American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

QUEEQUEG. Queequeg is the fictional Polynesian harpooner in Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851). Acknowledging the multinational, multiracial composition of crews in the nineteenth-century American whaling industry, Melville assigned several Asian, African, and Native American characters, including Queequeg, important roles in his novel. A native of an imaginary South Pacific island, Queequeg epitomizes the “noble savage”; he is a king’s son as well as a cannibal. Despite his outlandish dress and mysterious tattoos and despite his commitment to a pagan faith, Melville assures his readers, primarily through his narrator Ishmael,* of the rare nobility of Queequeg’s character. His skills as a harpooner are superb, and he expresses a dauntless courage, a ferocious energy, and a lively dedication to the ship’s enterprise in both the hunting and the processing of whales.

Throughout Moby-Dick, however, other virtues make Queequeg a mentor and a model for young Ishmael. Repeatedly shown helping others, he acts independently, counter to self-interest or social convention, as revealed by his perilous dives, first, into the Atlantic to rescue a young man who has taunted him for his unusual appearance and, later in the novel, after the sinking head of a whale to rescue a fellow harpooner. Not only do his goodheartedness, generosity, and integrity mitigate Ishmael’s initial cynicism, but his coffin proves Ishmael’s life buoy at the novel’s conclusion.

Literary critics increasingly identify Queequeg as the hero of Moby-Dick and associate him with Melville’s vision of a nation free from slavery and racism.

Elizabeth Schultz