Queequeg helps to empty out the hold of the ship, and in doing so sweats so much “he comes down with a fever." Queequeg lies sick in his hammock for several days, wasting away, until he calls for the carpenter to make him a wooden canoe as a casket. Queequeg had observed whalers being placed in canoes in Nantucket and on the island of his birth, and he likes this idea better than the typical burial at sea, which involves being thrown over the side of the boat in your own hammock, as “food for sharks.”
Queequeg’s illness does not derive from any aspect of whaling—from an adventure aboard the boat—but from an illness he might have just as easily contracted on land. Queequeg takes his illness in stride, does not protest against it. He tries to direct how his death will be spent, wanting a kind of boat for himself rather than the indignity of being eaten, but does nothing to try to stop death from coming.
The carpenter makes Queequeg a canoe exactly to his shape, and Queequeg decides to lie in it, living out his last feverish days in his own coffin. Queequeg also has his idol, harpoon, and some food and water placed in the coffin for his “journey.” As Queequeg appears to be dying, Pip comes and dances around his canoe, to him and speaks in strange, prophetic words, calling Queequeg a “general” and saying that the rest of the ship ought to “march around him,” and asking Queequeg to find Pip's lost, sane self in heaven. After a few minutes, Queequeg realizes that he has “more to do” while on the Pequod—more activity and life left in him—and tells the crew that he can no longer be sick, as he has too much to do on earth.
Pip's strange words that the dying Queequeg is the ship's general implies the entire ship will die. Pip also describes his own former self as having died. And yet Queequeg does not die. Instead he decides, simply decides, to "become well”. Again there is an echo here of Lazarus, who was brought back to life by the will of Jesus. Here, though, the heathen Queequeg wills his own self back to life, and so Queequeg, like Tashtego, has a kind of rebirth from death. Queequeg, like Ahab, appears indestructible—that is, until the final destruction of the vessel.
Ishmael doubts that it is possible for a man to decide he is finished being sick, but Queequeg says this is exactly so. He leaves his coffin and goes up to the top of the ship, where he eats for several days and then “announces” he is ready for service in the whaleboat once more. Queequeg now uses his former casket as a chest, and also begins to copy the tattoos on his body onto the coffin. Ishmael tells the reader that Queequeg is a “riddle to unfold,” and a “wondrous work in one volume.”
Ishmael again uses “book” comparisons to describe a character in the novel. Before, Ishmael explicitly compared whales to different styles of books; here, Ishmael notes that Queequeg himself is a book, one that, as one reads it, becomes ever more mysterious and captivating. Further, Queequeg translates the "book" of his life, embodied in his tattoos, onto his former coffin. Queequeg’s coffin will, of course, play a role a role at the end of the novel, when Ishmael uses it as a life-buoy to save himself after everyone else on board has been destroyed by Moby Dick. Ishmael survives to write his book, Moby Dick, but Queequeg also lives on through his book, the one he transposes onto his coffin.