On his deathbed, Queequeg asks the ship’s carpenter to fashion him a burial canoe. So fashioned, Queequeg demands to lay himself the length of it, testing its virtue. Then, having abruptly remembered something he’d forgotten to do, he decides not to die after all and rises from the grave.

“With a wild whimsiness,” Melville tells us, “he now used his coffin for a sea-chest; and emptying into it his canvas bag of clothes, set them in order there” (690).

Many spare hours he spent, in carving the lid with all manner of grotesque figures and drawings; and it seemed that hereby he was striving, in his rude way, to copy parts of the twisted tattooing on his body. And this tattooing, had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last. And this thought it must have been which suggested to Ahab that wild exclamation of his, when one morning turning away from surveying poor Queequeg – “Oh, devilish tantalization of the gods!” (690-691)

Some departed prophet and seer of my own island left, tattooed round the circumference of my flesh, a spiraling revelation, a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth, a riddle in my own proper person to unfold, a book inscribed in my flesh. He came and went before I arrived.

Now I spend my days outfitting my coffin and carving its lid, in my own rude way, with rough copies of what hieroglyphs I can, by craning my neck, see.


Herman Melville, Moby Dick or the Whale (New York: The Modern Library, 1992).

3 comments for “Tattooed

  1. Howard
    April 30, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    Very nice!

  2. May 1, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Excellent, Adam. I’d forgotten this excerpt, and wouldn’t have thought to apply it to us in general.

  3. stacey
    May 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    “To reflect that each one who enters imagines himself to be the first to enter whereas he is always the last term of a preceding series even if the first term of a succeeding one, each imagining himself to be first, last, only and alone whereas he is neither first nor last nor only nor alone in a series originating in and repeated to infinity.”

    The trope of Adam goes everywhere and nowhere.

    The coffin, through its mutations, becomes a buoy.

    The conclusion: ones apparent decline (sin, etc) becomes ones salvation.

    The drop of one is the rise of another.

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