Sex and the Sea: A Close Reading of Moby Dick

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
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Sex and the Sea: A Close Reading of Moby Dick

Student Contributor

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick is fraught with sexual imagery. The elaborate descriptions with which the author establishes his indulgent style of writing aptly reflect the often indulgent behaviors of the characters. Melville's choice of words is loaded with sensuality. This is most noticeable in the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. The evolution of their relationship throughout the text associates homosexuality with negative consequences. As the book progresses their interactions become increasingly more erotic. This negativity culminates with the death of Queequeg. Thus, intimate relationships between men are negatively depicted through a range of literary devices. The subject matter is reflective of Melville's attempt to construct a social commentary about homosexuality.

This story is a vehicle to express something entirely unrelated to the surface meanings. Sexual references are often disguised by Melville's clever use of diction. Such references take many forms in the text but become most evident in Melville's description of a scene. Chapter 94, A Squeeze of the Hand, is illustrative of this. Melville writes, "I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes" (322-323). The word "sperm" is short for spermatozoon, a mature male reproductive cell. The word appropriately symbolizes the all male crew by referring to the biological essence of masculinity. Therefore, the language used here is symbolic. In this context the sperm represents the men and makes the passage serve as a metaphor for an intimate act.

Melville transcends metaphorical language when he speaks about the men squeezing each others' hands. The author's choice to discuss hands, as opposed to another body part, is intentional. In this instance their hands act as a metonymy for the rest of the body. The men are participating in something physical in a situation which reminds the reader of the sexual ways in which the body functions. By focusing on the hands rather than a more overtly sexual part of the body Melville is able to catch the reader's attention and make them notice that the way "hand" functions in this passage is unusual. Melville uses pleasurable words to describe this experience and calls it an "avocation," or something done in addition to a principal occupation, especially for pleasure. The term "avocation" confirms the lusty tone that the beginning of the passage constructs.

At the conclusion of this paragraph Melville states, "Why should we longer cherish any social acerbities...let us all squeeze ourselves into each other" (323). "Acerbity" means something sour or bitter in taste. Figuratively speaking, Ishmael could be referring to something broad such as the confinement of social norms that would prohibit him from freely engaging in this behavior. This attitude is a foreshadowing of Queequeg's death. By leading up to his death with a discussion of such an intimate interaction Melville makes it seems as if the events had causation. However when literally used, the word "acerbity" takes on a different meaning by directly tying back to the state of the sperm. The term "social" effectively modifies the term "acerbity." Pairing these words assigns them a more sexual connotation than if they had appeared alone. "Social" functions as a simile for the physical or sexual because of its interactive connotation. The phrase is an apostrophe since it seems as if Ishmael is speaking to someone who is not there. Interpreted this way, it is as if Ishmael is asking why the act of sex is so pleasurable. This is where it becomes most apparent that Melville is speaking through Ishmael because the line directly addresses Melville's greater purpose. Melville intelligently follows this line with a more obvious reference to sex. The phrase "squeeze ourselves into each other" is overtly visual and immediately inspires a physical, penetrative image. Upon considering the prior interpretation of the phrase "social acerbity" it seems logical that the act of squeezing into one another means sodomy.

Even the chapter titles are laced with double meanings. Chapter 11, which is appropriately titled Nightgown, provides the quintessential example of this relationship. The title foreshadows the event which is about to transpire by providing the context. Since nightgowns are not intended to be worn by men the title holds a negative connotation in that the word "nightgown" is defined as a loose gown worn in bed by women or children. By connecting the men to women the term is emasculating, and renders them childlike. Given the lesser status of women relative to men throughout history this title sets the scene for the act that will confirm their lesser status. This title also intentionally reflects the Freudian idea that homosexuality represents immaturity because of its link with children. Melville recognizes that in life sexuality is often equated with status and intentionally plays out the consequences of this with his characters. Although it is not necessarily true that all homosexual relationship result in death, Queequeg's fate alludes to the devastating consequences of intimate same sex relationships. There is purpose behind Melville's choice of title because it reflects the same social judgments to which the scene with the sperm alludes.

The intimate, often sexual nature of this text becomes most apparent in the passages regarding the interaction between Ishmael and Queequeg. There is a homoerotic thread linking each of Ishmael's and Queequeg's interactions. Melville writes, "Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy we were" (57). "Affection" denotes a fond devotion or love. This links intent to Queequeg's movement. The physical description of the close proximity of their bodies in bed alludes to sex. Moreover, there is a rhythm to Queequeg's movements that mimics intercourse. The word "social" is sexualized in this context for the same reason it was sexualized in the previously mentioned passage. Melville ties themes using similar diction, symbolism and metaphorical language. Consequently, his message is strictly delivered in double entendres; he conceals this message with language.

Queequeg's death equates homosexual relationships with a punishing fate. The author provides a possible justification for Queequeg's fate by referencing a discriminatory society. Perhaps this is why the term "social" is of such importance throughout the book. While it serves an implicitly sexual function it also ties in the outside influence and makes it as important a factor as the men in the relationship. This pushes the relationship out of the realm of intimacy and debases it. It is only through the outcome of their relationship that we are reminded of this reality. In general, the relationship is a tragedy about an intimate same sex relationship. The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg tends to transcend intimacy and approach eroticism. The views expressed in the text do not necessarily reflect the author's opinions. Rather, the text is an expression of an opinion about sexuality that does exist and that the author wishes to comment on.

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