Study Guide

Moby-Dick Chapter 4: The Counterpane

By Herman Melville

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Chapter 4: The Counterpane

  • Ishmael wakes up with Queequeg’s arm around him in bed. Awww.
  • The patchwork quilt and Queequeg’s tattooed arm blend together strangely.
  • Ishmael tells us something that happened to him when he was a child. Here’s the story:
  • Young Ishmael has done something naughty and his stepmother sends him to bed, even though it’s only two in the afternoon on the summer solstice (which is, by definition, the longest day of the year).
  • Young Ishmael lies there, thinking that he’ll have to stay in bed for another sixteen hours before he can get up again. He’s bored and feels terrible.
  • Eventually, Young Ishmael gets up and begs his stepmother to punish him in any way other than making him stay in bed. She cruelly sends him back.
  • Young Ishmael lies in bed, feeling awful. Eventually he sleeps for a bit, and then he suddenly wakes in the dark.
  • His arm is hanging down by the side of the bed, and he thinks for a moment that he feels a supernatural hand in his. He can’t move.
  • This concludes Young Ishmael’s account.
  • Old, or Present Ishmael wonders about this strange event for a long time.
  • He compares it, minus the fear, to waking up and feeling Queequeg’s arm around him.
  • Now things go from scary to slapstick: Queequeg is still asleep, his grip is really strong, and Ishmael can’t wake him up, so he’s just lying there, trapped under the man’s arm.
  • Eventually, by wriggling around and shouting, Ishmael wakes up his bedfellow.
  • Queequeg and Ishmael stare at each other for a bit.
  • Queequeg is "stiff as a pike-staff," (nudge, nudge).
  • Queequeg gets out of bed and indicates that he’ll get dressed first and then leave and let Ishmael get dressed in private.
  • Ishmael’s grateful for his politeness, but doesn’t behave with such delicacy himself: he stares at Queequeg practically without blinking while the harpooneer gets dressed.
  • Queequeg getting dressed is like one of those Sesame Street segments where they teach you how to put on your pajamas if you don’t know how: he puts his hat on first, then gets under the bed to put his boots on in private, even though he still doesn’t have his pants on.
  • Queequeg’s "civilized" enough to know that some clothes should be put on in private, but not which ones.
  • Ishmael has to beg Queequeg to put his pants on, because people in the house next door can see in through the window.
  • Queequeg washes his chest, arms, and hands, but not his face, and then shaves using his harpoon. Queequeg then "proudly marche[s] out of the room" (4.7).

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