theology and whatnot. It’s hard to stay away from the topic, in this book. I never would have really considered it that religious, but there really is a lot of that sort of content, at least this early on.

Next up is The Prophet! We’ve got prophecies galore! And biblical references! I hate prophecies in most books, but not this one. Come back to find out why!

Until next time, shipmates!


Image Credits:

Unknown, grabbed from Wattpad.

Queequeg and his Harpoon (1902), by I. W. Taber.

The First Congregational Church of Milford, taken from their website.

The Last Judgment (1550), by Martin Rota.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s