Elizabeth Schaick 19th Century American Novel November 11, 2009
More than Friendship
Homosexuality: involving or characterized by sexual attraction between people of the same sex.
“…Queequeg embraced me, pressed his forehead against mine, and blowing out the light, we rolled over from each other, this way and that, and very soon were sleeping.” (Melville 63)
What really makes a male relationship homosexual and who has the power to label it so? When a man loves another man? When two males have sexual desire for one another? When there are no women in the picture? In the novels, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and The Last of The Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, male relationships are used in a vague way that never really have clarity of sexual orientation. These classic novels were both written in a time where the term homosexuality did not even exist. The character type was not a definition of identity like it is today. The adjective “homosexual” can define a man or a woman according to society today. This does not mean that there were not any sexual acts before the label “homosexual” was created. There are many characteristics of a few key roles in these novels that can fall into the
homosexual category. Do we have a right as readers to interpret the relationships between men as homosexual if that was not even a term during the time period of the story? Or, is it naive to continue reading the novel without paying attention to the relationships? Characters such as Ishmael and Queequeg from Moby Dick, and Hawkeye and Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans, demonstrate homosexual qualities in the way they treat one another; yet, the novels never really clarify the exact title or relationship between the two sets of gentlemen. Even though the label or definition of the men’s relationships is ambiguous, their interactions affect the novel, the characters, and their identities. Herman Melville introduces a character of mystery named Queequeg in his novel, Moby Dick. Anticipation is built up as we wait with Ishmael in the Spouter-Inn for this mysterious cannibal. “But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in the transition state-neither caterpillar nor butterfly. He was just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner.” (Melville 42) Everyone has heard about Queequeg and knows his reputation for being an intimidating creature. Ishmael finds out that he has to share a bed with this man and justifies his discontentment of this bed-buddy from the stories shared by the rest of the men in the Spouter-Inn. “As I live, these covered parts of him were checkered with the same squares as his face; his back, too, was all over the same squares; he seemed to have been in a Thirty Year’s War…It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage or other shipped aboard of a whaleman in the South Seas, and so landed in this Christian country. I quaked to think of it.” (Melville 38)
To add to the savage’s strangeness, he apparently goes everywhere carrying his most precious prize- his harpoon. His “hard core” persona and intimidating demeanor sets the reader and Ishmael up to be terrified of this man. “Upon waking the next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.” (Melville 40) Referring to the quote above, we see that he has a subtle gentleness to him. He makes small movements in the novel such as cuddling in a bed or pressing his forehead against another man’s forehead. Melville challenges the reader by dipping us into a world of uncomfortable situations; possibly, to see how open-minded we can be. There is some distinct quality in his character that oozes love…for another man: Ishmael. At the same time, it is hard to say that he has a direct passion for men in general. His acts that could be viewed as homosexual are limited to one other man. The relationship that is examined sets the mood for the book and makes the reader get used to the idea of homosexual acts. Queequeg’s confidence and openness gets rid of the stable and hierarchy indifferences that our culture today has trouble with. Their interactions affect the beginning of the novel and symbolize an invitation for the reader to step out of our comfort zone and sink into the heart of the novel. The relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is a bond that most married couples have. The trust each other, love spending time with each other, and keep and eye out for each other. Ishmael even acts as the “stubborn and worried wife” in a scene in chapter XVII.
“Despairing of him (Queequeg), therefore, I determined to go to bed and to sleep; and no doubt, before a great while, he would follow me…” (Melville 84) As Ishmael is narrating his preparation for bed, Queequeg is practicing his religious traditions for Ramadan and Ishmael gets frustrated that he cannot break him out of his concentration. There is even a hint of jealousy that spews out through Ishmael’s actions. Queequeg was not paying him the attention he “deserved.” These are only a few hints of the intricate relationship between the two men. The mystery comes when we try to define the relationship as homosexual. Either way, Melvin is very good at “testing the waters” (pun intended) in this novel. This scene shows the commitment they have to each other and sets the tone for the commitment the reader has to have when diving into this book. Ishmael’s character is very different from Queequeg’s, except for the fact that they both have endless cravings for adventure. Ishmael comes into the book with an almost suicidal attitude…which some may say is the reason he gets on the Pequod (the ship.) Ishmael is restless without a point. He doesn’t necessarily want to die, but he appears to not be afraid of death itself. He doesn’t seem to care much about anything in particular and his personality sometimes reflects the motion of waves rocking back and forth. “There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.” (Melville 136) The fact that Ishmael spends so much time on the masthead of the ship swaying back and forth, without a care in the world shows the intensity of his relationship with
Queequeg. If Ishmael doesn’t really care about anything, why is his stress constantly concerned with Queequeg? He gives Queequeg way too much attention for them to be just “pals.” Ishmael is a laid back character that does not really have vigor for life. The waves flow back and forth just as his uneventful days flow right after one another. Each day is not much different from the other, and Ishmael is okay with it. Other than whale hunting, Ishmael does not have a care in the world. This is why his care for Queequeg is particularly intriguing. At the very end of the novel, the great whale finally shows up and causes the death of the entire crew, except for Ishmael. “…Rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like man.” (Melville 432) The coffin was from a previous part of the novel. Queequeg had fallen ill, and the coffin was made for him. He ended up feeling well again and did not need it. Ironically, the coffin shows up during the last page of the novel to provide a floatation device for Ishmael when he is the only man of his crew left breathing out at sea. The coffin could be just that, but I believe that Melville is insisting yet again on the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael. The coffin was not only a floatation device, but a last notion of Queequeg providing a form of shelter and protection for his man. It seemed to be a comforting to Ishmael, to show him that he’s never really alone. It illustrated the connection between the two characters. The coffin could have easily been torn apart by the sharks surrounding the Pequod, but for some reason, it and Ishmael were spared. The friendship between these two men allows some potential violence leak from the scene.
Their connection and identity within each other softens the brutality of the situation in the novel. The memory of Queequeg and the survival of Ishmael together definitely should not go unnoticed. It is vital to Melville to stress their relationship, even to the last paragraph of the Moby Dick. There was without a doubt a strong and passionate love between the two characters in the novel that Melville illustrated through each other’s actions. Homosexual or not, it was real. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper is another novel that consists of characters and their relationships with one another. There are two main female characters in the mix, but the main relationship at hand has to do with two characters with the names of Hawkeye and Chingachgook’s. Hawkeye is a White man who grew up in an Indian family and adopted their practices. “ ‘I am not a prejudiced man, nor one who vaunts himself on his natural privileges, though the worst enemy I have on earth, and he is an Iroquois, daren’t deny that I am genuine white.’” (Cooper 25) This is the beginning of Hawkeye’s speech about how proud he is to be uncivilized and have no cross (burden). Hawkeye chooses to live with the Indians- a choice that may be influenced by one man named Chingachgook’s, who is his non-blood Indian brother. Hawkeye has this “alpha male” characteristic about him and is both the connection and partition between the White man and nature. His skin color connects him with the White men that come to invade the forest, but his Indian upbringing provides the connection to his habitation in nature. Hawkeye and Queequeg have similarities because of the way they use their power and have a reputation. Yes, both of them are intimidating and defined by their strength, but they both have a love for another man in the stories.
Chingachgook is close to age with Hawkeye and his only “brother.” Their Indian family is all that they have. However, since Hawkeye is physically White, and Chingachgook is of Indian descent, they are not real brothers. The intentional relationship between the two tends to go a bit further than the simple love and brotherhood. There is a subtle attraction between the two men that is underlined in the text. Hawkeye desires to be as keen as the Indians in the story. He wants to have the instincts of an Indian, but still own his independence. Chingachgook not only is his brother, but one who is the essence of nature. Chingachgook can be compared to a great human animal and a slice of uncorrupted nature at its finest. Both men have distinct characteristics that define who they are, and with each characteristic comes respect as well. Hawkeye respects Chingachgook probably more than any other character in the novel and vice versa. This level of respect may deepen the bond they have for one another. These traits that are exchanged through the characters also reflect on the novel itself. Throughout the novel the identities of the characters show passion and respect for the land and the frontier. The other interesting factor in all of this is, the fact that both Hawkeye and Chingachgook go most of their lives wandering around the forest hunting and enjoying each other’s company. Then, the one day that they stumble upon two of the main female characters, which are-to everyone else-beauties, it does not even phase them. For most straight men, going years and years without seeing a woman would be like taking away all forms of literature from English professors. I have three male friends that just finished up biking across the United States, meaning they spent day and night eating, biking, and sleeping together. The minute they encountered a woman, it was if they had never seen one before and their urge to pounce was far from hidden.
In the same way, the fact that both Hawkeye and Chingachgook are not even a bit intrigued by the two female characters in the novel points again in to the direction of their homosexuality. One would think that the female anatomy in its beauty would capture a man, especially a man who hasn’t has that much interaction with one. To a heterosexual man, I would assume the curiosity of a woman and her beauty would trump the friendship and or desire for another man. This is not necessarily the case for Hawkeye and Chingachgook. Cooper hints at the fact that the two men are sometimes even annoyed with the fact that the women are along for the journey. This notion of commitment and trust comes about again, just as in Moby Dick. The characters are committed to each other just as the reader has to understand the theme of commitment throughout the novel. Hawkeye and Chingachgook’s interactions with each other affect the novel and shape the plot. The Last of the Mohicans finishes with many deaths. One of the characters that is lost is Uncas, who is Chingachgook’s real birth son. The actions of Hawkeye during his death give even more evidence to the queer relationship. “‘No, no,’ cried Hawkeye, who had been gazing with a yearning look at the rigid features of his friend, with something like his own self-command…I have no kin, and I may also say, like, you, no people. He was your son, and a redskin by nature; and it may be that your blood was nearer--but if ever I forgot the lad who has so often fou’t at my side in war, and slept at my side in peace, may He who made us all, whatever may be our color or our gifts, forget me! The boy has left us for a time; but, Sagamore, you are not alone.’” (Cooper 406) To some, these may be just kind words to a father that just lost his son, but I read them as words of hurt. Hawkeye and Chingachgook lost a son who idolized them both and was a good companion. Hawkeye sympathizes with Chingachgook and tries to consol him the best he can. The hurt that seeps through the words clearly illustrates the
pain in his heart. Even though their friendship does not necessarily take away from the violent acts as in Moby Dick, it still gives the reader something to hold on to, and leaves a little hope in the end. The interactions between the characters affect the novel and support its theme. The way the characters act towards each other also develop the integrity and personality of the character. The fact that Hawkeye is there for Chingachgook in the end of the story just as Queequeg is for Ishmael, illustrates the devotion and commitment to one another. These bonds furnish the novels with elements of intense friendship and support of the male community. Did Ishmael have homosexual feelings for Queequeg? Did Hawkeye for Chingachgook? Was it just brotherly love, or did the fact that both couples slept together on a daily basis play a major role in the definition of their relationship? Both Melville and Cooper chose to address this issue enough to keep the reader curious and interested, but not thoroughly enough to make it the main focus of the novel. Whether the term “homosexuality” was created or even defined during the time these novels were written, we will never really know. The interactions of the characters have an immense impact on how the reader slips into the story, and can even make the reader feel a little more comfortable with the sometime uncomfortable subject of homosexuality. The relationships shape who the characters really are, and give the reader supporting details about the characters and their personalities. All in all, the relationships and interactions between these four characters highlight issues of intimacy, trust, and love. Homosexual or not, the male interactions in Moby Dick, and The Last of the Mohicans affect the relationships of the characters and the relationship of the reader and novel itself.
Cooper, James F. The Last of the Mohicans. New York: Bantam Dell, 1989. Print.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. Cambridge: The Riverside, 1956. Print.