Close Reading American Literature

Re-Masculating the Noble Savage: A Close Reading of Moby-Dick

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.


5 thoughts on “Re-Masculating the Noble Savage: A Close Reading of Moby-Dick

  1. I like this topic you are exploring. Its interesting to see how the author portrayed certain characters in the novel as civilized and others savage. The close reading you did of how men of color are demeaned and emasculated as a form of domination is really detailed and informative. Its interesting that you chose to explore this because I too found many similarities between how native Americans were treated by white settlers and the continuation of this behavior with African slaves. The close reading of race is also really interesting and I believe will be really valuable in your paper.

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  2. I like that you chose to write about Moby Dick because it offers us such an interesting and new, for this class at least, perspective of Native American characters. It is a portrayal of power, (arguably) dominance, and kindness as well as open-mindedness. I am writing my paper about how a female perspective can be broader and more diverse (in terms of representation and portrayal of Native Americans) using Mather and Sedgwick, and although Moby Dick came far after Hope Leslie it makes a strong counterpoint. Queequeg and Ishmael’s relationship is so unique and lovely to read, and I believe that exploring Queequeg’s character in greater detail will surely help to draw more of that out.

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  3. Re-masculating the noble savage. I love that title. That alone brings an endless possibility of what you want to speak on. Choosing Moby Dick might be tricky but it will work. The title is what mostly intrigues me. And when I think of savage I think of women. How we are aggressive and always looking for the best and never just settling. I’m interested in reading your final paper.

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  4. I love this title. You unearthed a very interesting topic to explore, and a very interesting passage in Moby Dick. I wonder what Melville’s intentions were to depict the “others” as more masculine than the whites and to go as far as use the term “lords”. Hopefully he was being progressive and trying to elevate the others out of the depths of savagery.

    However, after reading the many racist accounts in pre- Civil War American literature, I have half a mind to be skeptical. I wonder if Melville depicts an unruly bunch, who if left unrestrained will take over the refined, more sophisticated white man. There is also the question as to why impressionability and general meekness is automatically attributed to femininity, but I totally understand that you did not write those rules; that’s a discussing for a whole other class 🙂

    Great topic and well written start to your essay!

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  5. Another really thought-provoking post, Danielle! It’s an excellent step forward with this paper. I wonder if you could look at the long list of adjectives in some of Melville’s descriptions and see if you find meaning there. Why does he use such a long list? Hierarchies in grammar can sometimes illuminate an author’s perspective of social hierarchies. Do you think Melville’s extremely long descriptors or qualifiers revel something about his views or do you think they deliberately obfuscate them?


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