“The Spirit and the Dust”: Understanding Queequeg’s Death through Dickinson’s Portrayal of the Human Soul
“…Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act III, Scene 1
The concept of death and some kind of afterlife fascinates us as human beings. There is something simultaneously terrifying and thrilling about that “undiscovered country, from whose bourn / no traveler returns” which Hamlet fixates upon in his famous soliloquy. Death by definition ends the existence of a human, and yet the eternal question remains of whether or not something superhuman persists past the physical death of the human body. Emily Dickinson notably dwells on this distinction between the soul and the body, and it is through the lens of her poetry that we may begin to understand one of the more troubling deaths in Melville’s Moby Dick.
The character of Queequeg is the first member of what will be the Pequod’s crew that we meet in Moby Dick. To our narrator, Queequeg is initially terrifying and enigmatic, but as the novel progresses, Queequeg and Ishmael form an unexpected friendship. But the bond between these two characters must come to an end, and when Queequeg falls ill with a fever in the chapter “Queequeg in his Coffin,” Ishmael begins to mourn the friend he knows he is about to lose. Only, Queequeg does not actually die, or at least not yet. In one of the strangest turns of Melville’s novel, we spend an entire chapter grieving the imminent death of Queequeg, only to have him suddenly leap to his feet entirely well again just before the next chapter. But despite this miraculous revival, Queequeg’s storyline in the novel seems to end here, as we might have expected had he actually died. Then, ironically, when Queequeg does die in the end of the book, we do not even see his name among the wreck of the sinking Pequod. This rather irreverent way in which Melville kills off someone who was at one point a central character of the novel is confounding. Throughout the novel, we as readers have grown to love Queequeg, odd as he may be, and we can’t help but feel uncomfortable at the way he seems to entirely drop out of the novel after that chapter in which he defied our expectations and failed to die.
If we look more closely at the chapter “Queequeg in his Coffin,” we find Melville detailing Queequeg’s transformation from a living human to a strangely superhuman version of himself as he grows closer and closer to death. Ishmael observes Queequeg in awe, as his friend seems to transform into something wondrous and eternal:
“But as all else in him thinned, and his cheek-bones grew sharper, his eyes, nevertheless, seemed growing fuller and fuller; they become of a strange softness of lustre; and mildly but deeply looked out at you there from his sickness, a wondrous testimony to that immortal health in him which could not die, or be weakened. And like circles on the water, which, as they grow fainter, expand; so his eyes seemed rounding and rounding, like the rings of eternity…. For whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man, never yet was put into words or books. And the drawing near of Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.” p.364
Ishmael watches as Queequeg’s eyes here become “like the rings of eternity,” and our narrator attributes the full, luster of his friend’s eyes to “that immortal health in him which could not die.” In this moment, as Queequeg nears death, Ishmael notices an internal part of his friend which seems to defy the physical body. We see Queequeg nearing that “last revelation” of death, and he slowly slips away from our human world and into an immortal world of “whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man.” In this transcendence, Queequeg becomes somehow superhuman, and Ishmael cannot help but use words like immortal and eternity to describe the phenomenon. Ishmael’s narration suggests that there must be something more to humans than the physical body in which their souls reside, which becomes more and more visible the closer Queequeg is to death. Instead of death forcing Queequeg to cease to exist, the death of his physical body merely allows “whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man” to exist eternally in a different dimension than the physical world. In dying, he is transforming from a mortal human to a nonhuman version of himself which is somehow immortal.
But it is then strange that despite the miraculous transcendence Ishmael documents in this chapter, as Queequeg grows closer to death and makes peace with his fate, Queequeg does not actually die here. We work through these poignant passages of Queequeg’s eyes “rounding like the rings of eternity,” and then mere paragraphs later, he springs back to health. Melville somehow manages to make us feel frustrated at the fact that Queequeg does not die, perhaps because we’ve already emotionally prepared ourselves for what we believe to be inevitable, and we have also comforted ourselves with the knowledge that Queequeg at least seems at peace with his death.
But perhaps it is that very peace with death which Queequeg finds that makes it impossible for him to have died in this chapter. What is necessarily so concerning about death is that, more often than not, it comes without the consent of the dying. Emily Dickinson explores this notion in her poetry, particularly in the poem “Death is a dialogue between,” in which Dickinson tries to untangle the spirit and the physical body of the human, while also grappling with the often involuntary nature of death. The first stanza of the poem illustrates the conflict between Death’s demands and the will of the Spirit:
“Death is a dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust.
‘Dissolve’ says Death – The Spirit ‘Sir
I have another Trust’ –” (lines 1-4)
The notion that death is a dialogue between the Spirit of the dying and the physical body of the human (or the Biblical “Dust”) implies that perhaps the spirit and the body must be at odds with one another over the question of Death. While Death insists that the physical body of the human “dissolve” and cease to exist, the Spirit has something else in mind. This tension between the dissolving physical body and the persistent Spirit is precisely what Ishmael illustrates for us in his depiction of the ‘dying’ Queequeg: as Queequeg’s body seems to near death, we see his soul persist with more and more fervor, evidenced in those rounding eyes.
However, the way in which Queequeg actually dies complicates the notion that Queequeg’s trajectory in the novel is Melville depicting a Dickinson-like conflict between “the Spirit and the Dust.” When Queequeg dies, it is simply with the rest of the crew of the Pequod, with all the deaths lumped into one sentence: “And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.” (p.426) Here, Death indiscriminately washes away all the “animate and inanimate” inhabitants of the Pequod, and there is hardly even a moment for any kind of “dialogue between / the Spirit and the Dust” for any of the drowning characters. Instead of those eyes “rounding and rounding, like the rings of eternity,” which we saw in Queequeg earlier, we are left with nothing more than the “concentric circles” of the soulless vortex, pulling Queequeg and the others involuntarily towards Death. Here, death is not a ‘dialogue’ between Queequeg’s spirit and the fate of his physical body; instead, Death is a one-sided monologue, in which the soul of Queequeg is not even relevant enough for his name to be mentioned to the readers.
But perhaps there is a way in which Queequeg’s death in fact becomes that two-way dialogue by the end of the novel. If we continue with the Dickinson poem, the second stanza depicts a much more resilient Spirit, which defies the physical limits of Death from the ground, and somehow carries on:
“Death doubts it – Argues from the Ground –
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay.” (lines 4-8)
By the end of the poem, the Spirit has instead laid off the physical elements of the human body, here the “Dust” and “Clay,” and in doing so, turned away from Death. We are left with an immortal spirit which has separated itself from the human form, and in doing so, has made itself eternal. In the chapter “Queequeg in his Coffin,” we similarly saw Queequeg beginning that process of “laying off” his dying human body in exchange for an immortal existence as “whatever is truly wondrous and fearful in man.” And, despite the fact that Queequeg’s sudden and unexpected death at the end of the novel seems as though Death won that dialogue or argument, we may be able to find evidence of his spirit in the Epilogue, having simply laid off that “overcoat of clay” from its human life. In the end, we are left alone with Ishmael and the swirling vortex of the sinking ship, when suddenly, “liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main.” (p.427). It is the coffin which Queequeg made for himself in the earlier chapter which ultimately comes back to save Ishmael’s life.
Using the Dickinson poem as a lens, we are then able to find a less unsettling trajectory for the character of Queequeg in Moby Dick. Instead of the novel ending without a single reference to the man whose sudden death felt a little jarring and unfair to readers, the appearance of the coffin as Ishmael’s saving grace in the end allows the Dickinson-like “Spirit” of Queequeg to separate from his physical human body and act as a superhuman force to defy death. So with Dickinson, we are able to negate Hamlet’s famous fear that “no traveler returns” after death, and we can allow ourselves a reading in which Queequeg defies “the dread of something after death” and returns in Spirit. Liberated from its human “dust,” the spirit of the dead is now somehow able to reach past the dissolved physical body of the dead and become a force for the living. Queequeg’s spirit is here able to reach past the physical limits of a human death, and it is his nonhuman spirit which poignantly remains to save Ishmael’s life.