The word “apoplexy” comes from the Greek ἀποπληξία (apoplexia), meaning “to be struck down utterly.” The ancients believed that someone who suffered a stroke (or any sudden incapacity) had been struck down by the gods. In Melville’s day the word was used as a blanket term to refer to any malady caused by an effusion of blood or serum in the brain that resulted in loss of consciousness or death. The term was used more widely before advancements in medical science allowed for more sophisticated distinctions concerning the causes of illness or death; nowadays what was once known as apoplexy would be interpreted as a stroke or a heart attack. The term apoplexy is still in use today to describe sudden loss or influx of blood-flow to a particular organ, as in adrenal apoplexy and pituitary apoplexy.
Apoplexy has been used as a plot device throughout literary history; it is referred to as “napoplexie” in Chaucer’s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” (from The Canterbury Tales), and it is referred to as “appoplexi” in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Pt. 2. Because so many deaths remained sudden-seeming and unexplainable before the evolution and refinement of medical science, apoplexy was a common “explanation.” On the one hand, it is understandable that Ishmael, when he discovers Queequeg is still locked in their room but will not answer any of his hails, assumes his friend has suffered from apoplexy. What else could incapacitate such a man as Queequeg other than an internal, unexpected killer? As it turns out, Queequeg’s devout spiritual observances (which Ishmael dubs his “Ramadan”) are what had rendered him deaf to Ishmael’s concern. It is ironic that Ishmael—equipped with his “civilized,” secular knowledge—later tries to persuade Queequeg that his ritual observances are so inefficacious and unhealthy, when he himself had just been shouting to the heavens what would later be understood as a primitive and savagely generic diagnosis. In hindsight, the idea of such a quiet, generic death for a badass like Queequeg is very laughable indeed.