Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.
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.
The Life-Buoy's Ironic Use
As it turns out, the crew of the Delight were correct: the Pequod does find death. Ahab succeeds in finding the White Whale, which destroys the Pequod and everyone on it, except Ishmael. Ishmael survives by clinging to - you guessed it! - the life-buoy that was once Queequeg's coffin, until another crew comes along to rescue him.
Symbolism of the Coffin
When we talk about symbolism in literature, we are referring to the use of objects, or symbols, to represent ideas or themes. Queequeg's coffin is one such object, in that it ends up symbolizing life coming out of death. As Ahab once noted, it was ironic to see something that was fashioned for death be re-formed into something to be used for sustaining life. The idea that life can be sustained out of something intended for death is a theme that can be found elsewhere in Moby-Dick.
For example, the entire goal of the expedition was to pursue the White Whale, which one could argue is a mission with a high risk of death. Indeed, it results in death for nearly all of the crew. But Ishmael ends up living to tell the tale of the mission, in a sense cheating death. It is fitting that Ishmael should survive by clinging to a life-buoy that is symbolic of life coming out of death.
Queequeg's coffin was designed to hold Queequeg's dead body, but instead ended up being re-fashioned into a life-buoy and used at the end to hold up Ishmael until another ship came along to save him. This ironic use of a coffin is symbolic of the theme of life finding a way against a backdrop of death, such as Ishmael surviving when everyone else perishes.
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