25 September 2014
Ishmael and Queequeg’s Sexuality in Moby Dick
At several points in Moby Dick, Ishmael is at odds with the culture of his time. From the outset, he is acting against social norms of the 1850s. His opinions on sexuality in the context of his relationship with Queequeg, while not entirely overt, are of particular interest to modern readers, who find continuing relevance in Ishmael and Queequeg’s relationship. Queequeg and Ishmael’s relationship is an often-discussed controversial issue in Moby Dick. Some would argue that its homosexuality is only evident when viewed through our modern lense, and that the relationship was strictly platonic. I contend, however, that the homoerotic overtones are too blatant to overlook. His attitudes toward homosexuality throughout the novel are a major way that Ishmael, and I believe Melville, distances himself from or rejects cultural conventions.
From the beginning of the novel, we see Ishmael having problems with society. In the opening sentences, he describes “stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off” as a way of coping with his dissatisfaction in life. It is this discontentedness that drives him to pursue whaling to begin with. This is only his first step towards distancing himself from society. As the novel progresses, he becomes further detached from societal norms, leading to his homosexual intentions (Melville 18). Do not think that I see Ishmael as intentionally trying to be a type of social deviant. He isn’t a cynic; he does not undermine social conventions out of spite, but instead merely seeks fulfillment in the ways he sees fit, regardless of what society thinks of them.
As irrefutable evidence that there are in fact homosexual themes in Moby dick, consider chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand,” in which Ishmael recounts how the sailors squeeze the spermaceti so that it does not cool into lumps. It should be explained briefly exactly what Spermaceti is. It is a waxy substance inside a sperm whale’s head that was used for candles and oil in Melville’s time. It’s function is still debated. It is believed to either affect buoyancy, allowing the whale to rise or lower in the water, or to be used as a battering ram. At the time however, it was mistakenly believed to be the whale’s sperm, which is why they are called sperm whales (Whitehead 318). This misunderstanding gave Spermaceti a sexual connotation. This connotation is explored in chapter 94, “A Squeeze of The Hand.” While squeezing the sperm, Ishmael finds himself also squeezing his shipmates hands, and says,
“I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.”
While not strictly homosexual, the homoeroticism in this scene in undeniable. The pleasure Ishmael derives from the hand-squeezing is conveyed in a sensual way. Ishmael seems aware of this too, and the paragraphs that follow can be read as a way of Ishmael trying to make the scene more digestible to the 1851 reader. He wishes that he could simply enjoy the sperm-squeezing without worrying about the social significance of it. Ishmael finds the work so pleasing, in fact, that he wishes he could “squeeze case eternally.” He finds more pleasure squeezing the case than in the things typically thought of as important in life, specifically “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country” (Melville 323). His inclusion of “the wife,” in that quote lends itself to the idea of homosexuality, and the inclusion of “the country” again reveals his distaste for civilization. However, Ishmael recognizes how radical this view is, and understands that he could be shunned for holding it. Because of this, he wishes that the men would “no longer cherish social acerbities” or “ill-humor or envy,” meaning that he wishes they would not allow their prejudices to prevent them from finding pleasure in the work in the same way he does. This chapter is also interesting in that it does nothing to advance the plot. It really only deals with the subplot of Ishmael’s secuality, a subplot that has been essentially dropped from the novel at this point. For it to return at this section of the novel and have an entire chapter dedicated to it means that it is intended as an important aspect of the novel.
Religion, too, makes a brief appearance here. Ishmael, in “visions of the night,” sees “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” If you accept that this chapter is indeed intended to have homosexual connotations, then that particular quote could be viewed as one of the most blasphemous in the novel. I believe that Ishmael here is wishing that religion would accept simple pleasures such as squeezing the spermaceti. He knows the homosexual implications, but does not care. He also knows that Christianity would have viewed this experience negatively, and wishes that instead of worrying about the possible heretical implications of the act, one could simply enjoy it for what it is (Melville 323).
Recall Ishmael and Queequeg lying together at the Inn. Rictor Norton, in an essay about Melville, delves deeply into this scene. He makes the connection between Ishmael and Queequeg’s first night together and the innkeeper and his wife’s first night together, an encounter which happened in the same bed. Norton does not hold back in his interpretation. He calls out the marital terminology present throughout the opening chapters. “‘You had almost thought I had been his wife.’ Just so we do not miss the significance of this line, Melville adds two more variations: “his bridegroom clasp” and “hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style,” Norton writes. Also, in chapter 10, “Bosom Friends,” Queequeg refers to himself and Ishmael as being “married.” I think, however, that Norton takes this argument a bit too far. He writes, “Ishmael, like a terrified coy maiden, lies deathly still as he catches sight of the ‘bald purplish head’ of this ‘purple rascal,’ reminding one of another kind of purple head, lower on the body.”
While I cannot discount this theory, I believe it is reaching too far. In my interpretation, the homosexual elements are never that directly about intercourse, but rather concern sexuality at a more general level. They are more importantly about not restraining love to a marital context. While intercourse itself figures into the equation, the idea of the “bald purplish head” being a euphemism for penis I find to be a stretch.
The continuing relevance of the Ishmael/Queequeg relationship present themselves in the treatment of sexuality in the film adaptation of Moby Dick. Typically I agree with Henry Jenkins’s assertion that films or fanfiction or other “remixes” of literature should be viewed as valid extensions of a novel. (Jenkins) However, remixed works based on literature do not necessarily make the same points, or hold the same values, as their source material. All fiction is representative of its time period, and this presents a somewhat unsettling fact about Moby Dick. In the novel, the homosexual themes are undeniable, and presented in a way that was surely controversial for the 1850s. Fast forward 100 years to the 1950s film version and the homosexual themes are suspiciously absent. While I personally do not feel like these themes were excluded from the film due to malice by the filmmakers, since John Huston was never known to shy away from controversial subject matter. If not simply a matter of condensing a novel into a screenplay, it was almost certainly a result of the Hayes Code that the homosexual overtones were removed from Moby Dick in the 1956 film version. That an artist could release a controversial novel like Moby Dick in 1850, but similar artists were forbidden from discussing such topics an entire century later makes the homosexual themes of Moby Dick remain relevant. That film was released over half-a-century ago, and yet some people still refuse to acknowledge these themes. To overlook these themes is to attempt to twist the work to conform to a certain worldview the same way the Hayes Office did in the mid 20th century. I recognize how contentious that is to say, and I also recognize that the same attack could be levelled equally at me! Therefore, I am only willing to make this claim because the text is so clear on this subject. The instances of Ishmael and Queequeg at the Inn along with the chapter “A Squeeze of the Hand,” make it undeniable that homosexual themes are present in Moby Dick, and to ignore them is to ignore a major element of the novel, and to ignore Melville’s clear intentions.
Jenkins, Henry. “Four Readers 4: Reading Moby Dick as a Media Scholar.” Reading in a Participator Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press, 2013. 73-79.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Print.
Norton, Rictor. “Herman Melville.” Gay History & Literature: Essays by Rictor Norton., 9 Jan. 2000. Web. 24 Sept. 2014.