Eng 341: American Lit.
Reading Moby-Dick as Ethnic Allegory
At a time when images of the white settler conquering the "savage" frontier were prevalent in antebellum America, depictions of racial polarization and, alternately, co-existence among different ethnic groups had already begun to find expression in various artistic mediums, from painting to literature. Today more than ever, such works continue to elicit critical re-examinations where race relations, colonization, and literary representation are concerned. While many literary and cultural critics have proposed allegorical readings of political and religious natures, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick can also be read relatedly as an ethnic allegory, where particular scenes and images representing death or destruction illustrate Melville's uneasiness with how white expansionist attitudes are enacted often in tension with or at the expense of different ethnic peoples living within America's geographic borders. For these purposes, I would like specifically to examine Melville's rather unconventional portrayal of a non-white character such as Queequeg. The correlation between his anticipated and ultimate death and the calamitous demise of the Pequod , as a space which rearranges traditional structures of hierarchy and accomodates ethnic diversity, in the end, demonstrates Melville's indecisive anxiety between an imagined fantasy of an alternative social reality and the historical reality of American westward expansionism.
First, allow me to be clear: At a simplified level, I call this an ethnic allegory because Moby-Dick both illustrates and confronts the ways in which "white" America expresses a desire for hegemonic control, symbolized in Ahab's ruthless quest for the white whale, at the same time that it sacrifices its ethnic fellows, symbolized in the deaths of the Pequod's ethnic crewmembers (all crewmembers for that matter). Cultural critic Robert Berkhofer hints at this idea in characterizing a prevailing attitute among many white Americans at this time: "The quest for American cultural identity, the role of the United States in history, faith in the future greatness of the nation, and the fate of the Indian and the frontier in general were all seen as connected by the White Americans of the period." (Berkhofer, 92) In this search for identity issues of racial inequality and white encroachment and themes of death and destruction are necessarily implicated. This is no surprise considering the mid-nineteeth century social and political circumstances framing the writing and reception of Moby-Dick , particularly the Mexican War of 1848, the increase in American expansionism, and the divisions between slave and free states (Brodhead, 9). Although no doubt Melville was well-aware of these realities and of culturally-recurring images of ethnic peoples as "Noble," "romantic," or "enlightened savages" (Berkhofer, 78), his unconventional depiction of Queequeg seems to defy neat compartmentalization into such existing categories.
Queequeg is introduced in the first fourth of the novel by Ishmael, whose initial fascination with his seemingly cryptic actions and mannerisms soon develops into feelings of an ambiguously sexual/fraternal nature. We, too, are captivated by Queequeg's implied homosexual orientation but no less by his unfamiliar cultural customs:
...then blowing off the heat and ashes a little, he made a polite offer of it to the little negro [Yojo]. But the little devil did not seem to fancy such dry sort of fare at all; he never moved his lips. All these strange antics were accompanied by still stranger guttural noises from the devotee, who seemed to be praying in a singsong or else singing some pagan psalmody or other, during which his face twitched about in the most unnatural manner. (Melville, 23)
At the same time that Ishmael is caught between feelings of repulsion and attraction, confounded by this distinctly un-Christian scene of worship, he senses the "primitive unreadable tribal wisdom" (McIntosh, 38) sought by and inherent in Queequeg via this "pagan" enactment of devotion. We know that he is a Pacific Islander and that his customs are clearly meant to look unfamiliar to both a New Englander such as Ismael and to Melville's presumed reading audience, yet he is not stereotypically "foreign" such as American Indians often were portrayed as hunting "savages" in eighteenth and nineteenth century literary and pictorial works. Although Ishmael's initial impression is that Queequeg is a cannibalistic "savage," we come to realize that this is not the case at all. All along, he is benevolently "polite" and respectful, careful not to force upon Yojo his offerings, simply conducting the appropriate rites, unlike Ahab whose lionized aggression surfaces again and again. Ishmael pejoratively characterizes Queequeg's "strange antics" as "unnatural," but, in fact, Queegueg's relationship to nature, especially where death is concerned, is one of reverence, which has particular ethnic implications when contrasted against Ahab and even Ishmael's fears of death.
Although Melville's tactics to familiarize us with Queequeg and his "strange" customs in these first 100 pages of the novel are seemingly undermined when, upon embarkation of the Pequod, he virtually disappears from the narrative and Ishmael's attention is diverted to the commanding presence of Ahab, this apparent abandonment is temporarily rectified as Queequeg resurfaces in chapter 110, entitled "Queequeg in His Coffin." In this chapter, he falls deathly ill and, in a ceremonious production not unlike the aforementioned scene of religious worship, he prepares his coffin:
With a wild whimsiness, he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there. Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body...Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold. (Melville, 476)
This passage not only reiterates the unconventionality of Queequeg's customs but hints at a particular distinction between the white crewmember and the "pagan" Pacific Islander's attitude towards death; one harbors an aversion while the other embraces it. James McIntosh suggests that Queequeg's peculiar deference to the prospect of death can be attributed to the fact that his religious beliefs allow him to "imagine" death as a voyage, as a passageway for the soul into a natural realm: "Queequeg constructs nature as a subjective retreat, a dwelling place for his imagination in which stars are isles and one travels into death as into something familiar" (McIntosh, 37). Queequeg's ability to "imagine" death as something not to be feared and avoided is something that Ishmael views as particular to his race: "...for it was not unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior, stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to the starry archipelagoes" (Melville, 473). We are reminded by Ishmael in this chapter that Queequeg (and Pip) are "dark-complexioned outsiders contribut[ing] their versions to our total imagination of the voyage" (McIntosh, 36). But more importantly Ishmael's decription of Queequeg as "a riddle to unfold," in fact, recalls a lightly disguised version of an expansionist mentality. That Ishmael cannot "solve" Queequeg implies a frustration that he cannot "possess" him by knowing him.
Although the cultural contrasts between Ishmael and Queequeg are clear, it is sometimes difficult to tell to what extent Melville distinguishes between the ethnic crewmembers themselves. This issue becomes increasingly apparent just prior to the climatic demise of the Pequod, as the crew struggles in a final attempt to save the ship. The American Indian, the Pacific Islander, and the black seem to blend in the following scene, related more by their similarities now than by their differences: "Glancing upwards, he saw Tashtego, Queequeg, and Daggoo, eagerly mounting the three mast-heads" (Melville, 560). This grouping together of the three non-white characters is somewhat analogous to the grouping of Flask, Stubb, and Starbuck as Ahab's three foils (McIntosh, 40). But ethnically speaking, Queequeg's Polynesian identity is, at times like these, subsumed to the collective identity of his shipmates. McIntosh makes a valuable distinction where this blending occurs: "Queequeg is at times his own man, whereas at other times he melds with his fellow harpooners Tashtego and Daggoo. We should be careful to keep these characters separate as well as fusing them" (McIntosh, 31). The latter statement is particularly provocative in that it suggests one way in which an ethnic crewmember such as Queequeg is implicitly subordinated. (The more obvious methods of subordination are, of course, Ahab's intimidation and coercion; but, again, this applies to virtually all crewmembers, not exclusively the ethnic ones.) Ishmael narrates, and McIntosh reiterates, a displacement from an individual, ethnic identity to a group identity based upon ship-duties.
Beyond Queequeg himself, Melville clearly invites multiple interpretations of the Pequod and its demise. James Duban, for instance, cross-reads it as both religious and political allegory. His interpretation offers valuable historical context and solicits further reading into its ethnic implications:
Of course, given the way Ishmael perceives the Pequod's destruction as a retributive miracle--and himself as both an Evangelist and an apologist for this divine sign against the iniquity of American slavery--readers might follow him in thinking that he merits a salvation consistent with the fervor of his "leviathanic" jeremiad. But this would be to overlook how Ishmael's expansionist mentality actually typifies the enthusiasm that fostered both the abuses of Manifest Destiny...and the issue of whether to extend slavery into the territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War. (Duban, 123)
Duban sees "Ishmael's expansionist mentality" allegorically illustrating the abuses incurred by the Manifest Destiny myth, Mexican territorialism, and slavery, but his reading neglects Melville's indecisiveness: Is the Pequod's destruction the death of an ethnically-cooperative or a racialized space? Is it perhaps a combination of both?
I propose a reading that is slightly different than Duban's though not entirely conflicting. On the sea, Queequeg and the rest of the crew have been spatially removed and placed outside the realm of the nation as a physical land, beyond America as a site where opposition and misunderstanding between races is commonly expressed in institutions such as slavery. I do not mean to suggest that the Pequod is color blind but that its removal from everyday social realities fosters a temporary suspension of conventional social and racial hierarchies because all crewmembers, regardless of ethnicity, are subordinated by Ahab at one time or another. In the sense that the Pequod can be read as a space which accomodates ethnic diversity, Melville would rather that this alternative "ship of state," this revised microcosm of the nation sink in the end rather than return to land, where his imagined suspension of societal rules ceases to apply. Just as Ahab destroys himself and his crew, Melville must rather nihilistically destroy what he imagines the ship to represent, not coincidentally via the allegorized white whale. One can read the Pequod's destruction not only "as a retributive miracle" against "the iniquity of American slavery" but, in one sense, as both a preservation of Melville's fantasy of a suspended social reality and a projected fear on a historical level of "the annihilation of such enemies of the New World Israel as the Pequot Indians " (Duban, 108). Though it may look as if this reading and my analysis of the unconventionality of Queequeg are incompatible, they hint at Melville's wavering between two poles--the fantasy of an alternative context for white/non-white relations and the reality of Western expansionism.
In the aftermath of Moby-Dick's destruction upon the Pequod, the final scene reveals a curious occurrence: Ishmael, the lone survivor, is saved and resuscitated by Queequeg's coffin:
...now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin lifebuoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths. (Melville, 566)
The ability of Queequeg's coffin, an ironic symbol of both death and life, to save Ishmael is as much due to its sturdy carpentry as to its unexplainable restorative and protective energy. Like the coffin from the depths of the sea, Ishmael has been "liberated" from an almost-certain death. Its strange powers even have a repellent effect on the sharks, they swimming "by as if with padlocks on their mouths." Moreover, this scene has particular ethnic implications. It is no coincidence that Queequeg, in his death, is the one who "saves" Ishmael, literally by his coffin but figuratively by his status as a
martyred and thus redeeming force for Ishmael's transgressive spirit. The calmness and passivity embodied in the coffin offers an alternative ending in contrast to Ahab's belligerence and ultimately violent death.
Despite the running emphasis on Queequeg's distinctly non-white, non-Christian persona, Melville has all along posited him as a potential "hero" figure. But, to complicate matters, it is only after we have been exposed to Ahab's concentrated version of a traditional epic hero, whose personality and single-minded mission reflects a high degree of physicality and capacity for violence, that Queequeg's nonaggressive, spiritually placid demeanor seen in the beginning begins to take on significance. Just as it is retroactively that we recognize Queequeg to have been Ishmael's martyred "hero," it is only retroactively that we realize Queequeg's deep respect for nature and his own culture poses as a counterexample to Ahab's maniacal drive to "possess" his "whiteness" by defeating the whale, allegorically the drive that white settlers enacted upon the mythologized frontier. It is obvious, though, that, even considering differences in socio-political agenda and audience, Melville suffers less than Harriet Beecher Stowe , for instance, in her "inability to view certain types of heroism in any but 'white' terms" (Yarborough, 51). Ironically, in his coffin's saving of Ishmael, Melville undeniably proposes Queequeg as an "hero," not in Ahab's terms but in his own "strange" cultural terms.
The image of a non-white character making the final gesture of valiance is reillustrated in Tashtego's nailing of the flag as the ship sinks. Despite the fact that he is predominantly a secondary character, his death is notably glorious:
But the last whelmings intermixingly poured themselves over the sunken head of the Indian at the main-mast...at that instant, a red arm and a hammer hovered backwardly uplifted in the open air, in the act of nailing the flag faster and yet faster to the subsiding spar...the submerged savage beneath, in his death-gasp, kept his hammer frozen there. (Melville, 564-565)
Like Queequeg, Tashtego appears and reappears at diffferent times. But unlike the former, the latter has mostly remained in the background throughout the novel. Nevertheless, the triumph expressed in this scene bears resemblance to that of Queequeg's coffin buoying up Ishmael. Although both of their physical bodies perish, images of Queequeg's coffin and Tashtego's upraised hammer live on in Ishmael's memory and in his narrative. But more importantly, they embody Queequeg and even Tashtego's versions of heroism: Queequeg's modest vessel, for instance, saves Ishmael and the fact that it does not sink as the Pequod does signifies a triumph of Queequeg's culturally-inspired benignity over Ahab's ruthlessness.
It is evident that Melville's unconventional portrayal of Queequeg, whose presence is crucial yet inconsistent throughout the novel, indicates his unwillingness to pigeon-hole him either as a novelistic convention or as a racial stereotype. And yet, at times, it appears as if this inconsistency is a wavering indecisiveness on Melville's part between the fantasy of suspended social and racial conventions and the reality of westward expansionism and Southern slavery. In whatever case, Melville's ethnic characters play a particularly compelling role in confronting America as a nation constructed largely according to "whiteness," in its literal and figurative versions. Signified finally in Ahab's self-destruction and annihilation of his ship, we see how members of his crew, white and non-white, were sacrificed in the name of that quest.
Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Brodhead, Richard H. "Trying All Things: An Introduction to Moby-Dick. New Essays on Moby-Dick or, The Whale. ed. Richard H. Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
Duban, James. Melville's Major Fiction: Politics, Theology, and Imagination. Dekalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1983.
McIntosh, James. "The Mariner's Multiple Quest." New Essays on Moby-Dick or, the Whale. ed. Richard H. Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1964.
Yarborough, Richard. "Strategies of Black Characterization in Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Early Afro-American Novel." New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin. ed. Eric Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
--Landscape paper: Domesticating the "Savage": "Civilized" Man's Envisioning of Native-American Home and Family
--2nd discussion paper (Moby-Dick): Critique of Robert Martin's "Our Hearts' Honeymoon"
--1st discussion paper (Uncle Tom's Cabin): Critique of Richard Yarborough's "Strategies of Black Characterization"
Kendall Whaling Museum : This page has some interesting material culture artifacts.
Pacific Islands Internet Resources : Hmm...What's this doing here? Check it out.
Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation: Another museum site with more information about the Pequot Indians.
Native American artists on the Internet : A very comprehensive list, extensive links to museums, and some great works of art.an essay on Queequeg and Ishmael
yet another essay dedicated to discussion of Moby-Dick
Wanna see Melville's grave?: It's frightening what people do in their spare time.
American Literature to 1900: Nation and Narration : This is Prof. Laura Arnold's web page and offers many links to other American Lit. and Studies sites; connect to other student web pages from English 341 at Reed College and at other universities. Go here to see a class page at the U of VA and find out what a Scrimshaw is.
Contact me at email@example.com with questions...comments...suggestions...