Friday, March 18, 2011

Queequeg's Coffin

Moby-Dick contains an exuberant amount of symbols, with most of them having more than one meaning. I want to explore the meaning of the coffin but more explicitly the meaning of Queequeg’s coffin. In general the coffin represents death, but also a place to house the dead; to give the dead a home for their mortal body. This is what I would guess most people would first think when the word coffin enters their mind. Moby-Dick gives the term “coffin” several meanings in which I believe all of them relate to Queequeg in some way. In the novel coffin means death as well as life. The contrast of life and death was shown through Ahab walking along the deck; “his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap” (254). Another general meaning for the coffin in the novel is immortality. As Ahab gets excited about Queequeg‘s coffin being converted into a life-buoy he states, “Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortality-preserver!” (575). While the coffin has meanings that relate to Queequeg, I want to point out how I feel the coffin represents Queequeg as well. “Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body” (524). By Queequeg inscribing the same markings onto the coffin that were found on his very own body enabled the coffin to symbolize Queequeg and more or less his legacy.

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.


  1. This displays very good attention to detail. That's by far the most obvious thing here. Especially after reading it through once, I feel like the beginning could have been better organized; for instance, the initial moment with Ahab seems out of place, in an essay which is pretty strongly focused on Quequeeg and Ishmael, really.

    Most of this was exactly what I expected from an essay about coffins in MD - but not quite (this is a good thing). Your shift to the coffin-as-life-preserver at the end is strong and well developed, but beyond that it includes something really surprising - the idea that Q's "coffin" has a kind of supernatural protective power. While this supposition isn't easy to prove, the language you remind us of goes pretty far toward making the idea seem reasonable.

    If you revise this, you'll need to find a way to broaden your focus a little. I imagine there are ways of applying these insights to Queequeg and Ishmael's relationship a little more broadly. A more developed discussion of the tattoos? A broadening of the coffin to include, say, the bed they sleep in at the beginning? More about the sharks (that would actually be a different way to broaden it)?

    Your focus is actually tight enough that I don't think you could narrow it; it's better broadened.

  2. I think you might benefit from exploring more of the implications of coffins being used as such a symbol. We know that there is a larger meaning to them, you explain where they appear and should take on a larger meaning, but I feel as though I need a portion of this entry to deal with what it means for Melville to use coffins in the way he does.

    This definitely feels like a fairly comprehensive account of the meaningful appearances of coffins in the novel, and I don't feel at all as though it lacks instances where coffins are used. Nice job on that front!