Author: Herman Melville
What is the connection between the author and the queer community?
According to the Amazon Classics kindle version of this book, Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. He came from a modest background, and he had little formal education. In addition to working as a schoolteacher, he was a sailor on a whaling ship. Eventually he began writing, but his novels were not popular when they were published. He managed to make money from his short stories, but he was not widely known during his life.
Melville dedicates Moby Dick to famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” The two authors wrote many letters to each other, and Melville even moved to Hawthorne’s neighborhood to be closer to him (McCrum). It is not known if Hawthorne and Melville were friends or lovers.
What is the plot of this book?
Ishmael is a sailor who seeks adventure on a whaling ship. The book follows his journey from New York to Massachusetts, where he boards the Pequod as a sailor. Before leaving, he meets Queequeg, a harpooneer from the Pacific Islands, who also boards the Pequod. Once on the ship, the crew discovers that Captain Ahab is on a mission for vengeance. Ahab is determined to hunt and kill Moby Dick. This great white whale ripped off Ahab’s leg on a previous voyage, and, as a result, Ahab walks on an ivory leg. Ahab offers a gold coin to the person that finds Moby Dick. For the rest of the book, the crew searches far and wide for the whale, encountering several ships along the way. As Ishmael recounts the events of the voyage, he goes into great detail about everything one could possibly want to know about whales.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading at this point if you do not wish to know what happens at the end of the book.
Eventually, Captain Ahab finds Moby Dick, and he keeps his own gold coin. After several attempts, Ahab manages to stab Moby Dick, but the whale drags Ahab out of his boat and into the distance. Among the turmoil of hunting Moby Dick, the whale manages to demolish the Pequod and all of its boats. The only survivor is Ishmael. Ishmael floats away on a coffin that was originally constructed for Queequeg when he became very ill. Another ship finds and rescues Ishmael.
How is this book queer?
This book is queer in so many ways. The words “queer” and “gay” appear frequently throughout the novel, although these words had different meanings in the nineteenth century. The language itself is at many points extremely suggestive, but the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is overtly queer.
When Ishmael arrives in Massachusetts, Ishmael finds a bed in which to sleep at an inn. However, the landlord informs Ishmael that he must share a bed with another man, as the inn is completely booked. Initially, Ishmael objects vehemently to the idea of sharing a bed. Once he discovers that his bedmate is Queequeg, a menacing, huge, dark, tattooed “cannibal” who wields sharp weapons, Ishmael is intimidated.
However, Queequeg is surprisingly willing to share his bed. Ishmael suddenly sees Queequeg as a “clean, comely looking cannibal.” At first, the two bedmates keep their distance from each other. By the morning the situation is much different: “… I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” Queequeg fascinates Ishmael: “… I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me.” Queequeg is the brooding bad boy, and Ishmael is the smitten schoolboy.
The following night Queequeg looks “pleased” that he will again share a bed with Ishmael. Queequeg touches Ishmael around the waist, and Ishmael concludes that they are “married.” Later, Ishmael kisses Queequeg’s nose, and they undress before going to bed again. Throwing caution to the wind, Queequeg comfortably tosses his leg over Ishmael’s leg.
However, their relationship is not just physical. They talk in bed like a married couple. When Queequeg fasts and maintains a vow of silence to honor his religion, Ishmael becomes very concerned about Queequeg’s wellbeing. Much later on the Pequod, Ishmael declares that Queequeg will be the executor of his will. When Queequeg attends to a whale carcass outside the ship, Ishmael remains in the ship tied to Queequeg with a rope. Ishmael is Queequeg’s literal anchor.
Nevertheless, after the Pequod sets sail, the narrative rarely mentions encounters between Ishmael and Queequeg. This is so frustrating! When Queequeg becomes ill, Ishmael seems mildly sad, but the details are scant. The reader yearns for Ishmael to prostrate before Queequeg’s ailing body with grief and melancholy. That did not happen. Moreover, Ishmael and Queequeg fade into the background as the obsession with whales and Captain Ahab’s lust for whale murder dominate the story.
Who would enjoy reading this book?
If you are miraculously patient and you have an intense interest in whales, this book is for you. Not much happens in this book, but the book is quite long. If that is fine for you, enjoy! Some people, including me, find this book frustrating to read because the pace is very plodding and Melville writes on many tangents, many involving minutiae about whales. Melville writes in long sentences, which can be difficult to follow. If you are only interested in the queer aspects of this book, stop reading after the Pequod sets sail.
McCrum, Robert. “Herman Melville, the Last Great Enigma of American Literature.” The Guardian, 30 Jan. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jan/30/herman-melville-mark-twain-parini. Accessed 15 Oct. 2018.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Kindle ed., AmazonClassics, 2018.