The coffin was introduced in the very first paragraph of the novel by Ishmael,
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (3).This shows the obvious importance the coffin is going to play and that it has a great importance to Ishmael, we can especially conclude this because one of the main meanings of the coffin is Queequeg himself, in which Ishmael comes to adore. We can thank Peter Coffin for bringing Ishmael and Queequeg together. When Ishmael first encounters Queequeg the very first thing Ishmael says is "Landlord, for God's sake, Peter Coffin!" shouted I. "Landlord! Watch! Coffin! Angels! save me!" (26). With just this initial statement from Ishmael and after knowing what is going to eventually happen, you can see this as a foreshadowing to the end and a meaning for Queequeg. That Queequeg becomes Ishmael’s savior and guardian angel.
During the episode of Queequeg feeling as if he were dying he requested a coffin to be made for him. He then strangely made the coffin his deathbed as well, and after laying in there for a little while he suddenly “changed his mind about dying: he could not die yet, he averred” (523). It is if from laying in this coffin it embodied Queequeg with a new gust of life, which is very opposite from the very deathly image the coffin gives someone while lying in it. This shows that this coffin is not to be taken literal. At the end of the novel, the contrast of life and death is shown through Queequeg’s coffin after he suggests that his coffin be transfromed into a life-buoy.
By Queequeg suggesting to create his coffin into a life-buoy is what saves Ishmael's life. Ishmael was on the verge of joining his fellow shipmates in death when surprisingly “the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side” (625). Knowing the relationship Queequeg and Ishmael had with each other and knowing that the coffin represents Queequeg, this is more or less a romantic way for Queequeg to save Ishmaels life even after he is dead acting as his guardian angel as he floats to shore. “The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks”; I believe this was Queequeg’s markings engraved on the coffin keeping Ishmael safe from predators (625). This once coffin, now Queequeg life-buoy, was Ishmaels only hope for life. And this coffin is the reason the story of Moby-Dick is forever more immortally preserved.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 1992.