The Representation of Sexuality in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick; or: The Whale"

Seminar Paper, 2015

10 Pages, Grade: 1,7



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A short statement about sexuality and the role of women in Moby-Dick

3. The appearance of sexuality in Moby-Dick
3.1 Phallic jokes and sexual imagery
3.2 The marriage of Ishmael and Queequeg

4. The purpose of sexual references as criticism of Western society

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliographical references

1. Introduction

The story of the fatal hunt of the white whale is one of the most famous novels of Herman Melville. But it is more than just a story about whale-hunting and the monomania of a potentially mad captain. It is the foundation of numerous scholarly works and offers many possibilities of the analysis of controversial subjects, such as slavery or cannibalism. Another predominant theme is that of sexuality. Readers who occupy themselves with the book may ask themselves where in this book sexuality is supposed to be brought up, because no sexual intercourse is mentioned, there do not even appear women in the book (besides a few exceptions). This is exactly what the following paper is about. Despite the first impression a reader may have- that there is no sexuality in Moby-Dick - Melville’s novel does include a great number of sexual references, the sexual acts are just not explicitly stated. But in what way does he broach the issue of sexuality in his work Moby-Dick ?

To answer this, at first a short account of peculiar aspects about sexuality and gender that are important to understand Melville’s representation of sexuality is given, followed by a description of the different ways sexuality appears in Moby-Dick, namely sexual puns and imagery and the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, which plays a vital role in the novel. Finally, it is explained what Melville’s intention was in using this methods of including sexuality.

2. A short statement about sexuality and the role of women in Moby-Dick

What should be noted about Moby-Dick is that women do not really play a role in it. Just a few are mentioned, and those are rather dispensable. The essential roles are all occupied by males, a fact that also defines the sexuality in the novel. Sexuality is largely expressed in bonds between men, like the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, which is described in more detail later on. Thus homosexual tendencies are predominant, though the term homosexual does not necessarily have to involve sexual activity, it can simply refer to one’s desires (qtd. in Martin, Hero, Captain, Stranger 13). Homosexual has to be distinguished from homosocial, a term which describes, according to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, social bonds between people of the same sex which are often accompanied by a fear of homosexuality and lack sexual desire, though Sedgwick disagrees with the last point (1).

3. The appearance of sexuality in Moby-Dick

3.1 Phallic jokes and sexual imagery

An important instrument that is used to represent sexuality are phallic puns and symbols, as in the chapters “A Squeeze of the Hand” or “The Cassock”. Melville continuously plays with ambiguity, for example the ambiguous meaning of sperm, which describes a substance which is extracted from a whale’s head but can also mean male semen, or the scene in which Queequeg sits up in bed next to Ishmael “stiff as a pike-staff” (38), stiff either meaning that his body is still inflexible from sleeping or that he is sexually aroused. Another rather obvious example can be found in “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”, where Ishmael recounts a story of a lawyer in a case of adultery who talks about a woman that was abandoned by the man who first “harpooned” her, then was “re-harpooned” by another men and now belongs to the second man, “along with whatever harpoon might have been found sticking in her” (Melville 309). Even if this argumentation can by all means be used to refer to a whale that has been literally harpooned by a whaling ship, in this case it is self-evident that the woman was not literally harpooned, but that here the harpoon refers to the men’s genitals.

The biggest phallic pun and sexual symbol is Moby Dick himself. Not just that he is a sperm whale called Moby Dick with a phallic shape, he is also often described in a way that conveys the impression of the sexual act (qtd. in Shulman 509), as in the chapter “The Chase- Second Day” where Moby Dick breaches out of the water: “Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles or more” (Melville 415). The whales’ motion of booming upwards and the foam that is produced this way can be seen as the activity of the male genital (qtd. in Shulman 510).

As Robert Shulman points out in his work “The Serious Functions of Melville’s Phallic Jokes”, these sexual puns often seem to be used without a reason, but if scrutinized carefully an underlying criticism of Western religion, society and norms can be detected (503). As already mentioned, Melville does not explicitly state any sexual activities, but many passages in his text can be interpreted in this way. One of the chapters with the most potential to find sexual innuendos is “A Squeeze of the Hand”. Ishmael and his co-workers are squeezing the cooled down and agglutinated sperm back into fluid, whereupon Ishmael drifts of into an ecstasy triggered by the feeling of the squeezed globules:

As I sat there at my ease, cross-legged on the deck; after the bitter exertion at the windlass; under a blue tranquil sky; the ship under indolent sail, and gliding so serenely along; as I bathed my hands among those soft, gentle globules of infiltrated tissues, […] I declare to you, that for the time I lived as in a musky meadow; I forgot all about our horrible oath; in that inexpressible sperm, I washed my hand and my heart of it; I almost began to credit the old Paracelsan superstition that sperm is of rare virtue in allaying the heat of anger: while bathing in that bath, I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice, of any sort whatsoever.

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,- Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. (Melville 322f.)

This passage is a hidden indication for masturbation. By having in mind that sperm can be used in an ambiguous way, the squeezing of the sperm becomes a metaphor of male sexual self-satisfaction. First, it is Ishmael alone who masturbates, and he reaches a “suspended consciousness” with it (qtd. in Martin, Hero, Captain, Stranger 82), that means his perception is not limited to his own mind and body anymore and he “almost melt[s] into [the sperm]” (Melville 22). In his ecstasy and transcendental state Ishmael accidentally includes his co-workers in his sexual experience by squeezing their hands. This evokes such positive feelings in him that he continued to squeeze the others’ hands on purpose, thus his individual masturbation becomes mutual masturbation (qtd. in Martin, Hero, Captain, Stranger 82). Through this shared sexual experience of the men community is created and thereby a connection between the sexual and the human or social is made (qtd. in Martin, Hero, Captain, Stranger 82), accordingly sexuality plays an important role in structuring one’s societal understanding and behaviour.

In the scene under observation here Ishmael lets go of all “social acerbities” and rules, because in the time the book was written masturbation was seen as a dangerous and non-productive (i.e. that it could not produce offspring) sexuality (qtd. in Martin, Melville and Sexuality 194), and he requests his co-workers to follow the lead so that they can achieve his peaceful and joyful state, too. The sentence “[…] let us all squeeze ourselves into each other” (Melville 323) even takes it one step further and not only suggests masturbation, but sexual intercourse. Here sexuality is shown as positive, the whole passage has a rather happy and loving atmosphere because of the sexual references and celebrates comradeship. Through the sperm (i.e. sexuality), Ishmael has freed himself from the frightful oath he had sworn to Ahab and from all other evil (qtd. in Fiedler 532). Sexuality, even if contradictory to social norms, is shown as having a purifying and peace-giving effect. However, this harmonious and mutual sexuality cannot be maintained, as Robert K. Martin explains it, since it suppresses the reality (qtd. in Melville and Sexuality 195).

The chapter that follows “A Squeeze of the Hand”, “The Cassock”, contains plenty of phallic imagery as well. This is due to the fact that it is about the penis of a whale and how its foreskin is used to protect the mincer, a sailor whose task it is to chop the whale’s meat (qtd. in Melville 325). Wearing the foreskin like a cassock, the mincer reminds Ishmael of a priest. The connection of the male genital and the church is a pun in itself, since the Christian church has a rather negative attitude to sexuality. Ishmael calls the mincer a good “candidate for an archbishoprick” (Melville 325), the incorrect spelling of archbishopric is intended. The k at the end of the word serves as a wordplay (qtd. in Melville 325), because prick is a vulgar word for penis.


Excerpt out of 10 pages


The Representation of Sexuality in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick; or: The Whale"
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Sexuality, American Literature, Romanticism, American Romanticism, Representation of Sexuality
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2015, The Representation of Sexuality in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick; or: The Whale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Representation of Sexuality in Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick; or: The Whale"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free