Queequeg catches a chill and then a fever, "crawling about amid that dampness and slime" as he helps remove the casks from the hold. He loses weight and seems near death. Having seen canoe coffins in Nantucket that reminded him of those used on his native isle, the harpooner asks the ship's carpenter to shape him one. Trying the coffin for size, he is pleased with it but suddenly recalls some unnamed duty left undone ashore and decides to recover. Queequeg uses the coffin for a sea chest.
The story returns to the theme of death as one of the strongest of the crew becomes severely ill. As a harpooner, Queequeg is assigned responsibilities in the hold. The leaking casks are near the bottom of the lot, and he takes a fever during the search. The canoes that he saw in Nantucket, used for sailors' coffins, reminded the harpooner of a ritual among his aboriginal people. At his island home, the deceased are embalmed and placed in canoes but then set adrift to float away on the ocean and thence to the stars, the natives believing that each star is an island and the sky a continuation of the sea. Queequeg's sudden recovery seems amazing to most of the crew but not to him. For the aborigine, mere illness cannot kill a man unless he is willing to die; only a violent source such as a hurricane or a whale can destroy him.
Pip's visit to the apparently dying Queequeg touchingly illustrates the beauty of the little fellow's "madness" as he speaks of life and death as a journey and of himself and Queequeg as wanderers, perhaps lost souls. Pip asks Queequeg, "Poor rover! will ye never have done with all this weary roving? where go ye now?" The child requests a favor as he speaks of his former self in the third person: If Queequeg should pass the Antilles and find one Pip, missing long now, could he comfort him? Pip must be sad, says Pip, because he left his tambourine behind. Still, Pip was a coward and jumped from a whaleboat; he drowned long ago: "Rig-a-dig, dig, dig! . . . little Pip, he died a coward; died all a'shiver; — out upon Pip!"
Melville again has used contrast for character insight. Queequeg is very matter-of-fact, almost even comic, about death. Pip is poetic and moving, the unorthodox sentence structure of the passage indicating the child's state of mind.
tierce a forty-two gallon cask.
sinecure here, an office or position requiring little work.
nigh near in time or place.
Antilles the main island group of the West Indies, including all but the Bahamas.
hieroglyphic a picture or sign representing a word; difficult to understand.