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Symbolism of Queequeg's Coffin

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

When Queequeg is dying toward the end of Melville's 'Moby-Dick', he asks the carpenter to make him a coffin. When Queequeg recovers, this coffin is turned into a life-buoy, becoming a symbol of life coming out of death. This lesson discusses the coffin and its symbolism.

Queequeg's Illness and the Creation of His Coffin

Late in Moby-Dick, Queequeg becomes very sick with a fever and is certain he will die. The custom at sea is for a sailor to be put into a hammock and thrown into the ocean when he dies, and Queequeg is not at all happy with the idea that this would be his fate. Instead, he would very much like a coffin like the ones used for sailors in Nantucket. These are canoes made of dark wood that remind Queequeg of the wood of his native island.

''The fancy of being so laid had much pleased him; for it was not unlike the custom of his own race, who, after embalming a dead warrior, stretched him out in his canoe, and so left him to be floated away to the starry archipelagoes.'' The carpenter on the Pequod happily puts a coffin together for Queequeg, and as soon as it is completed Queequeg makes himself comfortable inside it to prepare for the end. However, Queequeg ends up recovering, so he uses his coffin for a chest for his possessions.

Later Use of Coffin

The next time we see the coffin is in Chapter 126, when the Pequod loses its life-buoy. One of the crew had fallen in the sea, but when the life-buoy was thrown after him, it filled with water and sank - evidently it had been in the sun for too long and was no longer functional. So the crew has to come up with a way to replace it, and they decide to use Queequeg's coffin, since it was made in the shape of a canoe.

The Carpenter and Ahab on the Coffin's New Use

The ship's carpenter agrees to re-make the coffin as a life-buoy, but grumbles quite a lot about doing it. He feels that his time making the coffin for Queequeg was wasted, and that he should not be used as someone who tinkers around and fixes things up on the ship. Ahab would prefer that the carpenter just get on with his job and stop complaining about it.

At the same time, Ahab finds the irony of the situation interesting. He asks himself, ''Can it be that in some spiritual sense the coffin is, after all, but an immortaility-preserver? I'll think of that.'' Then he calls Pip to come along with him to share philosophical thoughts about the coffin and its new fate.

The Delight on the New Life-Buoy

The crew of the Pequod get used to their new life-buoy being a former coffin, but of course this strikes others as odd. For example, in Chapter 131, the crew of the Pequod meet the crew of the ship Delight - a poor name for the ship, it turns out, as they have met Moby Dick and have lost several of their sailors, one of whom they are in the process of burying.

The remaining crew members spot the life-buoy and, as the Pequod is sailing away, they hear a voice yell ominously, ''In vain, or, ye strangers, ye fly our sad burial; ye but turn us your taffrail to show us your coffin!'' This seems to suggest that, although the Pequod can sail away from the Delight as it buries another corpse, its coffin-turned-life-buoy suggests that it will sail into problems itself soon enough.

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