Chapter 110, “Queequeg in his Coffin”
Queequeg becomes ill from handling the slimy caskets in the hold. He gets a fever and is laid up in his hammock for weeks. Her orders a coffin from the carpenter, asking that it be a canoe with a lid. When it is finished, he asks to be laid in it with all his possessions. The whole crew believes him to be dying. Pip in a mad speech, beats a funeral march on his tambourine.
Queequeg is so pleased with the coffin, he decides it is not time to die yet, and begins to recover. He is asked if living and dying is up to him, and he says yes, for no sickness can kill him, only a whale or something of that magnitude. When he is well, he begins to carve the coffin to look like the designs on his body and uses it as a sea chest.
Even through Queequeg’s fever, Ishmael sees “immortal health in him which could not die” (110. 472). Ishmael is able to see the underlying immortality in his friend, though on the surface, he seems to be dying of a fever.
Queequeg’s readiness to die brings out the mad poetry of Pip, who tells Queequeg to seek out little Pip when he dies, for the boy is missing. Ishmael says in “the sweetness of his lunacy” Pip “brings heavenly vouchers” (110.475). That is, Pip brings testimony of an afterlife, for he, like Queequeg, already has one foot on the other side. They are both proof of resurrection.
When Queequeg suddenly gets well, the men think he has power over death, but Queequeg knows it is not his time, for only something big can kill him, like Moby Dick, or, it is implied—Ahab: “a violent ungovernable unintelligent destroyer” (110.475)
Ishmael compares the tattooing on Queequeg’s body to hieroglyphics, “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth,” that not even he can read, for Queequeg is a “riddle” (110. 476). Queequeg’s behavior is no more strange than Ahab’s. The narrator suggests again the mystery of the universe, and that human life mirrors that unknowable mystery.