Ishmael wakes the next morning, and finds that Queequeg has “draped his arm” across him in a “most affectionate manner.” Ishmael also sees that the tattoos on Queequeg’s arm are almost indistinguishable from the patchwork pattern on the “counterpane,” or bedspread. Ishmael remarks that the experience of Queequeg holding him in the morning reminds him of another time, long ago, as a child, when his stepmother sent him to bed early. The young Ishmael awoke by himself in his old house, in the middle of the night, and, still half in a dream, thought that “another hand” lay clasping his—a hand as from a dream, or a “phantom.” Ishmael is reminded of this scene, now, in the Spouter Inn, because Queequeg’s hand exerts the same pressure on Ishmael’s as did that phantom hand long ago.
A very famous instance in the novel, and one that has prompted a great deal of scholarly debate as regards the nature of Ishmael and Queequeg’s intimacy. On the one hand, to a contemporary reader, it seems that Ishmael might be hinting, somewhat coyly, at the possibility of a sexual relationship between the two, or at least at the reality of homosexual male desire. But other critics contend that Melville is merely reinforcing the brotherly bond between these sailors, and that their physical intimacy was common at the time. It is also possible that Melville intended both readings.
But Ishmael shakes off the vision, and rouses Queequeg, who begins to dress (and who, courteously, says to Ishmael in their shared language that he will dress first, allowing Ishmael the room “to himself” afterward). Queequeg puts his boots on under the bed, washes his body but not his face, and uses his harpoon, which he has also brought into the room, to shave his face. Ishmael marvels at these preparations, and says he has never seen anything like it. Ishmael also believes that Queequeg is “in transition” from cannibalism, or savagery, into “civilized” behavior—thus explaining the strangeness of his dressing routine.
Another famous scene in the novel. Queequeg shaving with his harpoon is exactly the kind of thing a man who is “half-savage, half-civilized” might do. Ishmael, for his part, does not appear to recognize the parts of his own character that are perhaps “less civilized”—the fact that he has no money, and that he does not always understand the manners and humor of the men with whom he interacts. But Queequeg is obviously “foreign,” and therefore Ishmael feels comfortably laughing quietly at his strange morning routine.