Ishmael and Queequeg
These quotations from Moby-Dick all refer to the main character, Ishmael, and his close friend, the harpooner Queequeg.
“Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.” (Pg. 54)
Based on other evidence in the novel, Queequeg appears to have come from New Zealand. The significance of this quote comes from the end – the element of “truth” appears here to refer to the genuine, and the significant. If you think about your important attachments to particular places, those never appear on the maps of those places.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” (Pg. 1)
For Ishmael, a ship at sea is the place that soothes and calms him. Given the horrors that await him aboard the Pequod, this is somewhat ironic; however, the thrills of a life at sea have long called many away from the land. The next quotation also shows an ache at the center of Ishmael’s soul:
“Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! Damned in the midst of Paradise!” (Pg. 165)
This quotation attributes Ishmael’s inner turmoil to his own “high perception” – the ability to see more deeply and thoroughly than others, who have the “low, enjoying power.” This enhanced perception condemns him to a life of unhappiness, at least from his perspective.
After reading Moby-Dick, do you believe that Ishmael has a higher “perception” than those around him, or do you feel he is deluding himself? What events in the story support your opinion?
An Obsession Explained
“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! And since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!” (Pg. 776)
Captain Ahab has spent the entire novel – indeed, much of his entire adult life – chasing the white whale. At this point, at the end of the chase’s third day, he realizes that he cannot defeat the whale, but he will not stop pursuing it. The language has a lot of potential meanings – compare the unwinnable match between Jacob and God in the book of Genesis. Here, though, it is a battle of hatred, rather than simple stubbornness. The fact that Ahab has dedicated his life to the hate that fills “hell’s heart” is instructive – his men have seen the shortcomings of this obsession but have not stepped out to oppose the captain – except for Starbuck.
What is the difference between anger and bitterness? Which of these more closely describes Ahab’s state of mind?
Think of the grudges you have borne in your lifetime. Which grudge have you been carrying the longest? Why do you carry it? What effects has that grudge had on your life?
All quotations from this article are taken from this version of the novel:
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or The Whale. Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent, eds. New York: Hendricks House, 1952.
This post is part of the series: Study Guide for “Moby-Dick”
This study guide will assist high school and college students with the reading and understanding of Herman Melville’s classic American novel.