The amiable Polynesian harpooner contributes significantly to the themes of friendship and diversity in the novel. Although Queequeg is a heathen, by Christian definition, Ishmael increasingly notices the man's independent dignity, good heart, extraordinary courage, and generous spirit. Queequeg's body is covered with tattoos, and Ishmael initially assumes that the aborigine must be a cannibal. He soon learns that his new friend is one of the most civilized men that he has ever met. As Ishmael concludes, "You cannot hide the soul" (Chapter 10).
Born a prince, Queequeg gave up a life of ease on his native island, Kokovoko, when he stole aboard a visiting whaling ship and insisted on joining the crew. His purpose was to experience the world of which he had only heard stories. Ishmael, too, wants to see the world. What they discover is that a man's soul is more important than his appearance or even his religion.
Ishmael has sensed his friend's noble spirit. In fact, almost immediately Ishmael recognizes Queequeg's noble character, noting that he "treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness." Queequeg is a synthesis of all racial and ethnic characteristics; that is, he is a symbol of all mankind. His signature is the symbol for infinity.
Although the theme of friendship receives less consideration once the Pequod sails, Queequeg indirectly saves Ishmael's life. Twice, the harpooner rescues men from drowning — a bumpkin who has been mocking him and Tashtego, another harpooner. While working in the hold of the ship, Queequeg takes a fever. Near death, he has the ship's carpenter fashion him a coffin in the shape of a canoe, reminiscent of those on his home island. Just as everyone has given up hope, Queequeg remembers some duties left undone and decides to live a while after all. The coffin becomes his sea chest and later, caulked and pitched, the ship's life buoy. At the end of the novel, when Moby Dick sinks the Pequod, the life-buoy coffin suddenly pops to the surface, allowing Ishmael to cling to it and survive until the Rachel rescues him.