Chapters 2-4 Summary

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Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a Saturday night, Ishmael expresses his hope of finding passage to Nantucket, a historic port where whaling ships often come to port and take on deck hands. However, there is no passage to Nantucket until Monday at the earliest, so he must find lodging for the weekend. He attempts to find a place to stay but accidentally stumbles into a “Negro church,” confusing it for an inn. Eventually, he notices a sign advertising the Spouter-Inn, where he decides to spend the evening. 

As Ishmael describes the inn, he notes that its front door looks like a "condemned old craft." Inside, the interior is dominated by a large, mysterious oil painting. After further investigating the painting, Ishmael notices a "half-sunken" ship struggling to stay afloat during a hurricane; next to the ship, a whale jumps into the air as if attempting to cling to the masts. Peter Coffin, the proprietor of the inn, tells Ishmael that he will have to share a bed with another patron, a harpooner for a whaling ship.

Observing his fellow patrons, Ishmael feels particularly drawn to Bulkington, a tall, quiet man who has just returned from a trip aboard another whaling ship. As the evening draws to a close, Ishmael feels scared at the prospect of sharing a bed with a stranger and unsuccessfully attempts to sleep on a bench. Peter Coffin attempts to comfort him by telling him that the harpooner is busy selling a shrunken head and will not be back for some time. 

Somewhat satisfied by Peter’s words, Ishmael climbs into bed and falls asleep. He awakens in the middle of the night when a dark stranger enters the room; the shadow has no hair on his head except for a small knot on his scalp, and he has tattoos all over his body. As the stranger settles into the room, he removes an ebony idol from his bag, prays over it, and then falls to smoking his tomahawk pipe, which he takes to bed with him. Terrified, Ishmael yells for help; the landlord rushes in and introduces the stranger as Queequeg the aforementioned harpooner, telling Ishmael not to worry, as Queequeg will not hurt him.

Ishmael falls back asleep, awakening in the morning to Queequeg’s arms around him. Ishmael attempts to free himself from the unexpected embrace but finds it difficult. As he extricates himself, he looks at Queequeg’s many tattoos, wondering at the strange character before him. When the harpooner finally awakens, he proves himself to be a kind, conscientious man. As Queequeg dresses for the day, Ishmael notices that he uses his harpoon to shave.

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Chapters 5-9 Summary