Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
Queequeg, a native of the Fiji islands, becomes a close friend of Ishmael in the book: Moby Dick. Queequeg comes from a tribe of cannibals. This tall well-built Fijian, the crown prince of his tribe, is a fine harpooner. He has a "dark, purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares ... To be sure, it might be (squares) nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning."
In the book, Queequeg represents the condition of foreign immigrants in nineteenth century America. During this period, the immigrants who teemed into America even then provided most of the labor in America. They played an important role in building the new nation, despite racial prejudice and harassment from the local white Americans. This point is brought out well in the chapter where Ishmael and Queequeg are traveling in a schooner and people look at them both surprised and amused at the strange friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. One of the passengers passes a rather obscene remark at Queequeg, but he ignores him. However, tension reaches a point, where the captain is called to prevent a fight between Queequeg and the passenger. It is only when Queequeg displays his physical strength to help prevent the Schooner (boat) from drowning and soon afterwards, saves a passenger’s life (the same passenger who had used foul language against Queequeg); that Queequeg is left along.
Elsewhere in the book, Ishmael makes a very interesting observation about the Pequod’s crewmembers. Among the crew, the officers are all Americans, while the harpooners, the oarsmen and the cook are mainly immigrants from Africa, Australia and the East Indies. This aspect once again reflects the period of the 1800s when migrants did most of the manual labor.
Further, the firm friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg reveals the fact that despite differences in race, religion and language, a bond between human beings can be formed. Through their friendship, the author seems to be questioning the suspicion and fear that American had of immigrants, especially for people like Queequeg, who followed strange customs and did not belong to the ‘civilized’ world.
Father Mapple is the chaplain in New Bedford City. In Moby Dick, the sea symbolizes the troubled, unpredictable and uncertain world, where man is struggling to keep his faith and conscience safe. Father Mapple, through his sermon on Jonah and the whale (Old Testament, Holy Bible), gives out a warning that people who do not follow the word of God will have to face his wrath. In the biblical story, the ship carrying Jonah to Tarshish is tossed about by a fierce storm on sea. The weather becomes calm only after the crewmembers throw Jonah into the sea to save the ship from destruction. In the sea, a fish (a whale) swallows Jonah.
As Father Mapple warns all the fishermen to stay away from the path of evil and seek forgiveness from him if they have strayed into the path of evil; the chaplain foretells the outcome of the drama that would soon be enacted on the ship Pequod. In other words, through Father Mapple and his sermon, Melville tells the reader that the higher spirit (God) controls man’s life. If man strays away from the path laid down by God, he will be punished and he shows this in the case of the Pequod, where Captain Ahab chases the giant white whale. But his motives are evil and the ship along with its crew heads towards disaster.
Just as in the biblical story, Jonah’s journey to Tarshish is curbed by a terrible storm; in the novel, a terrible storm damages Pequods’ sail. This storm comes as a warning to Captain Ahab - to give up the evil chase for the whale or else be prepared to perish. But Ahab, does not pay heed to this warning, blind as he is by rage and revenge. The result is that the Pequod along with its captain drowns in the dark depths of the ocean.
As regards Father Mapple and his career as a sailor before he has joined the church, the author seems to be making a few subtle remarks. Firstly, by showing that a common sailor can rise up to a revered position of a chaplain, the writer is railing against the feudal idea of hierarchy in occupations. Secondly, that the chaplain walks in like any other layman instead of coming in a carriage reveals the superficial customs, traditions and fills attached to the church as an institution that time. By doing so, Herman Melville reflects in his writing the spirit of his time. During the 1800s, several intellectuals and social reformers were questioning in theory as well as in practice the feudal ideas and interests of that period. These intellectuals and reformers, especially the Transcendentalists, believed that feudal ideas and customs restrained individual free will and progress.
Captain Ahab is the dark brooding captain of the Pequod. In Ahab, the author creates the first ever anti-hero of the American novel. For Ahab is portrayed is a brilliant, creative, sensitive as well as competent captain, yet the dark side of Ahab emerges in his obsession of the white whale, Moby Dick. In his mad pursuit, he does not consider anything or anybody (including his crewmembers) else important. But in spite of his dictatorial nature, Captain Ahab evokes awe as well as fear, not just in the minds of his crewmembers, but also in the reader.
Captain Ahab makes his appearance for the first time on the Pequod after it had set sail from the shore. Ishmael is struck by his appearance for "He looked like a man cut away from the stake...." Ahab is a tall broad man, who is dark and solid like bronze. But what strikes Ishmael most is the "Slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish," which runs from his gray hair, down on one side of his tanned face, neck and continues downward to his clothing. As he stands on the dock, straight and looking extremely serious, Ishmael does not notice that Ahab is standing (partly) on one white (artificial) leg. As he stands there, looking at the sea, his face and form reveal "an infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable willfulness, ... (his) fixed and fearless dedication..."
Even before the reader meets Ahab, he is informed that Ahab has lost one of his legs while chasing Moby Dick during an encounter. Since then Ahab is filled with overpowering hatred and thirsting for revenge against the great sperm whale. But in spite of his fierce obsession for the whale, one cannot but admire Ahab - for here is a man who defies not only his physical handicap but also the dangerous oceans to pursue his goal. It is his single mindedness and indomitable spirit that is both admirable as well as moving and yet also the source of his destruction and inhumanity.