Queequeg

For three minutes or more he was seen swimming like a dog, throwing his long arms straight out before him, and by turns revealing his brawny shoulders through the freezing foam. I looked at the grand and glorious fellow, but saw no one to be saved. The greenhorn had gone down. Shooting himself perpendicularly from the water, Queequeg, now took an instant’s glance around him, and seeming to see just how matters were, dived down and disappeared. A few minutes more, and he rose again, one arm still striking out, and with the other dragging a lifeless form. The boat soon picked them up. The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump; the captain begged his pardon. From that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.

Was there ever such unconsciousness? He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies. He only asked for water—fresh water—something to wipe the brine off; that done, he put on dry clothes, lighted his pipe, and leaning against the bulwarks, and mildly eyeing those around him, seemed to be saying to himself—”It’s a mutual, joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.”

—Wheelbarrow

Harpooneer. On two separate occasions, first in Chapter 13: Wheelbarrow, and next in Chapter 78: Cistern and Buckets, Queequeg saves a man from drowning. This he does as second nature, and Ishmael’s radical thinking is directed and deeply influenced by Queequeg’s clear and practical love of all humanity. There are many places to see the shaping of Melville’s mind, in his works and in his experience, but surely his exposure to distant cultures in the vast melting pot of global sailing communities deeply affected Melville’s worldview, and perhaps clarified and refined his critique of Christendom, and his musings on democracy, industry, and Westward expansion.[1]

Geoff Sanborn called Queequeg the ‘romantic lead’ in a book without women, and from the moment he is introduced, he is instantly the best-loved character of the story for most readers. Seeing such a complete and capable man through Ishmael’s open and metaphysical gaze early on in the book, one cannot help but fall in love with, immediately trust, and want to know more about this Queequeg from Kokovoko, in his beaver hat, shaving with the head of his harpoon, and happily sharing his tomahawk pipe.

The Harpooneer ability is coveted, to be sure, and the Harpooneers (but for STEELKILT) will no doubt be passed around by bribery and other devious means. Queequeg’s great strength/cost will keep him more loyal than most, but he is a man of the world, and will go where he wants. Woe to the player who holds Queequeg through his great sickness in Chapter 110: Queequeg in his Coffin, and weal to the one who marshals him in his home waters of Chapter 111: The Pacific. Only Ahab and Queequeg can inspire or otherwise influence the entire crew. Despite his stoic willingness to die upon Ahab’s tragic quest, you can be sure he will be one of the very last to go, and it will be his coffin in which the last surviving player will find salvation.


[1] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (San Francisco: City Lights, 1947), 36.

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