Study Guide

Moby-Dick Race

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 2: The Carpet-Bag

It seemed the great Black Parliament sitting in Tophet. A hundred black faces turned round in their rows to peer; and beyond, a black Angel of Doom was beating a book in a pulpit. It was a n**** church; and the preacher’s text was about the blackness of darkness, and the weeping and wailing and teeth-gnashing there. Ha, Ishmael, muttered I, backing out, Wretched entertainment at the sign of "The Trap!" (2.6)

In this early chapter, Melville briefly gives us what seems like a little throwaway scene: Ishmael mistakes a black church for an inn, goes in, and has to back out in embarrassment when he sees the evening worship service. Even though this moment doesn’t advance the plot at all, it does set up the nineteenth-century racial stereotypes that the novel will deal with (and overturn) in later chapters.

Chapter 3: The Spouter-Inn

I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. (3.69)

It’s interesting to think about what makes Ishmael change his mind about Queequeg at this moment. We’d like to be able to say that he realizes you can’t judge a man by his race and that common humanity is more important than racial difference. But it seems equally likely that Ishmael, ahem, liked the look of Queequeg as he got undressed and fancied a cuddle. Or that he just got tired of worrying about it and wanted to go to bed.

This accomplished, however, he turned round – when, good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark, purplish, yellow colour, here and there stuck over with large blackish looking squares. Yes, it’s just as I thought, he's a terrible bedfellow; he's been in a fight, got dreadfully cut, and here he is, just from the surgeon. But at that moment he chanced to turn his face so towards the light, that I plainly saw they could not be sticking-plasters at all, those black squares on his cheeks. They were stains of some sort or other. At first I knew not what to make of this; but soon an inkling of the truth occurred to me. I remembered a story of a white man – a whaleman too – who, falling among the cannibals, had been tattooed by them. I concluded that this harpooneer, in the course of his distant voyages, must have met with a similar adventure. And what is it, thought I, after all! It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. But then, what to make of his unearthly complexion, that part of it, I mean, lying round about, and completely independent of the squares of tattooing. To be sure, it might be nothing but a good coat of tropical tanning; but I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one. However, I had never been in the South Seas; and perhaps the sun there produced these extraordinary effects upon the skin. (3.54)

Ishmael’s ignorance about racial difference, and his lack of knowledge about other cultures, mean not only that he’s horrified by the sight of skin unlike his own, but that he can hardly believe the man he’s seeing isn’t a white man who had a terrible accident. He shows both signs of being ready to think differently about race – "a man can be honest in any sort of skin" – and signs that he’s still prejudiced – such as describing Queequeg’s appearance as "unearthly."

Chapter 27: Knights and Squires

Third among the harpooneers was Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black n****-savage, with a lion-like tread – an Ahasuerus to behold. Suspended from his ears were two golden hoops, so large that the sailors called them ring-bolts, and would talk of securing the top-sail halyards to them. In his youth Daggoo had voluntarily shipped on board of a whaler, lying in a lonely bay on his native coast. And never having been anywhere in the world but in Africa, Nantucket, and the pagan harbors most frequented by whalemen; and having now led for many years the bold life of the fishery in the ships of owners uncommonly heedful of what manner of men they shipped; Daggoo retained all his barbaric virtues, and erect as a giraffe, moved about the decks in all the pomp of six feet five in his socks. There was a corporeal humility in looking up at him; and a white man standing before him seemed a white flag come to beg truce of a fortress. Curious to tell, this imperial n****, Ahasuerus Daggoo, was the Squire of little Flask, who looked like a chess-man beside him. (27.9)

There’s a lot to say about this description of Daggoo, but we’ll stick with pointing out that, as an African tribesman who "voluntarily shipped," Daggoo functions in the novel as the symbolic replacement for much more common figures who don’t show up: African-American slaves or descendant of slaves who were kidnapped from Africa and brought to the American South. Considering that Melville wrote Moby-Dick in 1851, when slavery was a major issue for America, and that this novel shows signs of considering race thoughtfully, it’s interesting that there aren’t any slaves in the story at all – just different types of stand-ins for them.

As for the residue of the Pequod’s company, be it said, that at the present day not one in two of the many thousand men before the mast employed in the American whale fishery, are Americans born, though pretty nearly all the officers are. Herein it is the same with the American whale fishery as with the American army and military and merchant navies, and the engineering forces employed in the construction of the American Canals and Railroads. The same, I say, because in all these cases the native American liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles. (27.9)

At this point, the novel’s broad-minded thinking about race seems to collapse. Casting the white American settler – who, you’ll notice, gets described as "the native American" here, thus replacing the actual Native Americans – as the "brains" and the "rest of the world" as the "muscles" creates a disturbing metaphorical hierarchy. The real question is whether this passage is meant to be ironic or not.

Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle

Hold on hard! Jimmini, what a squall! But those chaps there are worse yet – they are your white squalls, they. White squalls? white whale, shirr! shirr! Here have I heard all their chat just now, and the white whale – shirr! shirr! – but spoken of once! and only this evening – it makes me jingle all over like my tambourine – that anaconda of an old man swore ’em in to hunt him! Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men that have no bowels to feel fear! (40.47)

Pip’s first soliloquy makes us aware of all the dangers that face him as a young African-American man on board ship. He’s afraid of the storm, but even more afraid of the actions of the white sailors around him. Plus, he’s been so indoctrinated in the religious customs of white Americans that he doesn’t see himself as made in God’s image anymore. He imagines that his racial difference affects, not only his relationships with men, but his relationship with God.

Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognised a certain royal preeminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian, heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe; ...yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honourable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. (42.3)

First, you should thank us for cutting out some of this sentence, which is 471 words long. Second, notice the way in which a standard expression of nineteenth-century racism, the idea that the white man has "ideal mastership over every dusky tribe," is employed here with great irony. As close readers of Melville, we’re supposed to realize by this point that it’s unlikely he’d buy completely into something like that. As a result, the entire passage, and all of Ishmael’s attempts to figure out what "whiteness" represents, are undercut.

Chapter 48: The First Lowering

A rumpled Chinese jacket of black cotton funereally invested him, with wide black trowsers of the same dark stuff. But strangely crowning this ebonness was a glistening white plaited turban, the living hair braided and coiled round and round upon his head. Less swart in aspect, the companions of this figure were of that vivid, tiger-yellow complexion peculiar to some of the aboriginal natives of the Manillas; – a race notorious for a certain diabolism of subtilty, and by some honest white mariners supposed to be the paid spies and secret confidential agents on the water of the devil, their lord, whose counting-room they suppose to be elsewhere. (48.1)

Perhaps the most disturbing racial stereotype in Moby-Dick is the presentation of Fedallah, the Persian fire-worshipper who becomes Ahab’s diabolical shadow. Although the novel shows the fraternal humanity of black men, Native American men, Pacific Island men, Irishmen, Italians, Nantucketers, Chinese men, Frenchmen and many others, it somehow can’t extend that fraternity to all men without restrictions. Someone always has to get left out and turned into the scary Other.

[T]he sight of little Flask mounted upon gigantic Daggoo was yet more curious; for sustaining himself with a cool, indifferent, easy, unthought of, barbaric majesty, the noble n**** to every roll of the sea harmoniously rolled his fine form. On his broad back, flaxen-haired Flask seemed a snow-flake. The bearer looked nobler than the rider. Though truly vivacious, tumultuous, ostentatious little Flask would now and then stamp with impatience; but not one added heave did he thereby give to the n****’s lordly chest. So have I seen Passion and Vanity stamping the living magnanimous earth, but the earth did not alter her tides and her seasons for that. (48.28)

In this tableau, Flask standing on Daggoo’s shoulders becomes a physical reminder of the structure created by the three white mates and the three non-white harpooneers on board the Pequod. In each case, the non-white man (whether Native American, Pacific Islander, or African) becomes merely a tool in the hands – or even under the feet – of the white man.

Chapter 93: The Castaway

In outer aspect, Pip and Dough-Boy made a match, like a black pony and a white one, of equal developments, though of dissimilar color, driven in one eccentric span. But while hapless Dough-Boy was by nature dull and torpid in his intellects, Pip, though over tender-hearted, was at bottom very bright, with that pleasant, genial, jolly brightness peculiar to his tribe; a tribe, which ever enjoy all holidays and festivities with finer, freer relish than any other race. For blacks, the year’s calendar should show naught but three hundred and sixty-five Fourth of Julys and New Year’s Days. Nor smile so, while I write that this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, panelled in king’s cabinets. But Pip loved life, and all life’s peaceable securities; so that the panic-striking business in which he had somehow unaccountably become entrapped, had most sadly blurred his brightness; though, as ere long will be seen, what was thus temporarily subdued in him, in the end was destined to be luridly illumined by strange wild fires, that fictitiously showed him off to ten times the natural lustre with which in his native Tolland County in Connecticut, he had once enlivened many a fiddler’s frolic on the green; and at melodious even-tide, with his gay ha-ha! had turned the round horizon into one star-belled tambourine. (93.3)

The implications of this passage are complex. Even while it shows us the greater humanity and more developed character of the black man in contrast to his white counterpart, it also employs the most hackneyed racial stereotypes (such as the idea that nineteenth-century African-Americans are constantly jolly and happy-go-lucky or that they all play the tambourine) to do so. Later, when Pip is contrasted with Ahab instead of with Dough-Boy, he’ll gain greater stature.

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