Moby Dick And The Counterpane Theme There is a symbolic element in every great literary work, which makes the author’s message more tangible and real to his readers. In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, one such element is the idea of the “counterpane,” or tapestry, of humanity, that is woven throughout the story as a symbol of the world’s multiculturalism. Melville develops this symbolism on at least three levels, proving that the world is indeed a counterpane of diverse cultures, races, and environments, in which we, while supremely unique individuals, are always connected by our humanity. On a grandiose scale, Melville uses the open sea as a metaphor for the world and mankind. There are many creatures that depend on the water, and then still others who depend on the creatures that depend on the water. In order for everything to be balanced, inhabitants must learn to coexist peacefully while they try to meet all of the different needs they may have.
The multiple ships that the Pequod meets during all of the gams in the story, each represented a different culture of people. For instance, the Jungfrau (or Virgin), was a ship from Germany, while the Rosebud was from France, and the Town Ho came straight out of Nantucket. Not only were the different ships different in style and accents, but their views on whaling and life were all greatly varied as well. There was also a great deal of irony in the meetings of the Pequod with the other ships. ” . .
. another homeward bound whaleman, the Town – Ho, was encountered. She was manned almost wholly by Polynesians” (Melville, 239). The ship that came from one of the most “white” places in the whaling world, was not being run by whites! The Pequod also encounters ” . .
. another ship, most miserably misnamed the Delight” (Melville, 504). The Delight had seen a tragic whaling attempt just a day prior and was now taking care of the last of the victims. ” ‘I bury, but one of five stout men, who were alive only yesterday; but were dead ere night. Only that one I bury; the rest were buried before they died; you sail upon their tomb’ ” (Melville, 504 – 505). This irony, clearly present in all the Pequod’s gams, reflects mankind.
The multiculturalism of all the different ships proved that we as humans, are all connected by the idea that sometimes we will have to rely on people we would never expect, while those we thought could survive anything are the first to be lost. ” . . . Melville’s novel becomes a conglomeration of thoughts on evil verses good, the role of fate, the tension between Christianity and paganism, in addition to a multitude of other subjects” (Chiu, 1). The crew of the Pequod is by far the most obvious counterpane in Moby Dick.
Each crew member was different in his own way and brought some diverse culture and background to the ship. The three non – white harpooners, the three mates, who were white, but each held their own different beliefs about life, and the other members of the crew, such as Fedallah, Pip, Ahab, and Ishamael, all made up one big patchwork quilt of cultures. “Swimming against the racist tide of most popular fiction, Melville invested the Pequod’s three nonwhite harpooners with the dignity of priests, kings, and princes, and relegated the three white mates, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask, to the status of cowards, knaves, and fools, substituting a hierarchy of merit for the hierarchy of privilege that puts whites in command of people of color” ( Robertson – Lorant, 281). It is interesting to see once again, how the white people on the ship, who most likely never dreamed of putting their lives in the hands of colored people, were so completely dependent on the colored members of the crew. Without the harpooners, the Pequod would have perished long before they even spotted Moby Dick. I think the prime example of this interdependency within the crew, is the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Ishmael, the stereotypical white Christian, was one of the few to accept others beliefs. His bonding with Queequeg beautifully illustrates the potential of man to live lovingly and acceptingly with his peers.
“It was a humorously perilous business for both of us. For, before we proceed any further, it must be said that the monkey rope was fast at both ends; fast to Queequeg’s broad canvas belt, and fast to my [Ishmael’s] narrow leather one. So that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. . . Queequeg was my own inseparable twin brother .
. . while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake and misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death. . .
still further pondering, I say, I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only inmost cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die. True, you may say that, by exceeding caution, you may possibly escape these and the multitudinous other evil chances of life. But handle Queequeg’s monkey – rope heedfully as I would . .
. Nor could I possibly forget that, do what I would, I only had management of one end of it.” ( Melville, 310 – 311) Along with proving that Ishmael and Queequeg were close enough that they were willing to die for each other, this passage shows how the interdependency of mankind is inevitable and how no one person can control it. ” . . .
Melville asserts that life is interwoven, whether it be one human connected to another human or one action connected to another action; everything it ultimately interdependent” (Chiu, 2). This dependency is how the Pequod functioned. Every crew member, although each individual was vastly different from the next, did their part in trying to assure the success of the Pequod. The interdependency visible on the ship, transfers over to show the counterpane of humanity. The most diverse, single character by far in Moby Dick is a “dark – complexioned harpooneer” (Melville, 33) named Queequeg.
While he remains as only one physical body, he represents a vast number of cultures all at once. He is first introduced to the reader as the man Ishmael (the narrator of the story) will have to share a bed with for the night. At their first encounter, Queequeg is portrayed as a horrifying savage and “cannibal” (Melville, 37) who seems ready and willing to attack Ishmael. ” . .
. but what to make of this head-peddling purple rascal . . . his chest and arms .
. . parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back too, was all over the same dark squares; still more, his very legs were marked . . .
It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other . . . I quaked to think of it. A peddler of heads too – perhaps the heads of his own brothers.
He might take a fancy to mine – heavens! look at that tomahawk” (Melville, 40-41)! Immediately, Queequeg is portrayed as someone to fear. However, this first impression is quickly abolished by the rapid transformation of Queequeg the savage, to Queequeg, the noble and trustworthy friend. In the chapter entitled “Biographical” (70), the reader is surprised to find that Queequeg is actually a prince, with a Christian family that included “His father . . .
a High Chief, a King; his uncle a High Priest; and on the maternal side he boasted aunts who were the wives of unconquerable warriors. There was excellent blood in his veins – royal stuff; though sadly vitiated, I fear, by the cannibal propensity he nourished in his untutored youth” (Melville, 70). Yet another culture that is rolled up into one within Queequeg, is that of the Islamic religion. He follows the Ramadan but only while worshipping an African idol. Along with his harpoon, one of the most precious belongings to Queequeg is his little “Congo baby” (Melville, 41) named Yojo.
When he is following rituals like the Ramadan for hours on end, he escapes to another world. His death – like trance is frightening to those who don’t understand what he is about; Ishmael thinks Queequeg had died before learning of this special fasting period! ” . . . there squatted Queequeg, as if he had been screwed down to the floor” (Melville, 97).
But all of these opinions form are based merely on the physical looks of his character. Despite the fact that at first glance, anyone would be terrified of this so – called cannibal, he is one of the most outgoing and positive people in the book. “He remains loyal to his friends” (Monarch Notes, 1), especially Ishmael, and his courage and nobility shines through his heroic acts. “The poor fellow whom Queequeg had handled so roughly, was swept overboard; all hands were in a panic; Queequeg, stripped to the waist, darted from the side with a long living arc of a leap. For three minutes or more he was seen swimming .
. . The poor bumpkin was restored. All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump” (Melville, 75-76). His intriguing character builds a fascinating scope of human emotions and characteristics that are unique to him, yet common to humanity.
On three different levels, Melville has offered examples of his observations on the nature of mankind. In three different scales, from the grandiose sea, to the microcosm of a single human being, he tells the epic story of a whale hunt, while artistically incorporating a myriad of subtleties that describe both the beauty and darkness of the counterpane of life. English Essays.