Week 4: Queequeg: Comic Hero
I keep returning to Matt’s question of who is the main character of this book. While I won’t suggest that it is Queequeg, he is rapidly shaping up to be the hero of the book.
But, like with the near-invisible Ahab, we haven’t seen much of Queequeg recently.
He doesn’t appear at all from Chapter 49 (The Hyena) until Chapter 61 (Stubb Kills a Whale) where he gets two lines. The first is a bit of wisdom about the squid: “‘When you see him ‘quid’, said the savage, honing his harpoon in the bow of his hoisted boat, ‘then you quick see him ‘parm whale.'” (281). And a nonsensical cheer: “‘Ka-la! Koo-loo!'” howled Queequeg, as if smacking his lips over a mouthful of Grenadier’s steak” (284).
And in Chapter 66 (The Shark Massacre) he almost gets his hand bitten off, but in an offhanded sort of way.
So aside from those two brief, inconsequential mentions, Queequeg is out of the action from Chapter 49 to Chapter 72. (Thanks Moby Diction! for making that easy to discover.)
It’s obvious that Queequeg is comic relief in the story. In the early chapters, his foreignness is played up for comic relief: his reaction to
Ahab Ishmael in his bed (including waking up with his arm around him); getting dressed under the bed (!); spearing food with his harpoon; even his little idol Yojo is seen as a comical thing.
Sure, Ishmael befriends him and even respects him: “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed” (49), and he’s even impressed by his lineage: “There was excellent blood in his veins – royal stuff” (54). But most of his scenes to this point have been pure comedy.
But just as we’ve gotten used to Queequeg being formidable and comical, he suddenly becomes heroic. When the very man that mocks him on the boat is knocked overboard by the boom. Queequeg wastes no time in tying a rope to the boom, jumping in tho the water and rescuing the very man who mimicked him. But little is made of it, especially by Queequeg:
Was there ever such unconsciousness? He did not seem to think that he at all deserved a medal from the Humane and Magnanimous Societies. He only asked for water – fresh water – something to wipe the brine off (61).
And then it’s back to comic relief with the insanity of the Ramadan scene. And soon after, we see him sitting on the unconscious Starbuck. And of course, there are jokes about him being a cannibal and his ferocious appetite when the harpooners go down to feast: “Queequeg, he had a mortal, barbaric smack of the lip in eating – an ugly sound enough – so much so, that the trembling Dough-Boy almost looked to see whether any marks of teeth lurked in his own lean arms.” (149).
But then, when the action recommences, Queequeg is right there. When they spot their first whale it is Queequeg who throws the first harpoon (missing, sadly). But he is essential to the chase.
Then we get the zany scene from this week’s reading. Queequeg balances on a whale like a log roller while tied to Ishmael with the monkey rope.
The whale be it observed, lies almost entirely submerged, excepting the immediate parts operated upon. So down there, some ten feet below the level of the deck, the poor harpooneer flounders about, half on the whale and half in the water, as the vast mass revolves like a tread-mill beneath him. On the occasion in question. Queequeg figured in the Highland costume – a shirt and socks – in which to my eyes, at least, he appeared to uncommon advantage (317).
This is all in aid of stripping the skin and blubber off the whale. Despite this comic scene, Queequeg is risking his life (sharks are all around him) for the good of the boat. And then, Ishmael underscores the scene with sentiment: “Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother” (317).
But then Queequeg proves himself once again. In Chapter 78 (Cistern and Buckets), Tashtego falls into the whale’s head (ew) and which then falls into the water. And, mirroring the earlier scene: “The next, a loud splash announced that my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue….and soon after, Queequeg was seen boldly striking out with one hand, and with the other clutching the long hair of the Indian” (341).
I don’t want to get too ponderous about this, but there is even the sense, in Queequeg’s recounting of the story that Queeuqeg not only saved Tashtego but gives him a new life:
And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished (342).
In all that I have heard about Moby Dick, I don’t know what happens to Queequeg. But thus far in the book, while others may have proven themselves in different ways, Queequeg is unquestionably the most heroic and selfless. And, since my first post was about religion, I’m willing to say that with these attributes, Queequeg is proving to be the most Christian.
Of course, I’m not sure where Melville is going with that exactly.
I’m now very curious to see how the Queequeg story gets wrapped up.