Study Guide

Moby-Dick Sexuality and Sexual Identity

By Herman Melville

Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Chapter 4: The Counterpane
Ishmael

At length, by dint of much wriggling, and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt; and presently, he drew back his arm, shook himself all over like a Newfoundland dog just from the water, and sat up in bed, stiff as a pike-staff, looking at me, and rubbing his eyes as if he did not altogether remember how I came to be there, though a dim consciousness of knowing something about me seemed slowly dawning over him. Meanwhile, I lay quietly eyeing him, having no serious misgivings now, and bent upon narrowly observing so curious a creature. (4.4)

Helped along with the erotic connotations of the "wriggling" and of being "stiff as a pike-staff," this passage reads like a scene from a film in which the main character wakes up in bed next to someone he doesn’t remember sleeping with the night before.

Chapter 10: A Bosom Friend

How it is I know not; but there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg – a cosy, loving pair. (10.10)

As if describing them as "married" wasn’t obvious enough, Melville reminds us of that relationship by casting Ishmael and Queequeg as husband and wife.

Ishmael

If there yet lurked any ice of indifference towards me in the Pagan’s breast, this pleasant, genial smoke we had, soon thawed it out, and left us cronies. He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country’s phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if need should be. (10.7)

This is a cute little "lost in translation" moment. If someone clasps you to them and declares that you’re married, you usually don’t interpret that as meaning "best pals." So we’re forced to wonder whether Ishmael is correct, or telling the truth, when he says that "bosom friends" are all they are. It’s possible, of course, that that’s the real version of the story. It’s possible that Ishmael thinks that and Queequeg intends something else. And it’s possible that, well, they really are married—at least according to Queequeg’s customs.

I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which there lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a very sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn towards him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets that thus drew me. I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proved but hollow courtesy. I drew my bench near him, and made some friendly signs and hints, doing my best to talk with him meanwhile. At first he little noticed these advances; but presently, upon my referring to his last night’s hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he looked pleased, perhaps a little complimented. (10.5)

Ishmael is falling in love. We can tell it’s love because the things he was prejudiced against the night before are now things that seem really attractive. Plus, he feels better about the whole world in general. Queequeg, on the other hand, just wants to know whether it was a one-night thing or not.

Chapter 59: Squid

Almost forgetting for the moment all thoughts of Moby Dick, we now gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass, furlongs in length and breadth, of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water, innumerable long arms radiating from its centre, and curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct; but undulated there on the billows, an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life. (59.5)

Okay, we know this doesn’t seem to fit with our first four quotations on "Sexuality and Sexual Identity," which are all about the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Still, we want to point out that the giant squid in Moby-Dick, according to mega-scholar Camille Paglia, becomes a symbol of "woman’s nonstop fertility."

Paglia explains that "[t]he squid is what Melville will not let his whale become. It is the female grossness of matter, a sticky, viscous web." We think this is an argument that could really hold some water, but even if you don’t buy it, you should know about it, because it’s super-famous. (If you want to read more about it, grab Paglia’s book Sexual Personae or a copy of the Norton edition of Moby-Dick, which includes an excerpt.)

Chapter 72: The Monkey-rope
Ishmael

It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we proceed further, it must be said that the monkey-rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down to his wake. So, then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us. Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother; nor could I any way get rid of the dangerous liabilities which the hempen bond entailed. (72.3)

Once again Ishmael and Queequeg are shown united, this time literally by a rope around both their waists! As in previous passages that tried symbolically to describe their relationship, there’s a conflation between characteristics of marriage—"for better or for worse" they are "wedded"—and characteristics of fraternity—"Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother."

Chapter 94: A Squeeze of the Hand

Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy; but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti. (94.6)

Melville makes it clear that more men than just Ishmael should benefit from the ideal single-sex world depicted on the Pequod at some moments in the novel, such as during the squeezing of the spermaceti lumps.

Ishmael

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last 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. (94.5)

In this passage, the crude jokes about sperm give way to an actual moment of transcendence, in which Ishmael feels himself united with all the men around him in an erotic brotherhood. Dang.

Chapter 95: The Cassock
Ishmael

Had you stepped on board the Pequod at a certain juncture of this post-mortemizing of the whale; and had you strolled forward nigh the windlass, pretty sure am I that you would have scanned with no small curiosity a very strange, enigmatical object, which you would have seen there, lying along lengthwise in the lee scuppers. Not the wondrous cistern in the whale’s huge head; not the prodigy of his unhinged lower jaw; not the miracle of his symmetrical tail; none of these would so surprise you, as half a glimpse of that unaccountable cone, – longer than a Kentuckian is tall, nigh a foot in diameter at the base, and jet-black as Yojo, the ebony idol of Queequeg. And an idol, indeed, it is; or, rather, in old times, its likeness was. (95.1)

Yes, this is the whale’s penis. Ishmael’s talking about the giant penis of the sperm whale. And about the phallus-worship in ancient cultures. And yes, it’s supposed to be that funny.