Chapter 110: Queequeg in his Coffin

In “Queequeg in his Coffin,” Ishmael presents us with an interesting contrast between Queequeg and Pip, the black cabin-boy who earlier in the book jumped with fright out of a whale boat and was left by the crew alone in the ocean to die.

Queequeq and Pip are alike in being non-white members of the crew. They are also both given the hardest and most unpleasant labors of the ship. Queequeg’s duties are assigned because of his elevated station of harpooneer, while Pip’s duties are assigned because of the low station dictated by his race. However, as Ishmael describes Queequeg in his labors, peering down at him in the muck of the hold, you hardly get the sense that the white crew envies the task. Sure, Queequeg gets a higher pay, but he still has to do the most unpleasant and dangerous work of the ship. All three harpooneers are foreign non-whites, more respected than Pip, perhaps, but still subjugated.

Death for both Queequeg and Pip becomes a process of taking stock of what they have in the world. Queequeg has the coffin his colleagues built for him. He has the clothing and personal items he now stores in his coffin. He has Yojo. He has the heritage of a complete (though indecipherable) theory of the universe, tattooed on his body by the spiritual leader of his homeland, which he carves into the wood of his coffin. Most of all, Queequeg has the opportunity to actualize in all these ways. By contrast, the utter isolation Pip faces in death is a small echo of the isolation with which Pip faces life. Pip lives stripped of privilege, status, professional respect, community and heritage — all left ashore by unwilling ancestors on a different kind of voyage long since past.

The most significant contrast between Queequeg and Pip lies in their treatment as dying men. “Not a man of the crew but gave [Queequeg] up” on his deathbed, whereas Pip is actively abandoned to die. However, the crew visits Queequeg on his deathbed at least in part to watch for secrets of death to be revealed in the “waning savage.” Pip’s lack of heritage makes him subhuman to the crew, but Queequeg’s presence of heritage makes him an exotic. Ishmael later marvels at how quickly Queequeg rebounds from his ailment, noting how “a sick savage is almost half-well again in a day.” Perhaps Queequeg realizes that his resignation towards death is an expected part of this dynamic as Pip stands over his deathbed, celebrating how “Queequeg dies game!” Deciding not to give in to the expectation of noble savage, Queequeg chooses to recover himself and live. In health, Queequeg reclaims his death experience by carving his tattooed heritage onto his Nantucket coffin, furthering his negotiation towards counterpane.

Ch 110: Queequeg in his Coffin

Make your peace with death,
Your peace with death,
Your peace with death, Oh
Your peace with death,
And then come alive
For the rest of your days.

Listen to me:
I want to tell you ’bout a man
Who came to his endless end, Whoa!
He threw his arms around the great
Testament.
He had us build a coffin
Sound in every way
And he stepped into the rest of his days.

Make your peace with death,
Your peace with death,
Your peace with death, Oh
Your peace with death,
And then come alive
For the rest of your days.

Let me tell you, now:
The man he had his coffin filled
With all of his Earthly needs, Whoa!
And put his body with the like
Accessories.
He took his god, Yojo,
And held him to his heart,
And he rose again, a purity apart.

Make your peace with death,
Your peace with death,
Your peace with death, Oh
Your peace with death,
And then come alive
For the rest of your days.

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 10, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea February 1, 2009

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