Thursday, March 29, 2012

Queequeg as a Gnostic Symbol

            Moby Dick is a novel that is heavily saturated with religious symbols, names, and philosophies.  From Zoroastrianism to Christianity, to Hinduism, there is no one exclusive religious force in Moby Dick that defines the work or guides the reader to have one succinct interpretation of the novel. Although our protagonist’s name is Ishmael, it becomes clear that he is not a mere carbon copy of the biblical character; his name does have meaning, and it does bring an important context to the character, however his biblical namesake defines him no more as the parable of Jonah and the whale define the plot itself.  The same can be true of characters Ahab, Gabriel, Elijah, among others.  However, there is one character whose identity in a novel full of biblical allusions seems especially ambiguous.  Queequeg, a cannibal prince whose very name seems devoid of meaning, is a strange combination of everything exotic and foreign to Ishmael.  He is from an unmarked island in the south pacific, is never without his tomahawk, is completely covered in intricate tattoos, and prays to a wooden idol on what Ishmael calls his Ramadan.  Initially, it seems that if Queequeg is to have a role in this novel so full of characters named after angels and prophets, then he was designed to be a corrupting, seductive force  in the novel—Queequeg, in all of his erotic exoticism is supposed to be the novel’s incarnation of the devil.  However, the novel Moby Dick has another religious influence called Gnosticism that makes the very things that brandish Queequeg as the devil, the very serpent in the garden tempting Ishmael to eat the forbidden fruit— as a bringer of knowledge, enlightenment, and a friend to humanity.  Only through understanding Queequeg’s context within this religious interpretation, can the reader truly understand what this ambiguous figure in the novel represents.
            However, in order to understand Queequeg within this Gnostic context, the reader first must understand who exactly Queequeg is, where he comes from, and his presence in the novel initially marks him as a sinister character with a corruptive influence.  The first time Ishmael encounters Queequeg, he describes him as a “dark complexioned” harpooner, (Melville, 16) who makes a business of being what Ishmael calls “an infernal head peddler.”  (Melville, 22)  In addition, when Ishmael first looks upon Queequeg, it is noted that Queequeg is tattooed, and makes a connection, “I remembered a story of a white man—a whaleman too—who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them.  I concluded that this harpooner, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure.”  (Melville, 23)  He also observes that Queequeg’s complexion is “unearthly” (Melville, 23) and remarks that “as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night.”  (Melville, 24)  When Queequeg does at last notice Ishmael’s presence, he brandishes tomahawk and declares, “you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e.”  To which Ishmael calls out for “Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! Save me!” (Melville, 26)  
            This dispute is settled, and eventually the reader is given a proper biography of Queequeg.  He was born in an Island called Kokovoko, an Island that Ishmael describes as “far away to the West and south,” this place is also unmapped, but Ishmael remarks that “true places never are,” adding yet another enigmatic aspect Queequeg’s character.  (Melville, 61)  Apparently, on this mysterious Island of Kokovoko, there is a dynasty, with Queequeg’s father being “a high chief, a King”  (Melville 61) and thus Queequeg is prince, an heir to his father’s throne and the eventual leader of his people.  During his childhood, Ishmael remarks that that Queequeg came to acquire a “cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth,” which it appears is still apparent in Queequeg when Ishmael meets him.  Queequeg got into the whaling business because he was inspired by “profound desire to learn among the Christians.”  However, contrary to his desire to learn about Christendom, he does not every convert or renounce his “savage” lifestyle.   Upon noting the wickedness of Christians, vowed that “it’s a wicked world in all meridians, I’ll die a pagan.” (Melville, 62) 
            From these early descriptions of Queequeg and Ishmael’s interactions with him, it is seems as though Queequeg may be the designated villain and a source of malice and darkness for Ishmael.  Queequeg in the beginning is described as an unearthly, almost monstrous man, who threatens to kill Ishmael upon meeting him, who peddles shrunken heads for money, and in seemingly all other aspects is the total and complete opposite of what the good Christian citizens of the United States would aspire to be.  This is further reinforced that by simply his pagan practices Queequeg breaks several major tenets of Christianity.  Through his worship of Yojo, he violates the first two commandments that state there is no god but god, and that worshiping idols and other gods are forbidden.   Ishmael also describes Queequeg’s day of fasting as his “Ramadan,” an Islamic term for a month of fasting.  This also implies that Queequeg’s religion is associated with Islam and the founder, Muhammad, who Christians regard as a false prophet, and Islam therefore, as a heresy.  This combination of paganism and Islam is a mixture of heretical practices, and does nothing but to seemingly ensure the reader that Queequeg is in fact, a malevolent presence in the novel.  In fact, Queequeg’s very appearance is in direct violation of the bible, the very tattoos which cover his body are forbidden, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.  I am the LORD.”  (Leviticus 19:27-29)  In addition it becomes apparent that his tattoos were given to him by a prophet on his Island, and “by those hieroglyphic marks had written out his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth,  and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.” (Melville, 524) It appears that in addition to Queequeg being the heir to a cannibalistic dynasty, he is also the heir to a forbidden blasphemous doctrine.   From a strictly Christian standpoint, it seems as though Queequeg is a character Ishmael should be wary of; a dangerous, malignant, and in the context of a novel so heavily influenced by the bible, an incarnation of the devil.
            Complicating the matter further is the fact that Ishmael, not only gets along with Queequeg, but seemingly develops a strong attraction to him; thus leading to an extremely homoerotic, and apparently loving, relationship.  Despite Queequeg’s initial threat to kill Ishmael when the two first meet, he and Queequeg share a bed together with Ishmael declaring that he had “never slept better in my life.”  (Melville, 27)  When Ishmael awakens, he finds Queequeg’s arm draped over him, “in the most loving and affectionate manner.” Ishmael further remarks on this pose, further stating  “You had almost thought I had been his wife.”  (Melville, 28)  Instead of rousing Queequeg or slipping out from under his arm so as to get changed and leave, which one would think would be Ishmael’s first instinct, Ishmael instead lays there, content with being held, and goes on to describe a still slumbering Queequeg’s tattooed arm, noting different colors, with “no two parts of which were of one precise shape” and how they composed a “patchwork quilt,” so much so that Ishmael has difficulty discerning Queequeg’s arm from the quilt on the bed, “they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.”  (Melville, 28)  This very situation, of two people slumbering in a bed, while one lies awake, studying the other’s skin and its texture, indicates that Ishmael feels a degree of fascination and infatuation for Queequeg.  These feelings continue beyond the excuse Ishmael being merely intrigued by Queequeg’s exoticism, for even after Ishmael finally manages to rouse Queequeg and get out of his “bridegroom clasp,” Ishmael stays  and watches Queequeg as he undresses with meticulous detail, his justification being, “a man like Queequeg you don’t see every day, he and his ways were well worth unusual regarding”  (Melville, 30)  Ishmael then proceeds to watch Queequeg dress himself from head to toe.  “He commenced dressing at top by donning his beaver hat, a very tall one, by the by, and then—still minus his trowsers he hunted up his boots.”  (Melville, 30)  Whatever feelings Ishmael has for Queequeg, they are seemingly reciprocated as Ishmael frequently describe the two of them as a “cozy, loving pair.” (Melville, 58)
            Ishmael’s language throughout these sections heavily implies that there is in fact, a passionate and reciprocal relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  However, this fact could also be used to imply that Queequeg has yet another aspect in common with the devil, in that he has successfully seduced Ishmael, not just in physical way that is forbidden, but a spiritual way as well.  Ishmael declares that he is a good Christian, “born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church.”  (Melville, 58)   However, his upbringing within this supposedly infallible church does not hinder him from joining in worship of Queequeg’s idol.  In his defense, Ishmael states that he was only acting in the way in which a true and good Christian would act, 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 do to me—that is the will of god.”  (Melville 58)  Not only is Ishmael violating the first two of the Ten Commandments, but he is also defending his decision, claiming that this seemingly blasphemous worship is something that only those who truly believe in God will do.  This in many ways could be perceived as the turning point of Queequeg and Ishmael’s relationship—from where it goes from a strictly physical attraction, to a true spiritual union by Ishmael essentially adopting Queequeg’s religion, despite it being, even in Ishmael’s eyes, as him “turning idolator.” (Melville, 58)  So is this the fate of Ishmael?  To be tempted by Queequeg, Moby Dick’s incarnation of the devil, who, like the snake in the garden of Eden convinced Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, will damn Ishmael and perhaps the rest of the crew of the Pequod to oblivion? 
            Perhaps the interpretation of Queequeg as Moby Dick’s incarnation as the devil would have some merit if Queequeg’s presence on the ship lead to further hardship and pain, however, the complete opposite proves to be true—Queequeg is a literal savior.  He saves two crew members, including one crew member who had accused him of being “the devil,” prior to the crew’s arrival at Nantucket.  Queequeg, angry with this sailor insulting him, unintentionally pushes overboard.  Queequeg, without hesitation dives in after this sailor and saves his life.  Ishmael remarks on how Queequeg does not believe he deserves any praise for his actions but instead, “He only asked for water—fresh water—something to wipe the brine off.” (Melville, 68)  Queequeg’s modesty, in addition to his saving a man who is prejudiced against him and insults him is a testament to Queequeg’s heroic character.  In addition, Queequeg also saves Tashtego’s life after he literally falls into a recently killed whale,   “Queequeg had dived into the rescue,” (Melville 375)  “And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished,” (Melville, 376)  Perhaps most significantly, Queequeg, rather directly or indirectly, saves Ishmael’s life at the end of the novel, “owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over and floated by my side.”  (Melville, 625)  This coffin life-buoy is made from the same coffin that Queequeg made for himself when he believed that he was dying.  Either the buoy got lose in the ship’s spiral down to the bottom of the ocean, or was set free by none other than Queequeg himself, in a last ditch effort to ensure Ishmael’s survival.        
            Aside from literally being a savior of lives, Queequeg’s presence in the novel challenges Ishmael’s views, and perhaps the reader’s views, on “savages,” From very early on in meeting Queequeg, Ishmael makes an observation about Queequeg and others like him, “But, the truth is, these savages have an innate sense of delicacy, say what you will; it is marvelous how essentially polite they are.”  (Melville, 30)  This is quite the statement, considering when one thinks of the word “savage” the term politeness is possibly one of the furthest adjectives one would use to describe them.  However in this statement Ishmael is not simply commenting on simply the politeness of Queequeg and other savages, but is also recognizing of their humanity; that despite their unorthodox ways of life and unconventional upbringing, that they are people, and are civilized in their own ways.  Also, throughout ther novel both Queequeg and Ishmael often comment on the wickedness and the corruptive influence of Christians.  Ishmael remarks how it’s “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” (Melville, 26) Queequeg claims that the reason he cannot return to his island to become king is because “Christianity, or rather Christians, had unfitted him for ascending the pure and undefiled throne of thirty pagan Kings before him.”  (Melville, 62) Furthermore, Queequeg also remarks about how “we cannibals must help these Christians,” suggesting that despite their superior place in society in comparison to his people and his beliefs, “these Christians” are in need the aid of a pagan such as himself. (Melville 68)    The shift that takes place in Ishmael’s mind, from fearing the cannibal pagan to seeing him not only as person equal to himself, but a person who is, in some ways superior, is important and influences Ishmael profoundly, even after the events of the novel are over.
            Perhaps the most pivotal scene demonstrating how Queequeg has truly made Ishmael into a tolerant man is when he engages in the worship of Queequeg’s Yojo.    By doing so Ishmael is going against the Ten Commandments, however this confirms Ishmael’s new found bond with Queequeg has altered the way he sees Christianity, and for that matter, God.  Whereas Queequeg was a mere head peddler before, now he is a fellow man whose beliefs are just as valid as Ishmael’s own.  Eventually, the reader comes to understand that Queequeg’s beliefs have so deeply made an impression on Ishmael that the tattoos that Ishmael was once mesmerized and horrified at, are now adorned on his own body.  When describing how Ishmael has tattooed the measurements of a whale skeleton on his body, Ishmael comments on how “I was crowed for space, and wished other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing—at least, what untattooed parts might remain…” (Melville, 492)  Although it is impossible to know exactly what exactly this “poem” is, it is obvious that through getting these types of tattoos that cover his entire body, he is emulating Queequeg and others like him.  Whether or not these tattoos are the same ones that Queequeg adorned his coffin with when he was dying, the very same coffin that helped keep Ishmael afloat after Moby Dick destroyed the Pequod can never be confirmed.  However, due to Ishmael’s apparent undying love for Queequeg, it would not be a stretch to think that Ishmael has tattooed on himself the very same markings that Queequeg adorned his coffin, “he was striving…to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body,” which of course, were the same tattoos that supposedly revealed truths about heaven and the mysteries of life.  By doing this, Ishmael is not only honoring Queequeg, but he is fully taking on Queequeg’s religion and in some ways, becoming Queequeg.  And by becoming like Queequeg, Ishmael seemingly not only violates his Presybterian upbrining many times over, but also apparently embraces Queequeg’s way of life over that of a typical white New Englander. 
            Suffice to say Queequeg has a profound impact on Ishmael’s life in seemingly all positive ways, from actually saving his life, to teaching Ishmael about different religions and tolerance.  Everything that Queequeg has done which may have initially seemed corruptive is in actuality positive and enlightening. Ishmael not only begins to see Queequeg and those like him as human rather than “savage” he also begins to see the flaws and hypocrisies within Christianity.  It becomes obvious that Queequeg as a character is incredibly important, and despite initial interpretations, an extremely benevolent character.  It is clear that Queequeg, although unorthodox, exotic, and at times enigmatic is not the “devil,” despite the fact that several characters, including Ishmael, call him so towards the beginning of the novel.  But if Queequeg is not the devil character within Moby Dick, a novel so full of religious allusions, what is he?  In Gnostic Mythos in Moby Dick author Thomas Vargish discusses the various allusions to Gnosticism throughout Moby Dick.  Although the author relates that Melville discusses Gnosticism “less frequently,” he also states that “Melville applied Gnostic myths and doctrines more specifically and consistently than has been recognized,” and that “certain passages in Moby-Dick require familiarity with the Gnostic mythos to be understood”  (Thomas Vargish, 272) 
            It is through a particular set of these “Gnostic mythos” however, that Queequeg can be understood through the ideas set forth by a Gnostic sect called the “Ophites.”  The Ophites “honored the Serpent for having thwarted his [the creator’s] narrow purposes, withdrawn our first parents from their allegiance to him, induced them to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and thus brought them the knowledge of “That Power which is Over all.””  (Vargish, 273)  This image of the serpent being a friend to humanity, a bringer of knowledge, instead of being a bringer of destruction and sin, which is what the reader might most commonly associate the serpent with, is an excellent way in which to describe and understand Queequeg and his purpose in the novel.  Rather than being the serpent that is most commonly associate with the devil, Queequeg rather represents the serpent who defies “the creator’s narrow purposes” by introducing Ishmael to his beliefs and ultimately changing Ishmael into an open-minded, more enlightened individual.  Through this interpretation, many aspects of Queequeg, his character and the way in which was described take on new meanings.
            Queequeg’s tattoos are a focal point throughout many times in the novel, and one wonders with a new filter in which to see them, how they change.  There are several important aspects about the tattoos that become apparent; the first is that Ishmael is initially as enthralled with the tattoos as he is disturbed by them.  He studies them with deep infatuation, and a certain longing.  Also, the tattoos are apparently extremely important in that the message within them bears secrets to heaven and truth.  Eventually, through the course of the novel, and even after the events that take place, Ishmael literally acquires these same tattoos that are on his body.  This suggests that Queequeg’s tattoos were a “forbidden fruit” of sorts, in that the “narrow minded creator,” in this case, the normal, white Christians that inhabit the United States at that time, find Queequeg’s tattoos to be a mark of evil and repulsion.  However, once Ishmael begins to become enlightened and wizened, he adopts these tattoos, and in his way “consumes” this forbidden fruit.  Ishmael’s attraction to Queequeg, his love for Queequeg, and his eventual understanding and acceptance of Queequeg, are what brings him to this forbidden fruit.  Through this “consumption” of Queequeg, Ishmael becomes a more tolerant and enlightened individual.
            Through the Gnostic interpretation, Queequeg’s “seduction” as a devilish character also loses its merit.  Although it cannot be argued that Ishmael is not seduced by Queequeg’s body and exoticness, he never seduces Ishmael into worshipping Yojo, or verbally attempts to convince Ishmael that his religion and or beliefs are superior to Ishmaels.  Rather, Ishmael comes to these conclusions himself through his own observations of not only Queequeg’s behavior, but the behavior of the supposedly Christians that he sails with.  The devil, in many incarnations of the bible, is an extremely talented wordsmith and has an unparalleled gift for persuasion.  “The Tempter came and said to him [Jesus], “If you are the son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matthew 4:3)  This is a talent that Queequeg does not possess.  Never once does Ishmael remark that Queequeg has attempted to convince of persuade Ishmael through any means, even if he had wanted too, Queequeg would not be able to articulate himself as such.  “Kill-e,” cried Queequeg…”ah!  Him bery small-e fish-e; Queeqg no kill-e so small-e fish-e; Queequeg kill-e big whale!”  (Melville, 67)  Ishmael, like Eve, was not tricked into taking the forbidden fruit and gaining knowledge, but rather, the serpent in Gnostic interpretation “represented him as having given good counsel to Adam and Eve.”  (Vargish, 273) 
            Through this Gnostic interpretation, the reader may understand how fundamentally wrong this “narrow minded” creator was, and how Gnosticism can be considered to be “a reaction to and dissatisfaction with the Christian attempt to explain the origin of evil.”  (Vargish, 273)  This plays in with the idea that Queequeg remarks several times throughout the book about how he must help the Christians, while also stating, with Ishmael echoing his sentiments, about the apparent wickedness of the Christians.  Since Queequeg in many ways is embodying this Gnostic symbol of enlightenment, the serpent, he is also the carrier of their message; that Christians have misinterpreted what evil is.  Several characters in the beginning of the novel mistakenly identify Queequeg as the devil, and according to a strictly Christian interpretation of the novel, this is the case.  However, Queequeg many times over, proves to be a literal savior to several characters, as well as a figurative savior to Ishmael by enlightening him.
            Although Queequeg’s origins, name, and purpose in the novel seem initially ambiguous, Queequeg proves himself throughout the novel to be an invaluable member of the Pequod crew, in addition to a dominant, guiding force in Ishmael’s life.  Although he initially appears to be a wicked, malevolent, and a violent man with a perhaps sinister purpose; upon getting to know him Ishmael discovers that he is a civilized and decent human being whose ways of life and thoughts are equal to his own.  So much so, that eventually, Ishmael comes to adopt Queequeg’s ways, and through doing so, becomes a more open minded and enlightened individual.  While in a Christian context Queequeg appears to be the devil incarnate of a novel so heavily saturated with biblical characters, in another he is something entirely different.  Through understanding the teachings and beliefs of the Gnostic sect of Ophites, the reader comes to fully understand Queequeg’s purpose and place in Melvilles Moby Dick which references religions both familiar and obscure.  Queequeg is a bringer of knowledge, a friend to humanity, and ultimately a source of enlightenment to Ishmael; characteristics that Ishmael himself eventually possesses.  And through doing so, upon the telling of this story, imparts his knowledge onto the reader, to aid us in our own understanding of the universe, and our understanding of it.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. 1851. New York City: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Vargish, Thomas. "Gnostic Mythos in Moby-Dick." Modern Language Association 81.3
(1966):   272-277. JSTOR. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <
The Bible. New International Version. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2012. 

1 comment:

  1. You've struggled some with introductions. I like this one, though - it could be streamlined, but it actually expresses a coherent, complex thought well.

    You do a good job elucidating the ways in which Q is, or ought to be, dangerous. It's a little wordy, which is no big deal - the only real problem I see is that you dodge or ignore the element of humor here, which can be a little hard to parse, but is important.

    Your analysis of the romantic dimension of their relationship, incidentally, could go far later in the novel: check out the chapter "The Mat-Maker" especially.

    You jump through some hoops to associate Q with knowledge as well as with evil. I think you're right, personally, but I'd like to hear less about the obvious details of Q and more about his knowledge here - the chapter "The Squid" has a very helpful passage.

    You're good although a little late on the pairing or intermingling of salvation and blasphemy/temptation in Q.

    Your use of Vargish is good.

    Q. as "forbidden fruit is good", but note also that secret knowledge - knowledge reserved for a select few - is tremendously important in gnosticism.

    Q., of course, also consumes the forbidden fruit of white, Christian civilization - so the consumption is mutual.

    Overall: You're very thorough, sometimes being in danger of losing the forest for the trees, but never quite doing so. Your research is focused and relevant; you have been attentive in class, and made use of that attentiveness. As a piece of a writing, even if this is a little too long and elaborate in some places, the structure and especially introduction are improved over anything else you've done (Vargish might have been more foregrounded, though).

    So, I have a lot to be happy about.


    1) You stick mostly to passages from early in the novel. There's some great, relevant material here that you're missing out on - see Q's near-death experience (with Pip and Ishmael present), and "the Mat-Maker" especially.
    2) One thing to ask yourself is: how much am I adding to Vargish? I think you are adding, but I would like to see you articulate where, which might have helped you add *and* cut appropriately, to push yourself farther in new directions.

    You could do more, for instance, to ask yourself where and how we see gnostic or pseudo-gnostic wisdom transfered to Ishmael. The tattoos, of course. But what the conversation in "the Mat-Maker"? What about his near-death, then refitting the canoe, etc?

    Probably 30-40% of what's here could be trimmed to make room for new material, less well-trodden in class.