“see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them”—friendship and affinity in Moby-Dick

One theory I have about Moby-Dick is that it relies particularly heavily—as do all Melville’s other works I have read so far—on sympathy with the narrator. Ishmael pours out so much of himself into his book that if you don’t like him much, I can understand why you might not like the novel.

Of course, if you do like Ishmael—and I do, I love him dearly, I want to join him to “try pot-luck at the Try Pots” and treat him to a flip and some chowder (cod, please)—if you like him, how can you help but love his work? I would say his whole soul is in that book, but one of the things he teaches is that his whole soul is nowhere but trapped in his “fleshly tabernacle.” But that’s getting ahead of myself; that’s a topic for tomorrow.

One of the other things Ishmael teaches is that liking or not liking him, or anyone, is such a hard thing to pin down or predict. Affinities are mysterious things, and not necessarily based on taste, or on having things in common, at least tangible ones. When Ishmael descends to breakfast at the Spouter-Inn, after his first night with Queequeg, he “was expecting to hear some good stories about whaling” at a table full of whalemen, but alas, “nearly every man maintained a profound silence.”

Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking; and yet, here they sat at a social breakfast-table—all of the same calling, all of kindred tastes—looking round as sheepishly at each other as though they had never been out of sight of some sheepfold among the Green Mountains.

These men should be friends, or at least friendly, but they keep themselves isolated and quiet, just as in the Whaleman’s Chapel “[e]ach silent worshipper seemed purposely sitting apart from the other, as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable,” despite the fact that all their griefs had the same stem.

Affinities do exist, though, and in the strangest places: Ishmael’s bosom friend is the tattooed and “peculiar” Queequeg. “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world,” Ishmael begins to think, and his companion “seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him.”

This, I believe, is the key: “naturally and unbiddenly.” And it’s the key to more than just simple friendship, as important as that is. It also plays a great part in Melville’s humanistic and republican politics. Though Ishmael generally feels alone and isolated in the world, and sometimes feels hatred or a general negativity toward humanity taken as a mass, other individuals are wondrous beings, just as he is, and there is always at least the possibility of that natural affinity that will truly bring them together, as when “from that hour I clove to Queequeg like a barnacle; yea, till poor Queequeg took his last long dive.” Since that affinity doesn’t exist everywhere, we should all leave each other alone as best we can, not pretending our interests or cares coincide. But in this “joint-stock world,” all the same, the right thing to do is to help when needed, and remember that “in any meridian” we are all equal and equally deserving of such help.

There is, of course, much to be made of the fact that Ishmael’s bosom friend is such an outsider—as he is himself—but their relationship reminds me more than anything of Taji’s relationship with Jarl in Mardi. And Ishmael’s remarking Queequeg’s tattooing, which turns out not to be such an impediment to understanding, has clear roots in Typee, where Tommo desperately feared being tattooed and often could not read the countenances of those who were. Queequeg’s own personal history of nobility in the South Seas also seems a nod to Mardi, or at least some little remnant of it, many of which are strewn throughout Moby-Dick.

2 comments to “see how elastic our stiff prejudices grow when love once comes to bend them”—friendship and affinity in Moby-Dick

  • Excellent post! Looking forward to tomorrow’s thoughts on fleshly tabernacles.

  • Thank you! To clarify, today we’ll be looking more at his “whole soul” than his “fleshly tabernacle.” Boy, I could really do a whole other series of posts…next time!!