A Heathen’s Quest


Herman Melville in his book Moby Dick, describes a number of religious quests. One of them is the quest of the harpooneer, Queequeg. He is one of the more remarkable characters in the book. I remember the first time I read the book he scared the hell out of me, and I mean that literally. He is the son of a King from a distant island. He had an ambitious soul and inside him “lurked a strong desire to see more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two.” So, what did he do? He signed on for a voyage to search for whales and spent the next 4 years with nothing but 30 whalers! It was not the most rational decision, as quests often are. He wanted to learn from Christians how to make his people still happier, “But alas the practices of the whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be miserable and wicked, infinitely more so than his father’s heathens.” So his quest was a dud. He wanted to see the world but all he saw was the men on the boat. A pretty puny world when you think about it. His quest was as misguided as Ahab’s, which I will discuss later.

Queequeg  was repeatedly called a savage, and he looked the part, but it is questionable who were the real savages on this voyage. He also said grace like the Christians. However, unlike the Christians, who looked down when they prayed, “he glanced upwards to the great Giver of all feasts.”

The reason Queequeg was so scary was that he was a cannibal covered in fearsome tattoos. Yet Queequeg said, “It’s a joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.” Of course what are joint-stock companies but places for Christian cannibals to prosper?

Queequeg respected all religions. Like Pi. Same with Ishmael, the narrator,  who said,

“I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor landed merely on account of the inordinate possession yet owned and rented in his name.”


What could be more absurd than worshipping a man for the wealth and property he had accumulated, but in the United States that is a very common practice.

This was Ishmael’s conclusion about that, “Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all someone dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

Ishmael was asked by the owner of the ship why he wanted to go whaling.  A fair question. Ishmael answered, absurdly, “I want to see what whaling is. I want to see the world.” This made no sense, because the voyage entailed being on a boat for 3 years or more and seeing very little of the world except the ship called the Pequod and the 30 men onboard. Captain Peleg, one of the owners asked Ishmael. “are thou the man to pitch a harpoon down a live whale’s throat, and then jump after it?” He might as well have asked, “Are you mad enough to go whaling?”  Are you crazy enough to go on such a quest? There were people on this trip who were that mad.


Peleg, along with Bildad, another one of the major owners was a Quaker. But not your ordinary Quaker. “They are fighting Quakers: they are Quakers with a vengeance.” That should have told Ishmael all he needed to know to avoid this voyage. This was a quest of heathens.

The heathen cannibal, Queequeg knew better and pitied Ishmael for his ignorance. This is how Ishmael described it:

“He no doubt thought he knew a good deal more about the true religion than I did. He looked at me with a sort of condescending concern and compassion, as though he thought it a great pity that such a sensible young man should be so hopelessly lost to evangelical pagan piety.”

Who is the savage? Who is the heathen?

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