On Sharks, Christians, and Bouncers

Ishmael thinks he’s wrapped up a sweet deal for himself and his sweetheart, Queequeg. (He says they are “just friends,” but we know otherwise.) Ishmael has worked out all the details with the Pequod’s two-man human resources department—Bildad and Peleg. After an extensive interview (nothing in Moby-Dick is anything less than extensive), Bildad and Peleg hire Ishmael and agree to bring on Queequeg as well, sight unseen.

Until his sight is seen. Queequeg’s tête-to-toes tats betray him immediately as someone who diets on humans (a humanitarian). He might as well have an elbow hanging from his mouth.

Whoa, now wait one minute! Peleg says. We don’t want his kind working for us. Unless he can “show his papers.” (What is this, Arizona?)

Close. When the whaling bosses demand that you show your papers, it’s not because you look like a Mexican. It’s because you don’t look like a Christian. Queequeg clearly does not. But if he can show papers proving that he’s converted from Paganism to Christianity, they’ll allow him to board the boat.

Of course Queequeg doesn’t have papers. He’s never been baptized; why it’s as obvious as the blue paint on his face. Ishmael tries to persuade Peleg to accept him anyway. He waxes eloquently about how we are all, including Queequeg, children of God. “Every mother’s son and soul of us belong; the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of cherish us some queer crotchets no ways touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.”

Very pretty sermon, says Peleg, the bouncer. But no dice. Christianity is an exclusive club and no way are we letting your buddy in unless he has ID.

That is until Peleg espies Queequeg’s harpoon. Why that’s a mighty impressive stick you got there, he says. What did you say your name was—Quohog, Queerdog, Hedgehog? Do you know how to use that thing? “Did you ever strike a fish?”

Did Queequeg ever strike a fish? Did Melville ever write an incomprehensible sentence? To answer Peleg’s question, Queequeg points his harpoon to a spot on the water, much like Babe Ruth pointed his bat to the outfield, and hurls it directly into the spot.

“Now,” says Queequeg. “Spos-ee him [meaning the spot] whale-e eye; why, dad whale dead.”

And just like that Peleg worships Queequeg more than Jesus. He can’t sign him up fast enough. He even gives him a more lucrative contract than Ishmael’s. Bildad still has his doubts, but Peleg remains firm. “Pious harpooneers never make good voyagers,” he argues. “It takes the shark out of them.”

Unless, of course, your shark claims to be a Christian. If that happens, demand to see his papers.