Summary and Analysis
Ishmael awakens first on Sunday morning and has time to observe the various tattoos on Queequeg's huge arm and face. The narrator wonders what sort of pagan he has for a bunkmate. When the harpooner finally stirs, however, he is thoughtful and kind, dressing first and leaving the room so Ishmael can have some privacy. After breakfast, Ishmael walks about New Bedford, winding up at Whaleman's Chapel where he notices numerous memorial tablets honoring men who died at sea. Ishmael thinks about death and immortality. He is a little surprised to see Queequeg in the congregation.
Under Queequeg's influence, Ishmael is opening his mind to the nature of mankind and the values to be found, if we bother to look, in people from diverse backgrounds. Initially frightened by the strange harpooner, the narrator is beginning to think of him as a friend, a more civilized man than most despite Queequeg's penchant for shaving with his harpoon and spearing the rarest steak for himself at breakfast — acts others might find barbaric even for a whaler. ("Civilized" folk in New England ate their meat well done in Melville's time and usually waited for the platter to pass.) The port city offers Ishmael more opportunities to observe people from other cultures: sailors from around the world, country dwellers, even real cannibals. He is beginning to enjoy the diversity of this world.
Ishmael and Queequeg's developing relationship is important to the allegorical concepts in the work. Initially, for example, Ishmael and Queequeg are perceived — by themselves and others — to be complete opposites: one civilized; the other a barbarian. Even the fact that Queequeg is dark and painted and Ishmael is fair seems to highlight this "oppositeness." And, in truth, the two men are opposites — in every way but the soul: If we scratch away the superficial descriptors, we see that each men is, essentially, like the other. Both are tolerant, both are decent. Both are forever helpful, and both are gentle people in an essentially brutal environment. Ishmael and Queequeg are universal characters that portray the best in man, and, as is made apparent later, they possess characteristics that Ahab lacks. Most significantly, Ishmael and Queequeg feel a love and responsibility for each other, and this is never more apparent than when Queequeg "saves" Ishmael at the end of the tale. Ahab, we will come to learn, has no connection to any other person or thing beyond the White Whale. Furthermore, he is willing to sacrifice anything (the Pequod, the profits from the successful hunts, his duty to the ship owners and his crew) and anybody, including the lives of every man aboard his vessel, for revenge.
At the chapel, Ishmael's thoughts turn to death and the question of what is important about life — what, if anything, survives after death. Because this little church primarily serves whalers, it prominently displays a number of memorial tablets honoring men killed at sea. Ishmael considers his own mortality and wonders if he will meet the fate of these men. His spirits rise, however, when he concludes that his physical self is not the real Ishmael at all. It is a shadow; and his shadow, his spirit, is his true substance. He concludes that we humans are like oysters at the bottom of the sea, limited in our view of reality. We are confused about what is important. In that frame of mind, he awaits the sermon.
counterpane an embroidered quilt, here compared to Queequeg's tattooed skin.
labyrinth an intricate network of winding passages, a maze.
ablutions washing of the body, often ritualistic.
eschewed avoided, shunned.
bumpkin an awkward or simple person from the country.
spermaceti a white, waxlike substance taken from the oil in the head of a sperm whale, used to make candles, cosmetics, or ointments.