Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Ishmael returns to the Try Pots and attempts to get into the room he shares with Queequeg, but, although he sees through a crack in the door that Queequeg’s harpoon is inside (having been taken at some point from Mrs. Hussey during the morning), Queequeg is nowhere to be found. Ishmael goes off to find Mrs. Hussey, worried that Queequeg has disappeared or harmed himself, and Mrs. Hussey thinks that Queequeg, like the man before him, has died in his room of a harpoon wound. But Mrs. Hussey doesn’t want Ishmael to break down the door. In his haste, however, Ishmael cannot wait, and he rushes at the door, only to find Queequeg sitting quietly inside, with his wooden idol Yojo seated atop his head.
Queequeg’s serenity is remarkable, and is often a source of veneration for Ishmael. Here, Ishmael wonders how Queequeg could possibly be able to sit all alone, for an entire day, without food or water, and without human contact. But it is precisely this internal strength in Queequeg that Ishmael finds so admirable, indeed inspirational. Ishmael, for his part, is often scared of the difficulties of whaling—for example, when his whale-boat first capsizes—and he continually looks to Queequeg for guidance and support.
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Ishmael is relieved to find Queequeg there, and believes that this day of prayer, his “Ramadan,” or fast, cannot last much longer. Queequeg is unresponsive to Ishmael’s questions, and Ishmael goes down to dinner, coming back to find Queequeg in the same position. Queequeg still will not respond to Ishmael or even acknowledge his presence, and Ishmael goes to sleep, at last convincing Queequeg to listen to him. Queequeg ceases his fast and pays attention to Ishmael as the latter delivers a speech on religious custom. Ishmael says he has no reason to make fun of Queequeg’s religious rite, but he continues that fasting itself is bad for the body, and that all religious rites are somewhat silly if taken to extremes.
Another important piece of wisdom, derived by Ishmael from his experiences with Queequeg. Here, Ishmael realizes a principle that would now be called the moral relativity of religions—the idea that religious custom itself varies across the world, and that these variations might seem strange to parties outside the religion, even as they are perfectly normal to the religion’s adherents. Ishmael slowly learns more about himself, his friend Queequeg, and about the wider world as the novel continues.
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Queequeg does not understand much of Ishmael’s speech, however, and when Ishmael asks if Queequeg’s stomach ever becomes upset after a fast, Queequeg responds that, when his village kills many enemies in a fight and eats them in large numbers after the battle, no one, even those eating lots of human flesh, ever has stomach trouble. Ishmael finds this story strange and unnerving, but nevertheless falls asleep with Queequeg, and in the morning, both eat a large breakfast, leave the Try Pots, and make their way to the Pequod, to begin their voyage.
Here, however, Ishmael has a bit more trouble understanding a simply “relativistic” difference between Queequeg and himself—Ishmael would never eat human flesh. Melville clearly delights in the portrayal of Queequeg as a cannibal, but as a “kind” one, who would only eat his enemies in battle—never his friends. It is further humorous—and illustrative of the divide in understanding between Queequeg and Ishmael—that Queequeg sees fit to explain that cannibalism never leads to stomach trouble, as if that was Ishmael's concern about it.
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Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
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