Queequeg, a pagan from an island in Polynesia, works as a harpooneer on the Pequod and personifies the idea of otherness throughout the story. The symbolic function of his character makes him a key player in the thematic development in the novel, especially as he becomes an integral part of the ship’s crew and a close friend of Ishmael’s. Dispelling the myth of “the other,” or rather normalizing a character like Queequeg, allows Melville to create a radically diverse and democratic community on the Pequod and critique America’s ethnocentrism. These impacts ultimately facilitate Ishmael’s metaphorical rebirth at the end of the novel, although Queequeg becomes a kind of sacrificial figure in the process. Nevertheless, his presence throughout the text offers both the other characters and the reader alternative ways to view the world.
When Ishmael first meets Queequeg at the Spouter Inn in New Bedford, he is deeply skeptical of him because his tattooed skin, cannibalistic practices, and pagan rituals differ greatly from anything he had ever seen. He quickly assumes the worst about his bedfellow and views him as an “abominable savage,” but upon actually speaking to him, Ishmael discovers that he is friendly and welcoming. The specific “othering” characteristics that Melville attributes to Queequeg symbolize the fact that his true identity exists outside the confines of a single perspective. The notion of cannibalism, for example, works metaphorically to suggest that he has taken on, or cannibalized, a plethora of different traditions and identities throughout his travels. Similarly, Queequeg’s tattooed skin has a patchwork-like quality which highlights the layers of obscurity which make up his character.
As Ishmael and Queequeg become more acquainted with one another, the rather intimate nature of their relationship further challenges social norms and emphasizes the possibilities that exist outside the limits of a particular point of view. Melville’s use of marriage imagery and affectionate language to describe their interactions with one another completely disrupts traditional understandings of domesticity, and while this choice adds moments of humor to the narrative, it also invites Ishmael to imagine alternative ways of moving through the world. The closeness of their friendship clearly begins to impact him as Ishmael reveals in Chapter 102 that his body is also covered in tattoos. Queequeg’s otherness inspires Ishmael to embrace a broader worldview, the tattoos covering his white skin representing a commitment to resist a singular identity.
While Queequeg’s influence makes this simultaneously literal and figurative transformation possible, the fact that he dies at sea and his coffin saves Ishmael’s life positions him as a sacrificial figure. His otherness saves Ishmael from Ahab’s singular perspective and fate of drowning, but at the same time, Melville seems to suggest that challenging the dominant ideologies that Ahab represents comes at a high cost. Queequeg, whose identity resists conformity, ultimately ends up paying it. This dynamic emphasizes that questions of otherness are not fully resolved as the novel ends.