Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Ishmael and Queequeg approach the Pequod, Peleg and Bildad, from the wigwam, exclaim that they wish Ishmael had told them that Queequeg is a “heathen,” and that all “heathens” who ship out on a whaling vessel from Nantucket must show paperwork proving they have converted to Christianity. To this, Ishmael counters that Queequeg is a member of the “First Congregational Church,” and when Bildad asks if this is the First Congregational in Nantucket, Ishmael replies that Queequeg is instead a member of the universal church of “believers,” and that this qualifies him as well as anyone to ship on the vessel. This appears to convince Peleg, especially after Queequeg demonstrates his accuracy with the harpoon by throwing it directly at a small speck in the water, from the deck.
Ishmael attempts to show Peleg and Bildad what he has learned about the “oneness” of man’s religions—that, so long as man prays to a higher power, it does not really matter whether this power is called the Christian God or the God of some other religious group. It is not clear the extent to which Peleg and Bildad actually believe in Ishmael’s explanation, but they apparently want Queequeg as a member of the ship’s crew, and so are willing to pretend that his “Christian” faith is satisfactory.
Themes
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Nature and Man Theme Icon
Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
But Bildad persists in wanting Queequeg to convert the Christianity, pressing into his hand a religious tract in English, which Queequeg cannot read, even after Queequeg has “signed” his ship documents by putting his “mark” underneath his name, as written by Peleg. When Bildad continues bringing up the subject of Christian providence, and how God’s help has aided the Pequod on numerous voyages, Peleg contests Bildad, saying that Peleg himself and Ahab’s desire to avoid death kept the ship afloat during previous misadventures at sea—and that God’s “desire” for the ship had nothing to do with it. But Bildad mumbles about Providence to himself as he walks away from Peleg, Ishmael, and Queequeg.
It was apparently rather common in the 1800s for people to sign with “marks,” rather than with signatures, especially if those signers were not able to write their own names—and this was more common than one might imagine. Although there is a long line of legal basis for signing “by mark,” here Bildad wonders if they haven’t made a mistake allowing a “pagan” onto the vessel. The disagreement between Bildad and Peleg about whether God cares about the ship is indicative of larger debates about God and God's interaction (or lack thereof) with the world.
Themes
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon
Fate and Free Will Theme Icon
Nature and Man Theme Icon
Race, Fellowship, and Enslavement Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon