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One of the dramatic highpoints of Moby-Dick, a novel that involves whirlpools, madness, and a terrifying whale, is one man’s simple decision to share a room with a stranger. By making this seemingly negligible gesture the focus of the first part of his sprawling novel, Melville suggests that life’s greatest challenges include meeting and communicating honestly with new people. This basic act is also at the center of Father Mapple’s retelling of the Jonah story, in which a man risks imprisonment and death at sea merely to shirk the responsibility of sharing God’s word with others. The dread of communication also paralyses several of the New Bedford residents Ishmael observes, from adult churchgoers to hardened, courageous sailors. The crisis over Ishmael’s rooming assignment thus introduces one of Melville’s major themes: the difficulty of knowing another human being and the human habit of avoiding honest, vulnerable interactions.
By dwelling on Ishmael’s ignorant worries about Queequeg, Melville dramatizes the common fear of befriending and conversing with a new person. Ishmael considers locking the harpooner out of his bedroom just so he, Ishmael, can avoid interacting with him. Ishmael indulges a series of baseless, prejudicial thoughts about Queequeg, from the suspicion that he’ll wave decapitated heads at him to the prissy concern that his linens will not be clean or fine. Ishmael even sets out to sleep on two benches of differing heights to shrug off the burden of making a friend. Once he is forced to spend a night with Queequeg and begins to develop an interest in him, however, Ishmael observes that “ignorance is the parent of fear”—he had worked himself into a frenzy for the sole reason that he’d never met Queequeg. The protracted saga of the rooming arrangement reinforces Melville’s idea that some men live in fear of one another, too shy to try to bridge the gaps of language or cultural background.
This sense of widespread anxiety colors Father Mapple’s interpretation of the Jonah story, in which a man goes to incredible lengths to avoid talking with his fellow men. Afraid to preach God’s word, Jonah becomes “self-condemning in his look,” for it’s easier for him to detest himself as a coward than to incur the risks of communication. Jonah lies to and even pays the captain of a ship to allow him to sail far away from his native land, because it’s less frightening to face imprisonment than to preach love and tolerance to other people. A whale swallows and almost kills Jonah before he is willing to admit to God that he dreads his duties as prophet. Again, the anxiety of communication drives a character to ludicrous extremes in the first part of the novel.
Like Jonah, several of the characters Ishmael observes demonstrate the difficulty and pain of building a community and the terror of speaking honestly and vulnerably with one’s neighbors. Having thought that courageous service on the high seas would make men eloquent and self-possessed, Ishmael is amazed at the timidity of the “whalemen” who sit together at the Spouter-Inn, united by a common passion yet unwilling to share their stories. Again, at church, he observes “each silent worshipper . . . purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.” The worshippers could alleviate some of the anguish they’re feeling by opening up to one another, but the effort is unendurable. Ishmael observes the strapping Bulkington isolated from his shipmates, unwilling to share in the pleasure of storytelling and laughter. Repeatedly, men and women succumb to the dread of revealing themselves to one another, the fear that communication will somehow wound, expose, or endanger them.
The hand wringing that precedes Ishmael’s meeting with Queequeg thus reinforces Melville’s interest in the difficulty of getting to know another person and the measures some men take to avoid meaningful interactions. Ishmael almost sacrifices several nights of sleep simply because he worries Queequeg will be an unpleasant bedfellow. Jonah sets himself on a course of destruction, merely to shirk the task of spreading God’s word in his community. Mourners and whalemen sit in silence, far apart, for the pressure to communicate is too much for them to bear. Throughout the novel, Melville recalls Ishmael’s concerns in his early scenes with Queequeg, emphasizing the courage it takes to have a simple, truthful exchange, dramatizing the anxieties and alienation of the Pequod’s wounded men.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!