Thoughts On Moby Dick

Welcome to another Thoughts On book review. You’ll see these pop up on my blog whenever I’ve found a book I just can’t put down. 

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the name Queequeg please?

Okay? We good? Good.

Now, I’ve been whale watching before. But needless to say, it was nothing like being aboard the Pequod. These men spent three years being rocked and battered by violent ocean waves. On deck, they sliced sheets of gelatinous goo from the slimy carcasses of freshly killed whales and watched as each piece slithered into a jiggling pile at their feet. Below, they worked with the spermaceti, squeezing and squishing it in between their fingertips until all of the guts and whaley entrails were stuffed into tight barrels. While they worked, the men were constantly barraged with the briny stench of blood and guts as it seeped into the porous floorboards of the boat, the timbers of their hold locking in the smell with Ziplock-level freshness.

And no one ever vomited. Not once.

I don’t know about you, even but sitting on the deck of an advanced passenger vessel in relatively calm conditions with a fair amount of Dramamine pumping through my veins was enough to make me want to hurl.

It’s true, this story of whaling is not for the feint hearted. Even before we step foot aboard Captain Ahab’s boat, there is ritualistic fasting, cannibalistic head peddling, and clam chowder served up nice and chunky for breakfast (um, whatever happened to plain old toast?) But despite their queasy nature, these questionable events are important because without them we would not have the first half of our great literary foil. We would not have Queequeg.

I could go on and on about the characters onboard the Pequod and how they reflect my beloved harpooner, but I am particularly interested in the relationship between Queequeg and his captain.

As readers, we are made aware of the prejudice against Queequeg from the start. He is a dangerous cannibal; a ferocious man who spends his time selling human heads on Sunday instead of attending church like a good, civilized being. He comes from a distant tribe and has invaded the society of Nantucket, frightening off the natives with his unfamiliar ways. We are meant to see him as a savage.

On the other hand, we have Ahab. He is the captain of a ship; he is respectable. The people on land value him for the oil he procures at sea and the crew admires his devotion to the hunt. Because he was raised in their civilized society, these people see Ahab as a man of good character. They see him as an honorable brother.

They are wrong.

One of my favorite aspects of the narrative was the fact that it shows us how a character can exist so independently of their appearance and reputation. Throughout the book, we come to love Queequeg and his behemoth of a fiercely tattooed body. Queequeg, the savage- the moniker becomes cute, a pet name. Docile Queequeg, he jumped overboard to save his fellow crewmember. Sweet little Queequeg with his funny little tattoos. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He almost becomes a pet on board the Pequod. Think Prince Eric’s sheepdog in The Little Mermaid.  Atta boy Queequeg.

Ahab, in contrast, dwells below, down beneath the floorboards, sectioned off from the brotherhood and gaiety. And when he finally emerges from the depths of his quarters (with a throng of hidden killers in tow, no less!) we learn just how off kilter our captain really is. On board, Ahab becomes the savage Queequeg was meant to represent. After his brush with Moby Dick, vengeance has consumed him, so much so that he turns on his fellow man.

In one poignant scene, Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, notifies Ahab of a leak in one of the oil barrels. Starbuck suggests they stop hunting long enough to pull up the barrels and find the source of the leak. However, averse to anything that would get in the way of his revenge, Ahab gruffly refuses. Again, Starbuck insists. He tries to appeal to Ahab’s sense of leadership by arguing that, if they don’t stop the leak, the ship will run out of oil, putting everyone on board at risk.

This time when Ahab refuses, he takes things a step too far. He angrily grabs a loaded musket off the rack and aims it right at Starbuck’s head.

It’s clear that this man, this respected Christian seaman, is thirsty for blood- whale, man, indifferent. When threatened with pause, Ahab’s first instinct is to kill. The bloodlust is so thick in his eyes now that he can no longer see straight. Every piece of him is set on hunting down this one whale and performing the slaughter. He seeks vengeance. Pure, bloody vengeance. The hunt has consumed him.

So I ask you, who’s the savage now?


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