Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.
Contemplating Queequeg’s serene comportment, Ishmael develops a great respect for his new friend, noting that “[y]ou cannot hide the soul” under tattoos and appearances. Although Ishmael still thinks of Queequeg as a savage, the latter becomes, in Ishmael’s mind, “George Washington cannibalistically developed.” Ishmael makes some small gestures of friendship toward Queequeg, and the two become friendly. He admires Queequeg’s sincerity and lack of Christian “hollow courtesies.” According to the customs of Queequeg’s home, he and Queequeg are “married” after a social smoke out of the tomahawk pipe. Queequeg gives Ishmael half his belongings, and the two continue to share a bed, having many long chats. Ishmael even consents to join in Queequeg’s idol worship, explaining to his Christian readers that he is only obeying the Golden Rule, as he would hope the “savage” to join in Christian worship with him.
Queequeg and Ishmael awaken in the middle of the night. It is cold and the warmth of the bed and of their companionship is pleasant. They share a smoke, and Queequeg begins to recount his life story.
Queequeg is a native of a South Pacific island called Kokovoko, which is “not down on any map; true places never are.” The king’s son, he desired to leave the island to see the world and, he claims, to learn about Christianity. When a whaling ship stopped at Kokovoko, he sought passage but was denied a job. He stowed away on the departing ship and, through sheer persistence, was finally taken on as a whaler. He has since become a skilled harpooner. Although his father is probably dead by now, meaning that Queequeg would be king, he can never go back, because his interaction with Christianity has made him unfit to ascend his homeland’s “pure and undefiled throne.” For Queequeg, Ishmael notes, “that barbed iron [Queequeg’s harpoon] was in lieu of a scepter now.” The two plan to go to Nantucket to find a berth aboard a whaler.
Together, Ishmael and Queequeg set off for Nantucket with a wheelbarrow full of their things. The people of New Bedford stare at this white man and “savage” behaving so friendly with each other. Queequeg tells Ishmael stories about the first time that he used a wheelbarrow (he picked it up instead of wheeling it) and about a white captain who attended a wedding feast on Kokovoko and made a fool of himself. On the ferry to Nantucket, a bumpkin mimics Queequeg. Queequeg flips the man around in the air to rebuke him and is subsequently scolded by the captain. A moment later, a rope in the ferry’s rigging breaks, and the bumpkin is swept overboard as the ferry goes out of control. Queequeg takes charge of the ropes to secure the ferry and then dives into the water to save the man who has gone overboard, which wins everyone’s respect.
Ishmael digresses from the story to discuss the island of Nantucket. He details some of the legends about its founding and some of the tall tales that are told about life on the island. He notes that a Nantucketer “owns” the seas and that this “empire,” covering two-thirds of the globe, is larger than that of any country.
Ishmael and Queequeg settle at the Try-Pots for the night, an inn owned by the cousin of the Spouter-Inn’s owner. Ishmael is disturbed by an old topmast above the inn that looks ominously like a gallows. Everything on Nantucket is touched by the sea: the milk tastes of fish, and the innkeeper’s wife wears a necklace of fish vertebrae. The two friends have a supper of hearty chowder.
Charged by Yojo, Queequeg’s wooden idol, to seek a ship for the two men, Ishmael lights upon the Pequod, a ship “with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her” and “apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory.” Ishmael also calls the Pequod a “cannibal of a craft” because it is bejeweled with whale parts. On board, he makes a deal with Peleg and Bildad, the ship’s Quaker owners, who are characterized as conniving cheapskates and bitter taskmasters. Although Quakers are generally pacifists, these two have dedicated their life to the bloody slaughter of whales. Evaluating what lay Ishmael should receive (his portion of the ship’s profits and his only wages), Peleg finally gives him the 300th lay. At this time, Ishmael also learns that the ship’s captain is the mysterious Ahab, named after a wicked biblical king. Although Ahab has been moody and secretive since losing his leg in an encounter with the great white whale Moby Dick, Bildad and Peleg believe in his competence and they believe him harmless, since he has a young wife and an infant child waiting for him at home.
Returning to the inn, Ishmael allows Queequeg a day for his “Ramadan” ceremonies and then worries when his friend doesn’t answer the door in the evening. When the panicky Ishmael finally gets the door open, he finds Queequeg deep in meditation. Queequeg is unresponsive and continues to meditate until the next morning. Ishmael talks to Queequeg about the discomforts of Queequeg’s religion. The next day, after a large breakfast, they return to the Pequod.
Though the owners object at first to his paganism, Queequeg impresses them with his skill by hitting a tiny spot of tar on the water with a harpoon. They give him the ninetieth lay, “more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket.” Bildad tries to convert Queequeg to Christianity, but Peleg tells him to give up: “Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers—it takes the shark out of ’em; no harpooneer is worth a straw who ain’t pretty sharkish.” Peleg reminds Bildad that, at sea, practical concerns shove religious matters aside.
Just after signing the papers, Ishmael and Queequeg run into a scarred and deformed man named Elijah, a prophet or perhaps merely a frightening stranger, who hints to them about the peril of signing aboard Ahab’s ship. He drops references to several frightening incidents involving Ahab, but Ishmael and Queequeg disregard the man’s warnings.
Over the course of several days, the ship is provisioned for the coming voyage. Ishmael hears that Ahab’s health is improving—he is still recovering from the loss of his leg—but he and Queequeg have yet to meet the mysterious captain.
Approaching the Pequod at dawn, Ishmael thinks that he sees sailors boarding the ship and decides that the ship must be leaving at sunrise. Ishmael and Queequeg encounter Elijah again just before they board. Elijah asks Ishmael whether he saw “anything looking like men” boarding the ship; Ishmael replies that he did. The ship, however, is quiet save one old sailor, who informs them that the captain is already aboard. As the sun rises, the Pequod’s crew arrives and the ship prepares to sail.
In these chapters, a remarkably intense bond develops between Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael progresses from seeing Queequeg as a thing “hideously marred” about the face and body with tattoos to comparing Queequeg to George Washington. The two become “a cosy, loving pair” and exemplify an ideal friendship based on respect and sharing. The citizens of New Bedford, though used to seeing cannibals in their streets, are shocked by the pair’s closeness, and many of Ishmael’s comments about Queequeg are calculated to shock the nineteenth-century reader. Ishmael’s blithe acceptance and even embracing of Queequeg’s idolatry is a prime example of Melville’s attempt to provoke a reaction. Though he acknowledges that he is a Presbyterian, Ishmael refuses to insist on the correctness of his own religion, instead focusing on the unity of religions and the brotherhood of man.
Ishmael’s narrative continues to cast doubt on prejudice and dogma, both racial and religious. Ironically, Queequeg views his exposure to Christians as a contaminant that makes him unfit to rule his native people rather than a benefit or deliverance from ignorance. He disproves the prejudice of the Nantucket ferry’s passengers and captain by saving the ferry and the bumpkin who goes overboard, demonstrating that he is not a dangerous “devil.” His skill with a harpoon persuades Peleg and Bildad to ignore his religious practices and give him a berth on the Pequod. Though a Quaker, Peleg admits that religious principles are of little use at sea, where daring and attention to the tasks at hand are necessary for survival. There are limits, however, to Ishmael’s tolerance. Queequeg’s extreme abstinence during his “Ramadan” ritual provokes Ishmael to remonstrate with him—to no avail—about the folly of religious “dyspepsia,” referring to the malnourishment that he believes results from fasting.
These chapters are filled with foreshadowing and dark imagery. Elijah, who shares his name with the Old Testament prophet who foretold destruction to the biblical Ahab, tells Ishmael and Queequeg that the Pequod is doomed. Indeed, the ship itself is an emblem of death. Named after a tribe of New England Indians killed off by white settlers, it is covered in whale bones and teeth and cloaked in dark paint. Elijah’s fears seem to have some basis in fact, as he refers to incidents of bad judgment and unnecessary risk involving Ahab. Ahab himself, “desperate moody, and savage,” inspires sympathy, pity, and “a strange awe” in Ishmael. Named for the Israelite king who angers God with his worship of idols, Ahab seems an ominous figure. His obsession with the whale—a sort of perverse worship—has already injured him corporeally and spiritually, and we sense that the conflict will only heighten.