Upon entering the inn, Ishmael is fascinated by a large, obscure oil painting. Eventually he decides that the subject is a ship foundering in a hurricane as a leaping whale is about to impale itself on the craft's three mastheads. After supper, finding no private beds available, Ishmael chooses to sleep on a bench, but that proves to be much too uncomfortable. Upon the urging of Mr. Coffin, the proprietor, Ishmael agrees to share a bed with a harpooner who is out attempting to sell an embalmed human head that the man obtained in the South Seas. Concerned but very weary, Ishmael retires. As he is nodding off, he is startled by the return of Queequeg, the harpooner who seems to Ishmael to be a monstrous cannibal. Queequeg is also surprised to find someone in his bed. Fearing for his life, Ishmael desperately hollers for the landlord's help.
The ominous tone continues as Ishmael enters the inn, which is compared to a condemned old ship. The narrator is quite taken by an obscure painting, a "boggy, soggy, squitchy picture" with such a confusion of shades and shadows that, for some time, Ishmael can make no sense of it. Contributing to the theme of death and foreshadowing later events in the novel, the subject seems to be a foundering ship under attack from a whale. As Ishmael's adventure continues, he will discover obscurity in many subjects, including life itself.
For this night, however, Ishmael seeks few solutions other than a hot meal and a place to sleep. Filled with meat and dumplings and unable to accommodate himself to a private bench, he accepts the landlord's suggestion that Ishmael share a bed with a harpooner.
The introduction of the harpooner Queequeg provides a comic interlude in what has been a gloomy night. Ishmael, however, is not laughing. Nor is Queequeg. Startled to find an apparent interloper in his bed, the heavily tattooed harpooner threatens homicide in a dialect that may seem stereotyped today but originally was intended to evoke humor as it adds to Ishmael's terror: "Who-e debel you? . . . you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e." Certain that he is about to be done in by a cannibal, Ishmael shouts for help. Mr. Coffin, enjoying the little trick he has pulled and confident that Queequeg is harmless, rushes in to settle the matter. Ishmael soon concludes that the harpooner is a decent, clean fellow and decides it is better to sleep with a sober cannibal than with a drunken Christian. This is just the beginning of Ishmael's understanding that the pagan Queequeg is a better man than most.
bulwarks the part of a ship's side above the deck.
Cape-Horner a ship that travels around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America.
skrimshander scrimshaw, intricate carving of whalebones.
tar here, a sailor.
obstreperously noisily, boisterously.
spliced here, joined in marriage.