Chapter 4 The Counterpane

        Note that counterpane is the old-fashioned word for bedspread. Melville has Ishmael and Queequeg in bed together, the morning after the night before. No doubt many 19th century readers of Moby-Dick had their Victorian sensibilities offended by the author's description of Queequeg's affectionate embrace, from which Ishmael was unable to extricate himself while the savage snored contentedly.

        This frustrating, entangling situation brings back a childhood memory to Melville, who recounts it as Ishmael's own. It seems that Melville's alter ego, Ishmael, was punished in childhood by being sent to bed at two o'clock in the sunny afternoon of June 21st -- the longest day of the year. The poor little fellow, wide awake, could only look forward to some sixteen hours in bed! He tossed and turned, feeling sorry for himself, finally to fall into "a troubled nightmare of a doze". When he woke up, his sun-lit room was "wrapped in outer darkness". Unable to move, he lay there "frozen with the most awful fears", and "a supernatural hand" seemed to be grasping his own as his arm hung over the counterpane. Unable to break the horrid spell, he felt that a "nameless, unimaginable, silent form or phantom" was seated at his bedside. For days and weeks thereafter, poor little Ishmael "shudderingly remembered it all".

        Now, as a young man, this nameless fear returns when Ishmael awakes to find himself in bed, locked in the arms of a tattooed savage -- an upsetting deja vu if ever there was one. In a very few words, Melville is able to evoke a spell of fearful emotion in his readers -- testimony to the opinion of those critics who contend that Melville is one of America's most talented writers of fiction. Then, as further testimony to Melville's literary prowess, this author proceeds to change the mood to hilarity as he describes Queequeg's "toilette".

        "He commenced dressing at top by donning his beaver hat, a very tall one, by the by, and then -- still minus his trousers -- he hunted up his boots. What under heavens he did it for, I cannot tell, but his next movement was to crush himself -- boots in hand, and hat on -- under the bed. At last he emerged with his hat very much dented and crushed down over his eyes. I begged him as well as I could to get into his pantaloons as soon as possible. I was watching to see where he kept his razor, when lo and behold, he takes the harpoon, unsheathes the head, whets it a little on his boot, and begins a vigorous scraping or rather harpooning of his cheeks. I came to know how exceedingly sharp the edges of a harpoon are always kept. The rest of his toilette was soon achieved, and he proudly marched out of the room, sporting his harpoon like a marshal's baton."

        Melville repeatedly emphasizes the contrast between Christians and savages in the whale fishery, Christians not necessarily getting the preference in the author's book. He begins in this chapter by having Ishmael note that a Christian would have washed his face,while Queequeg did not -- certainly an emphasis on the superficial, ignoring the soul.