While reading Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby-Dick, Ishamel’s pagan “bosom friend”, Queequeg, struck me; he is far more fascinating than any of the white characters in the book, and one can learn a lot about Melville’s opinion of pagans and “savages” from Ishamel’s description of Queequeg. Diving further into the novel, I decided to focus on the three harpooners, Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, for my final paper. One particular passage that interested me was in Chapter 34, “The Cabin-Table”; Melville juxtaposes the dining habits of the captain and three mates with the habits of the three harpooners: ‘civilized’ men versus ‘savage’ men. In the description of the harpooners, Melville writes:
In strange contrast to the hardly tolerable constrain and nameless invisible domineering of the captain’s table, was the entire care-free license and ease, the almost frantic democracy of those inferior fellows the harpooners. While their masters, the mates, seemed afraid of the sound of the hinges of their own jaws, the harpooners chewed their food with such a relish that there was a report to it. They dined like lords; they filled their bellies like Indian ships all day loading with spices. Such portentous appetites had Queequeg and Tashtego, that to fill out the vacancies made by the previous repast, often the pale Dough-Boy was fain to bring on a great baron of salt-junk, seemingly quarried out of the solid ox.” (130)
I cut the page-long paragraph down to this small first section, but even in just this bit there is so much to analyze. The first time I read the passage, it amused me; juxtaposing the quite, timid dining of the men in charge with the lively and “care-free license and ease” of the harpooners. Often in the Othering of minority groups, especially Native Americans and blacks, the white majority will emasculate minority men in order to dominate them. Some examples in American history include the referring to slaves (and later free blacks) as “boy”, and feminizing Native American groups by portraying them as weak and easy to manipulate. Melville, while upholding some of the damaging imagery of savages, turns the feminizing of the Other around and places it on the white men in charge. The mates are easily spooked by “the sound of the hinges of their own jaws”, thus coming across as weaker and more feminine. With the feminized mates established, Melville then elevates the harpooners to the level of lords.
After juxtaposing the mates and the harpooners, Melville continues to reverse the typical roles through the Dough-Boy. While Queequeg, Daggoo, and Tashtego, all men of color, are eating their dinner, they are waited on by a “pale Dough-Boy”, i.e. a white server. The irony of the “white waiter who waits upon cannibals” (131) is yet another example of Melville’s reversal of racial roles, as well as the continued feminizing of whites instead of the minority groups, since the Dough-Boy is fearful of waiting on the harpooners.
This passage is just one example of Melville elevating his ‘savage’ characters while simultaneously exposing the lowness of the white characters. I will continue examining this notion, specifically how the three harpooners represent the three most violated groups of people by Americans (Africans, Native Americans, and Polynesians), using the following sources I have found so far: ‘Leviathan is a Skein of Networks’: Translations of Nature and Culture in Moby-Dick, The Question of Race in Moby-Dick, and Moby-Dick and American Slave Narrative.