MK’s first illustration of Queequeg is a portrait of the character as he (a veteran reader) sees the beloved harpooneer first entering the door to his room in the Spouter Inn, not as Ishmael reports seeing him. In this respect it’s a rather radical departure from any of the illustrations that have come before it or those that immediately follow it.
When Ishmael first sees Queequeg he’s still got that nightmare of a tangled black yarn of a bloodthirsty deadheader on the brain, and Queequeg “himself” – one of the most fully developed and memorable characters of the early portions of MD – only becomes known in bits and pieces. Like the painting in the entryway to the Spouter Inn, he’s only accessories, parts, and individual features – decontextualized fragments seen, heard, and felt – before becoming a fully-fledged personage to Ishmael, or to the reader. Indeed, Ishmael introduces Queequeg into the book almost precisely as he does the harpooneer’s poncho: as something he can’t quite recognize but nonetheless brazenly examines and meticulously describes. In this first portrait of the “infernal head-peddler” Queequeg is seen wearing the poncho so laboriously and lovingly drawn by MK in the illustration previous (reproduced here in all its wonderful detail), and since we know that poncho to have been left in the room while he was out on his errand, this should be the first clue that MK is deliberately stepping out of the seductive, overwhelmed reporting of Ishmael and making his own vision of Queequeg known, in its own time.
At the same time, some of the striking first impressions that overwhelm Ishmael’s faculty to recognize Queequeg seem to influence MK’s more developed and contextualized vision of the character: especially, Queequeg’s tattooing. The first sight of Queequeg’s face Ishmael gets in MD is conspicuously registered as one of those moments where the narrator’s confusion and, in this case, alarmed wonderment is passed on to the reader: “good heavens! what a sight! Such a face! It was of a dark purplish, yellow color, here and there stuck over with large, blackish looking squares.” Ishmael concocts a theory that the dark squares are “sticking-patches,” that the harpooneer has been in a dreadful fight and has had to see a surgeon, before realizing they’re tattoos. MK’s first rendering of this face not only differs in terms of the colors chosen to echo the markings – in MK’s illustration they’re resolutely blue – nor in their shape – here they’re drawn as a collection of overlapping scales, each comprised of concentric scallop-shaped lines rather than as squares – but, more importantly, the mood the figure of Queequeg strikes on MK’s canvas is serene and gentle, not threatening. The figure is stooped, the ovular head hung forward atop the steeply sloped body.
Queequeg’s tall harpoon stands prominently to the left of the figure occupying the whole left margin of the canvas, black at the handle and awash in red, which is also flecked across the top left quadrant of the canvas: another anachronism from this page of MD, since the harpoon was left in the room along with the poncho. There are two other distinguishing features of this canvas, however, that should indicate that this is a more deliberate, contextualized portrait of Queequeg than Ishmael provides at this point in the book.
- The choice of found page on which the illustration is made features a legible map of Pacific isles, situating the character in more of a concrete geographic and cultural locale than he ever is in MD;
- In the upper right hand corner of the canvas there’s inked an uppercase thickly lettered Q, in red, just above a thinly drawn infinity symbol. This pair of marks becomes a signature of sorts, as we’ll see inspired by Queequeg’s own, which is featured on many of the canvases depicting the harpooneer.
In comparison to the abject terror the appearance of Queequeg first instills in Ishmael, the only vaguely ominous feature of the figure MK illustrates is its lidless eyes, their red pupils pointilated about the edges, giving them a glaring, strained, and hazy look.
I’ve ventured before the surmise that red eyes in MK’s illustrations of MD indicate a character in extremity, and the only theory that will answer for what extremity Queequeg might be said to be in – this character who never cringed and never knew a creditor – suggests that those blue markings shown all over as his face do not represent Queequeg’s artificial bodily markings as much as his natural bodily medium that it will be the arc of MK’s illustrations to render (back) unto infinity.