Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Queequeg and the Devil

From the first line of Moby Dick onward the reader comes to realize that nothing in the story is quite as it seems.  Within the three word sentence of the opening line of “Call me Ishmael” Herman Melville is telling the reader that the narrator is making himself and his story a type of parable; a retrospective story of a young man and his obsession with the conquering of a massive, powerful, and almost supernatural creature.  In doing this, the narrator has infused elements of the bible, from names, to concepts, to direct references of biblical passages within this story.  The characters and the plot elements function more as walking symbols than they do as real people.  This is in part due to the fact that the story unfolds as an older and more wizened Ishmael looks back on his life.  When recounting their pasts, people tend to see the events in their lives as having a context and a meaning that they did not have when they were encountered initially.  The connections between events and people that at one point seemed random and perplexing now have direct relationships with each other; becoming one succinct story line.  This presents the reader with a certain kind of difficulty in discerning who certain characters are and what Ishmael believes they represent and mean in part to the context of the story he is telling, and the message he is trying to communicate.  One of these characters, Queegqueg, is so heavily laden with contradictory descriptions of both his savagery and his politeness that one wonders who exactly he is meant to represent.  His name is virtually meaningless and one assumes that the author simply made it up.  However, despite the ambiguous nature of his name in a novel full of names referring to biblical characters, we know several important facts about Queequeg that may help the reader in determining what he is supposed to represent.  Queequeg is many things, but perhaps most importantly, he is both a cannibal and a pagan, and according to the Christian bible, Queegqueg is these two things mark him as an evil savage, and in a novel so heavily laden with Christian symbols, it may appear to be obvious that perhaps Queequeg is supposed to represent the devil.
            In the bible, the devil is a serpent, a fallen angel, a tempter, and ultimately the bringer of misfortune and pain upon the human race.  His first appearance in the bible is in the book of Genesis, in which he convinces Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge.  “ You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  (Genesis 3:4-5)  Here Eve is seduced by the promise of knowledge and godliness and thus disobeys God by eating the forbidden fruit.  Although the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael is somewhat different in its nature from that of Eve and the Devil, one cannot argue that Ishmael too is seduced by Queequeg and his strange ways.  Although Queequeg never directly forces any forbidden knowledge upon Ishmael; his mere presence as a foreign pagan is apparently highly intoxicating.  Not only does Ishmael watch Queequeg dress with slightly erotic fascination, they also frequently share beds with one another.  “Man and wife, they say…Thus then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg, a cosy loving pair.”  (Melville, 58)  This fascination induces Ishmael to think differently about the cannibal who he was once utterly terrified of, and instead causes him to view Queequeg as something different from a heathen pagan whose beliefs accordingly damn him to hell. Now, Queequeg becomes a close confidant, an equal, a source of enlightenment about the rest of the world and its customs.  Queequeg’s influence is so strong over Ishmael that he invites Ishmael to pray to his idol, and Ishmael acquiesces, saying “But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship.  And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God…Consequently I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn Idolator.”  (Melville, 58)  In this way Queequeg, whether intentionally or not, causes Ishmael to violate the first two commandments, therefore staining Ishmael’s “good Christian” soul with sin.
            This beckons another similarity between Queequeg and the devil, in that the devil is also known as the “tempter” in the book of Matthew.  “The Tempter came and said to him [Jesus], “If you are the son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:3)  Queequeg is everything exotic and forbidden.  He is of ambiguous origin, coming from an unmapped Island called Kokovoko, in the south Pacific; he prays to a little figurine and keeps his tomahawk with him at all times.  Even the tattoos which cover his body are forbidden by the bible, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.  I am the LORD.”  (Leviticus 19:27-29)  To Ishmael, Queequeg, despite his frightening countenance, is mesmerizing.  Initially, it appears that Queequeg is this tempter; whose strange ways and exotic charms win over Ishmael quickly, making him much more tolerant and open minded about things that he should regard (and initially did regard) as evil.   
However, from a modern perspective, it is Ishmael’s friendship with Queequeg that delivers him from terrible racism and prejudice towards Queequeg and his beliefs.  In this way, Queequeg is the bringer of knowledge and enlightenment to Ishmael, which proves to be, at this stage of the novel, a good thing.  This fact is further emphasized by the Queequeg himself, who after saving a life a sailor who has fallen overboard, says to himself, “It’s a mutual, joint stock world, in all merididans.  We cannibals must help these Christians.”  (Melville, 68)  This quote perhaps presents what Queequeg truly represents in the novel; an incarnation of the devil to devout Christians, who proves to become a type of mentor and companion that saves Ishmael and leads him on his journey.  Perhaps the reason why Queequeg, in contrast to several other main characters, does not have a biblical name, or at least a name that has some sort of meaning, is because the author wants to mark him as an ambiguous figure.  Although he at first appears to be the novels incarnation of the devil, perhaps he is a new character that does not exist in the bible; a character who brings knowledge and tolerance to Ishmael, and whose presence, despite being a “savage,” will help and perhaps, eventually save the Christians.

The Bible. New International Version. BibleGateway.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick or, The Whale. 1851. New York : Penguin Books, 2003. Print.


  1. There's a LOT going on in the first paragraph. I love the image of the wizened Ishmael reminiscing - I'm curious about whether that concept still works for you as the novel progresses. I think it's great how you understand and encapsulate the contradictory character of Q., and how I. understands him.

    It's a huge leap, though, from noting that he is contradictory, and contains elements/characteristics which might represent evil, to saying that he represents the devil himself. That requires more work! Maybe you could/should deal with his tattoos, or his childhood, etc.?

    Your understanding of the devil in the bible is a kind of supersaturated, late-Christian understanding of him. That doesn't make it wrong - that just makes it into a highly mediated interpretation of the text (there is no devil in the Hebrew Bible as such; only Christian interpretation - whether right or wrong - places him there). That being said, a more straighforward interpretation which sees Q. as being related to the Serpent in Eden would be just as interesting, and doubtless more streamlined.

    I'd like you to do more with how Q seduces I. Through sex? Through knowledge? Through power?

    The Leviticus quote is great.

    I also like the idea of temptation here, but with a cautionary note. Here's the passage in English which you refer to (from the New Revised standard version): "Then Jesus was lead up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil ... The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread..."

    The Greek work for "to tempt" here is peirasthenai. After looking it up in a couple lexicons, here's the start of the entry from the Louw-Nida lexicon, which confirms my understanding of the word: "to try to learn the nature or character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing - to test, to examine, to put to the test, examination, testing."

    An object of desire, in other words, does not tempt us in the sense of perasthenai. This is an active, rigorous temptation.

    Why am I going on so long here? First, because it interested me. But second, I'm trying to explain that temptation in this sense in the Biblical text is active, probably verbal, and almost legalistic in character.

    But Queequeg has trouble articulating himself.

    You see the problem? The devil (diabolou) in Matthew is linguistically brilliant: that's how he operates. Queequeg speaks through the body (at least that's my interpretation). The same fact divides Q. from the Serpent of Genesis, and from the Advocate of Job - they both operate through language.

    I would want you to deal with this convincingly if you revise.

    In your last paragraph, you articulate an anti-Christian or post-Christian interpretaion of Q-as-devil. One thing we'll be talking about in the coming weeks is Melville's interest in Gnostisticsm and related ideas: to summarize, for the Gnostics the serpent represents *GOOD* - so I think you're pointing in an interesting way to directions we'll be taking. The problem here is that you would need to settle on whether Q is really a figure of the devil, or whether he's a kind of gnostic figure of wisdom, or whether he's both - it's a complicated question, around which the whole essay would need to be revised.

  2. I really enjoyed your essay and the comparison between Queequeg and the devil. It is not something I ever would have thought of but you make a lot of great points. I know your ending paragraph paints Queequeg as a new unbiblical being but I think it might be interesting to continue the idea of the devil from a pre-christian perspective where the devil was more God’s prosecutor than his enemy (such as in Job) or the idea from many religions such as Mormonism where the devil is a rich and good looking man who appeals to all and makes sin appealing. Then there is even the idea of the “horny devil” who seduces woman with his penis(witches) which, considering the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael could be seen without much stretch. The problem is of course that we like Queequeg and he seems to be a very good and honorable man but then wouldn’t the devil give us truth and beauty to remove us from God such as in the Garden of Eden?