The two-headed whale: Bisexuality and Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

One hundred and sixty-four years ago today, on October 18, 1851, a novel called The Whale made its first appearance in London bookshops. Published by the Richard Bentley company, the novel was published about a month later in the United States under the title most people know it as today, Moby-Dick. The creation of New England author Herman Melville, Moby-Dick has emerged as perhaps the greatest ever American novel, one of the most beloved nautical adventure stories of all time, and a fascinating rumination on power, nature, the environment, God and almost anything else you can think of. The spell of Moby-Dick still enthralls us more than a century and a half later. After major film adaptations of the novel itself in 1956 and 1998, in December 2015 a new movie is coming out called In The Heart of the Sea, directed by Ron Howard, a dramatization of the sinking of the whale ship Essex in 1820, widely believed to be the real-life incident upon which Melville based Moby-Dick. To say that the novel is a treasured part of American culture is an understatement.

Moby-Dick has been examined by thousands of literary scholars for decades, and one more general rehash of the book here won’t do anyone any good. One aspect of this much-studied work, however, has been becoming more prominent in recent years, and that’s the aspect of the book’s–and Melville’s–sexuality. Strangely, even today in 2015 some people shirk from identifying Herman Melville as bisexual. A years-long discussion on Wikipedia about whether to identify Melville as bisexual rests uncomfortably on the judgment that it’s “speculation” or “not proven” (yet curiously Wikipedia does include Melville in an article listing bisexual people, and even includes his photo). As few of Melville’s letters have survived, he never specifically stated his preference and he was happily married to Elizabeth Knapp Shaw for over 40 years, evidently some find it “safer” to leave the topic alone or to give Melville the “benefit of the doubt” and assume as a default that he must have been heterosexual. As a bisexual myself, however, the sexual politics of Moby-Dick are pretty clear to me, and the debate seems pretty silly, especially given the collateral evidence that Melville did have relationships with men as well as women–most notably fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Moby-Dick is a bisexual novel, in my opinion.

This scene from the 1998 TV version of Moby Dick depicts pretty accurately the relationship between Ishmael (Henry Thomas) and Queequeg (Piripi Waretiri) described in the book.

When people go fishing (no pun intended) for homoerotic references in Moby-Dick, usually the first specimen hauled out of the water is the curious relationship between Ishmael, the narrator and protagonist, and Queequeg, the “cannibal” harpooner with whom Ishmael sleeps in a boarding house in Nantucket before they ship out on the Pequod. There’s a lengthy description of Ishmael’s feelings when he wakes up in bed with Queequeg’s arm around him (it’s in Chapter 4), and the references to sex acts between them are no more or less opaque or figurative than they are in any other 19th century novel that wishes to communicate, without using explicit language, that two characters are sexually involved. More than this, though, the whole “vibe” of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg is heavily homoerotic. By 1998, when the highly underrated USA TV miniseries of Moby-Dick was made–with Star Trek veteran Patrick Stewart playing the most mesmerizing Captain Ahab you can imagine–societal attitudes toward sexuality had changed enough to make the Ishmael-Queequeg relationship pretty clear, and it works well on film, with Ishmael portrayed by former E.T. child star Henry Thomas as a little bit androgynous, and Ishmael by burly, long-haired Maori actor Piripi Waretini. The 1956 film version with Gregory Peck as Ahab never dared to go there.

Furthermore, the gender dynamics of the little world in which Moby-Dick takes place are much more consistent with bisexuality than with a rigidly-defined heteronormative environment. Bisexuality confuses people because it’s not a sexual identity in the same way that heterosexuality and homosexuality are; in fact heterosexuals and homosexuals have more in common with each other than either do with bisexuals. Bisexuality is not so much “I like men and I like women,” but rather the simple absence of any particular sexual preference. If gender is largely irrelevant in one’s sexual partners, gender becomes less relevant in other spheres as well. Aboard the Pequod, a totally male environment, there is only one gender. Crew members, notably first mate Starbuck and deranged Captain Ahab, have wives back home, but they exist primarily on an abstract level. (Neither Ahab’s nor Starbuck’s wives are given names in the book, interestingly). As a practical matter sexuality becomes much more fluid in a single-gender environment. Even the whale, Moby Dick, is universally regarded as male. We don’t even need to discuss the whale’s name (while I don’t know for sure I doubt that “dick” had yet emerged as a slang term for “penis” in the 1850s) or the fact that it’s a sperm whale, and the whole economic point of the voyage is the extraction of the spermaceti from these whales, which despite its name is not related to reproduction, but certainly modern audiences will read these details as pertaining to maleness.

Moby-Dick continues to fascinate us today. Here is the latest movie related to it, depicting the real events upon which the novel is supposedly based.

The whole environment of seafaring is quite well connected with bisexuality–more so, I think, than homosexuality. For centuries, and even today, crews of merchant and naval vessels have been overwhelmingly male. At the time of Moby-Dick whalers were often away on voyages lasting two or three years. Human nature makes it difficult to imagine boatloads of men, many of them teenagers or not much older, remaining totally chaste for years on end when packed in close quarters and under social conditions that foster bonding and the formation of relationships. When they get back to shore, though–back in a two-gender environment–male sailors returned to their wives and sweethearts quite naturally. Melville himself had experience with this. He took to sea on a whale ship, the Achuschet, in January 1841 for an 18-month voyage that ended with his desertion in the summer of 1842 in the South Pacific. It’s pretty likely that he had relationships with men while at sea, and if his first book Typee, which he said was semi-autobiographical, is to be believed, he had a torrid love affair with a Pacific Island woman in 1842. He finally married his wife, Elizabeth, in 1847 and they had four children. Melville moves through different gender and sexual environments very easily and fluidly–just as many bisexuals do.

Bisexuality is a fact of human nature, and it always has been. It stands to reason that it has been, and will continue to be, reflected in literature for as long as authors seek to mirror the human experience through writing and words. Far from being ashamed of it or hiding it for fear of social stigma, I think it’s pretty clear that Herman Melville was perfectly secure with his sexuality and wrote about it quite frankly. Moby-Dick is a complex novel about many things, but one of those many things is sexuality. In our current era when non-heteronormative sexual identities are at last gaining the respect and recognition they’ve always deserved, this under-studied aspect of Moby-Dick should resonate with us now more than ever.

The header for this article incorporates an image taken by me (of the 1996 Tor version of Moby Dick) and public domain images.
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