Where the Skin Meets
Queerness and Disavowal in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick
Over the last half century, the analysis of homoerotic themes present in the author’s novels has been a particularly generative subset of Melville studies. Among this body of research, the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick has proven to be a compelling avenue of research regarding modes of queer representation in an historical period wherein the open discussion of homosexuality was viewed as anywhere from taboo to illegal. This paper builds on the work of other Melville scholars, such as Caleb Crain and Kellen Bolt, in examining the ways in which 19th century ideas of race intersect with the representation of an eroticized male relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. I suggest that the particular lens of racialized eroticism through which 19th century white observers viewed Polynesian men inherently denies the potential for disavowal of same-gender attraction to the non-White subject. This denial necessarily reifies racial hierarchy by giving a White male participant in a homoerotic relationship the ability to dictate its boundaries. I argue that even if, as Bolt suggests, Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg represents a rejection of 19th century American nativist sentiment, Ishmael retains the ability to distance himself from accusations of homoeroticism in a way that is not possible for Queequeg and his exoticized body. I conclude with an exploration of how the Victorian freak-show archetype of the tattooed man connects with Ishmael’s decision to tattoo himself and thus voluntary take on racializing signifiers within his contemporary context.
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