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In studying the development of the early American novel, one might find it helpful to compare Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg in “Moby Dick” to Huck’s relationship with Jim in “Huckleberry Finn”. In each case, the “savage” actually humanizes and civilizes the supposedly “civilized” character. However, it is the similarities and differences in the process each author uses that the reader will find most interesting.
One similarity between the two is in the way both Melville and Twain use the relationships in question to reveal hypocrisy in society. In Huck Finn, physical appearance is the only criteria considered in determining which persons are afforded rights. No matter how immoral a white man might be, society gives him power over a highly moral black character like Jim. Furthermore, society looks unfavorably upon Pap but still gives him custody of Huck. Huck’s well-being as a child is clearly not considered to be as important to society as the preservation of Pap’s rights as a sperm donor (for he really has not earned the title “father”). Twain very effectively satirizes the complete lack of logic in decisions made by the society from the justice system to the rather blindly-followed distortions of Christianity. None of the decisions made seem to really make sense. Instead, everyone appears to follow without question the sets of arbitrary laws and rules that govern societal institutions. On the raft, Huck and Jim are able to rise above the illogical rules of society and form what would clearly be a forbidden relationship in which Jim is not only Huck’s equal but his father figure as well. Huck’s depth of compassion for Jim is what ultimately drives him to the choice to help Jim regardless of the legal and moral/religious consequences he believes that he will face. It is only after Huck is affected by Jim’s humanity that this can really occur.
The most obvious example from Moby-Dick that comes to mind to address the issue of hypocrisy in society is the treatment of wages by the ship owners, which is an echo of the hypocrisy in Father Mapple’s sermon about the sin of disobedience. Captain Bildad, who preaches that men should not store up treasure on earth, is the most in danger of hellfire because of his avarice. However, Queequeg does not seem to have a concept of this kind of greed and gives freely of what is his to Ishmael. Ishmael seems almost annoyed with Queequeg’s generosity because he has been programmed by society to think differently. In this way, Queequeg’s actions are “civil” and those taught to Ismael (society’s values) are more savage.
Another similarity is in how both authors allow the characters to leave society and create their own world on the water. Within this world, the influence of societal “values” is suppressed in favor of a logical or more practical system of values. In other words, the values of the “uncivilized” character are adopted in favor of the values of the “civilized” character in the pair. Specifically, instead of valuing a person according to something as arbitrary as outer physical appearance, practicalities such as survival skills and companionship surface as being the important factors to consider in judging a person’s worth. For example, Queequeg is described initially as strange to Ismael. His appearance, his rituals, and his manners all seem very foreign to the narrator.
In short, he would be considered “savage” by society’s standards. However, on board the Pequod, he is an essential figure with equal standing in the whaling society. When he is given trouble from the other sailors, it is the influence of the values of the society on land that causes disruption. When Queequeg jumps overboard and saves the sailor who he could have killed before the ship set sail, each man realizes the value of his presence and the need for his type of selflessness in their world.
Likewise, Jim is merely a slave in the eyes of society in Huck Finn, but he is Huck’s lifeline. Huck’s survival depends upon Jim as much as Jim’s depends upon Huck in many cases. They are not of equal worth by society’s standards, but when they are on the raft, they are equals. Huck’s difficulty in accepting this truth is always tied back to society’s influence. His beliefs in some of the things he was taught about Christianity conflict with his feelings about what he experiences when he is away from that society, which is part of what makes his decision to help Jim such a powerful one. Huck’s willingness to go to hell is interesting both in the way he views hell and in the way his lack of maturity causes him to show defiance rather than question what he was taught.
The major similarities in the two relationships in these novels can be linked to the way both authors are trying to address the problems of a dehumanized society. It is this society, which professes to be civilized, that destroys that which is civil and humane in people in favor of that which brings income or otherwise assists in leading to that ultimate end. The difference in characters such as Queequeg and Jim as opposed to the society of white, civilized America is found by looking into the soul. Humanity has not yet been torn from the “savages” the way it has been taught out of Huck and Ishmael when they begin their journeys, and so their “savage” counterparts must bring out the innate humanity in the two protagonists.
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