In Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, how are Ishmael's views about religion affected by his friendship with Queequeg?   

1 Answer

vangoghfan's profile pic

vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

In Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s views about religion are affected by his friendship with Queequeg. The impact of Queequeg on Ishmael’s religious views is especially apparent at the very end of Chapter 10 (“A Bosom Friend”). After watching Queequeg worship a small black idol, Ishmael wonders if he should join his new friend in such worship, even though he thinks of himself as a “good Christian.” Ishmael reasons as follows:

But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator.

This passage is typical of the wonderful humor that permeates many of the early chapters in which Queequeg plays a major role. Ishmael paradoxically comes to the conclusion that in order to be a good Christian, he “must turn idolator.” He must, in other words, be true to the genuine spirit of Christianity rather than merely following the dry letter of the law. He must show love and respect for Queequeg, treating him as a worthy fellow human being – another creature of God. He must practice the “Golden Rule” (doing unto others as we would have others do unto us).

Melville is obviously having fun by allowing Ishmael to recount his reasoning. Ishmael clearly realizes that in some ways he is contradicting himself (how can a good Christian also be an idolator?), but the very humor of such passages illustrates the friendship and affection that underlies many of the episodes involving Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael seems to trust that a truly loving and kind God will understand his toleration of, and even his participation in, such innocent “idolatry.”

In contrast, Captain Ahab is not the sort of person to tolerate, let alone embrace, anyone else’s views unless they squarely conform to his own. Ahab engages in a form of self-idolatry that makes him far more irreligious, far less a true Christian, than Ishmael could even imagine being.