Ishmael leaves the chapel at the end of the sermon and walks back to the Spouter Inn, where he sees Queequeg by the fire, the latter having left before the sermon’s close. Ishmael watches as Queequeg prays again to his “idol,” the small wooden god, and as Queequeg then takes up a large book, one he cannot read (since he is illiterate), and pages through it, counting 50 pages at a time before starting again with the next 50. Ishmael says to himself that Queequeg is a “noble” and “good” man, even if a cannibal and a savage, and Ishmael feels a good deal of warmth toward Queequeg for this reason.
In these earlier chapters of the novel, Ishmael does seem, on occasion, to laugh inwardly at Queequeg’s “backwardness,” as here, when Queequeg demonstrates he does not actually know how to read a book. But, later on, Queequeg will repeatedly demonstrate his prowess on a whale-ship, and Ishmael will have reason to be in awe of his friend, rather than to make fun of him—even if in gentle fashion, as in this scene.
Ishmael, wanting to be friendly with Queequeg, shows him what the words and pictures in the book signify, and Queequeg offers that the two should share a pipe, to which Ishmael agrees. Queequeg then presses his forehead against Ishmael’s and says that the two are now “bosom friends,” meaning that Queequeg would “gladly die” for Ishmael. Ishmael says that, although the two barely know one another, it seems reasonable with Queequeg, who is so open of spirit and friendly, to commit to such deep friendship so fast. Queequeg invites Ishmael to worship his small idol. Ishmael, believing it is God’s will to do the will of one’s fellow man, and that Queequeg’s will is that Ishmael worship this idol, gladly joins in the prayers to the idol, and does not consider this a violation of his Presbyterian upbringing. Queequeg also splits his money evenly with Ishmael, and Ishmael accepts it, since he has very little cash to his name. Ishmael and Queequeg get back into bed together, and Ishmael remarks that they are as comfortable in the bed, falling asleep, as would be husband and wife.
A very important scene in the novel. Ishmael appears to recognize a central religious truth about Christianity, as he interprets it. Namely, if a Christian God is a generous one, and wants man to be generous to his fellow-men, then, in this instance, Ishmael is right to allow Queequeg to practice his own religious rituals, and to do everything within his power to make his friend happy, so long as it does not compromise his own beliefs and practices. It sounds like a sensible idea, on Ishmael’s part, but in fact, if all men were to follow this principle, a great deal of human religious conflict would be avoided entirely. At this point in the novel, therefore, Ishmael reveals a remarkable openness of spirit, if also a certain naiveté, as to how others might treat those they find different, “exotic,” or “strange.”