One highly significant passage in the early parts of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick is the passage in Chapter 10 when Ishmael explains his attitude toward Queequeg’s worship of an idol:
I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! 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. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world. But we did not go to sleep without some little chat.
This passage is important for several reasons, including the following:
- It shows Ishmael’s open-mindedness and tolerance of other ideas – traits that distinguish him significantly from Captain Ahab.
- It shows Ishmael’s respect for other persons – again a trait that makes him quite different from Ahab.
- It shows that Ishmael is not an egotist – one more way in which he differs from Ahab.
- It shows that although Ishmael is willing to violate the letter of the law, he honors its spirit. He treats Queequeg with the kind of charity valued and commended by Christianity.
- It helps prepare us to understand that the true idolater in this book is neither Queequeg nor Ishmael but rather is Captain Ahab, who idolizes his own ego and his own selfish desires.
- It shows the value of friendship, particularly the friendship of Ahab and Queequeg, which symbolizes the kind of common human fellowship from which Ahab so thoroughly excludes himself.