Marital Images in Moby Dick
Marital Images in Moby-Dick Authors use symbolic elements in their writings to communicate a deeper thought or feeling in their message. In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville uses several symbols to illustrate the loving relationship, or “marriage” between Ishmael and Queequeg, such as the bedding of the men, the smoking of the pipe, and the monkey-rope.
The symbolism Melville uses to create the “marriage” between Ishmael and Queequeg provides the opportunity for the hero’s maturation and as Bainard Cowan explains in his “America Between two Myths: Moby-Dick as Epic, “the marriage allows Ishmael to put away fear and misgiving and accept the path that destiny has arranged for him,” (226). Ishmael has to get out of the depression that he is in and Melville creates Queequeg as an outlet for his progression. However, Queequeg is not just a bystander in the story. Ishmael and he must have a deep love in order for Ishmael to fully change as a person and live on to be the hero.
In his article “Melville’s Portrait of Same-Sex Marriage in Moby-Dick,” Steven B. Herrmann claims that a deep love within the characters must be present to fully experience the “marriage” between them. The two characters definitely have a deep love for one another and repeatedly refer to the other, in some way or another, as “wife”. Herrmann defines the marriage between Ishmael and Queequeg as a “spiritual marriage,” however, rather than a “traditional marriage. ” Ishmael and Queequeg follow the patterns of traditional marriages, however, their relationship is built on a spiritual foundation.
Through “courting”, “marriage”, and a “honeymoon”, Ishmael and Queequeg prove their love to one another, which is essential for the journey of the hero, Ishmael. Why Melville chose to exclude women from the novel and illustrate these two characters in love is a topic many critics have addressed. Some critics have argued that Melville had a homosexual, unreciprocated love for Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his writing was a type of propaganda to his unrequited love. Others may not construe the homosexual undertones of Melville’s writing, but still believe it had a lot to do with Hawthorne.
In her article “Moby-Dick as Sexual Protest,” Camille Paglia “suspect(s) the heart of Moby-Dick was generated by Melville’s ambivalent reaction to Hawthorne’s female-centered work,” (698). It is almost as if Melville is trying to copy Hawthorne’s works but not obviously so. Because Moby-Dick is lacking the necessary counterpoise a female would bring to the story, Melville creates the male/male relationship. Louise Cowan in her “Introduction: Epic as Cosmopoesis,” states that in the epic, for every towering male figure there exists a female fully imposing,” which is, in this case, provided to Ishmael through his male friend, Queequeg, (22).
Since the novel does not contain a female character, the love between these two allows for femininity in the novel, showing that the characters are capable of nurturing as well, and not just destruction. The “courting” stage of Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship occurs in Chapter 4, The Counterpane. The men meet for the first time, are curious of one another, and Ishmael begins to reflect on change. In this chapter, Ishmael and Queequeg are forced to live together in the Spouter-Inn and Ishmael is reluctant about staying in the same room with him.
Ishmael though, begins to feel the impact of Queequeg in his life upon realizing that he has slept better than ever before. However, Ishmael is still somewhat skeptical of Queequeg as notices Queequeg’s sleeping position: “I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost though that I had been his wife,” (36, ch. 4). Ishmael remembers a dream he had as a child and a strange feeling when he thought his hand was not his own. Ishmael is fighting an inner battle in that he might enjoy lying there with Queequeg, but his mind is still confused and chooses to separate his physical body from his heart.
Ishmael states that he tries to “unlock [Queequeg’s] bride-groom clasp,” but Queequeg held on tight “as though naught but death should part us twain,” (38, ch. 4). These words are similar to the traditional wedding vows, “til death do us part. ” This is foreshadowing that the two of them are, in fact, going to have a deeper relationship for one another. Ishmael then rolls over and gazes at Queequeg with interest and “has no serious misgivings now,” (38, ch. 4). Ishmael’s opinion is beginning to change about the savageness of his bedmate, Queequeg; he is beginning to realize that this cannibal is indeed very civilized.
This is the “courting” section of the novel, and Ishmael is paying close attention to every detail of Queequeg. As he watches Queequeg get ready in the morning, eat his breakfast, and even sit in the chapel, Ishmael marvels at his behaviors. Queequeg is the “counterpane…full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles,” (37, ch. 4). He has many different layers to him and he is continuously surprising Ishmael. Chapter 10, A Bosom Friend, begins the actual “marriage” between Ishmael and Queequeg. After spending the first evening together and visiting The Chapel, a traditional wedding locale, Ishmael returns to the Spouter-Inn.
Ishmael witnesses Queequeg’s religious meditations and Ishmael begins to realize his adoration for Queequeg. Ishmael describes his emotional change, and says, “I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me,” (57, ch. 10). This love that Ishmael has found for Queequeg has brought out a softened man with a heart. E Anthony Rotundo in “Romantic Friendship: Male Intimacy and Middle-Class Youth in the Northern United States,” claims that friendships between men mark a “sudden shift in sensibility and self-expression – the tender (even ‘feminine’) emotions of the heart replace the rough aggressions of boyhood. This is the start of his growth as a hero. Ishmael has found an inner-peace, because of Queequeg, which allows him to relinquish some of those early feelings of hatred toward himself and others: “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world,” (56, ch. 10). The love that he and Queequeg share has brought about a new man. Beongcheon Yu, in his article “Ishmael’s Equal Eye: The Source of Balance in Moby-Dick,” illustrated Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship as a “mode of union into oneness – experiencing life to the fullest in all its dimensions,” (119).
One can only live this full life if they can completely give of themselves to another. This “oneness” of Ishmael and Queequeg is symbolic of a marriage between man and woman; they have entered into a commitment to one another. Following their “vows” to each other, Ishmael and Queequeg “consummate” their “marriage” with Queequeg’s religious smoking of the pipe and Ishmael’s partaking in Queequeg’s worship: “when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me around the waist, and said that henceforth we were married…he would gladly die for me, if need should be,” (56, ch. 0). This behavior between Ishmael and Queequeg, very affectionate in nature, is not commonly seen between two men, but between loved ones of the opposite sex. The wedding night is traditionally the first time for husband and wife to have intercourse, and there is usually a bit of anxiety that comes along with this act. Ishmael senses these feelings from Queequeg and has some reservations of his own, however, he knows he will concede to Queequeg’s advances. “I thought he seemed anxious for me to join him…I must then unite with him in his,” (56-57, ch. 10).
After this bonding experience, Ishmael and Queequeg undressed and got in bed. “There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair,” (57, ch. 10). Ishmael has now vowed his eternity to Queequeg and “consummated” the “marriage” through the smoking of the pipe. Following the “marriage ceremony” and “consummation” is, naturally, the “honeymoon period”.
Chapter 11, appropriately titled Nightgown, presents Ishmael and Queequeg happily “in love” as they lie in bed “chatting and napping,” (57, ch. 11). The description of Ishmael and Queequeg in bed closely resembles a post coital couple after intercourse as they bond intimately with each other. Ishmael describes the scene: “we found ourselves sitting up; the clothes tucked well around us, leaning against the head-board with our knees drawn up close together…indeed out of bed-clothes…to enjoy bodily warmth,” (57-58, ch 11).
Ishmael and Queequeg again “smoke the pipe” while lying in bed together and Ishmael is truly elated to have Queequeg by his side. They stay in bed for the remainder of the evening and Queequeg shares with Ishmael his life story; the next morning, Ishmael and Queequeg set out on their journey, thus ending their “honeymoon period” and starting their lives with one another. Ishmael knows that he has met his life mate: “I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea till poor Queequeg took his last long dive,” (64, ch. 13). As Mark M.
Hall explains in his thesis, “The Journey is the Destination: Pursuing Masculinity,” barnacles are marine life that are found on the ocean floor and receives its nourishments from others. Ishmael is acquiring his sustenance from Queequeg and this continues as they board the ship, the Pequod, together. Ishmael and Queequeg exist as husband and wife in almost every aspect of their lives while on the Pequod. While the characters appear less on the ship, they do make the occasional cameo and further prove their love for one another.
In chapter 47, The Mat-Maker they create the sword-mat together which represents these two characters having sex with one another. The back and forth of the swords and the weaving of the yarns in that intricate checkered pattern symbolize the back and forth movement of two people engaged in intercourse. Ishmael portrays the obedient wife, as he is Queequeg’s “attendant or page,” (179, ch. 47). Queequeg represents the man, or groom as he “slid[es] his heavy oaken sword between the threads,” and Ishmael represents the woman as he uses his “own hand for the shuttle,” (179, ch. 7), another reference to sexual intercourse as Ishmael assists Queequeg with the aim of the sword. Ishmael’s explanation of the order of his work and Queequeg’s chaos of his work defines how the two co-exist and how it changed his life. Ishmael believes that chance and free will are a necessity of life. It was chance that he and Queequeg met, free will that allowed them to form their relationship. Chapter 72, The Monkey-rope further deepens Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship with one another.
Ishmael is attached to Queequeg in not only a loving sense, but also by a rope; Ishmael is literally and figuratively dependent upon Queequeg and vice-versa, as a married couple would be. Once again, they “for the time, were wedded,” (255, ch. 72). Ishmael understands that if Queequeg falls to his death, Ishmael will fall and die with him. He is fully aware of what is going on, but is okay with it, saying, “should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake,” (255, ch. 72).
Ishmael knows that a fall could be the end of their lives and says, “I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death,” (255, ch. 72). Ishmael’s willingness to succumb to death for the love of his friend proves the love that he and Queequeg share, a love that is usually reserved for a man and a woman. The sea and the ship itself are very important symbols of the novel as well.
Melville’s setting this story on the ocean, in all its vastness and openness, is representative of the love between Ishmael and Queequeg. The sea is the one place where one can emotionally grow and not be concerned with the influence of the outside world, or land; it is Ishmael’s “training ground,” (Yu, 112). The sea allows for the brotherhood of the men to expand through such experience as the squeezing of the spermaceti. The ship, with its melting pot of nationalities and personalities, is one of the few places to come where no one is critical of you.
In chapter 96, The Try-Works, when Ishmael is ranting about his sleeping at the helm, he states, “To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp – all others but liars,” (328). It is as if the “natural light” of the sun, which one can only bask in on the open sea, is the one place where genuine men can thrive; all the darkness of the city and the land provides evilness to come out.
The inner-growth of Ishmael is critical to his journey, and while his transformation begins on land, the ship and the sea provide a more open outlet for his maturation. “Ishmael’s story primarily illustrates the constructions of masculine identities through his experiences and observations as a part of Captain Ahab’s crew,” (Hall, 8). Meeting Queequeg, boarding the Pequod, and being a part of Ahab’s revenge allows for Ishmael to bond with Queequeg and the other men, and therefore, realize his destiny. The final showing of Ishmael’s love and connection to Queequeg comes in Queequeg’s coffin.
In chapter 110, Queequeg in his Coffin, when Queequeg gets sick and believes he is going to die, a carpenter aboard the Piquod, constructs for him a coffin. When it turns out that Queequeg is going to live after all, then Queequeg uses this coffin as a locker to hold his personal belongings. While the coffin is in his possession, Queequeg adorns the coffin to look like him; “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,” (366, ch. 110).
It was as if Queequeg knew that this piece of wood would be all he left behind, and he wanted Ishmael to forever remember him. In “copying his own tattooing, Queequeg transfers his body and soul to the wood,” (Yu, 120). Queequeg’s coffin is what literally saves Ishmael’s life, but Ishmael’s “marriage” to Queequeg is what figuratively saves his life throughout the novel. Vicki Wargo, in her “The Bosom Friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg,” summed it up saying, “In accordance with their so-called marriage contract, Queequeg offers Ishmael protection from the sea-hawks, sharks, and sea in the form of his coffin.
In turn, Ishmael carries on Queequeg’s spirit, carved into the wood of the coffin. ” Ishmael will forever have Queequeg’s coffin to remind him of the changes that life can bring. The love between Ishmael and Queequeg is essential in the journey of the epic. Without the progression of this relationship, Ishmael would not have had the inner-strength to complete his journey and tell his story. While the intentions of Melville to create this male/male “marriage” will continue to baffle readers and critics, most are in agreeance that the relationship is necessary in this classic novel about whale.
Moby-Dick is obviously more than just a tale of the sea; the “marriage” between Ishmael and Queequeg offer a more abstract meaning of love, acceptance, and personal growth. Works Cited Cowan, Bainard. “America Between Two Myths: Moby-Dick as Epic. ” The Epic Cosmos. Ed. Larry Allums. Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publishers, 2000. 217-246. Print. Cowan, Louise. “Introduction: Epic as Cosmopoesis. ” The Epic Cosmos. Ed. Larry Allums. Dallas: The Dallas Institute Publications, 2000. 1-58. Print. Hall, Mark M. “The Journey is the Destination: Pursuing Masculinity. ” MA thesis. North Carolina State U, 2004.
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