ISHMAEL - American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

ISHMAEL. The narrator of Herman Melville’s* Moby-Dick* (1851) names himself in the novel’s well-known opening line, “Call me Ishmael.” Through this name, Melville associates his narrator with the Old Testament Ishmael as well as with characters having the same name in nineteenth-century fiction, as in James Fenimore Cooper’s* The Prairie (1827) and William Star- buck Mayo’s* Kaloolah (1849). At the beginning of Moby-Dick, Melville’s Ishmael, like his namesakes, is a wanderer, antisocial and restless; unlike them, however, his alienation is exacerbated by a suicidal despair, which is resolved by his decision to go to sea and by his companionship with the wise and caring Polynesian harpooner Queequeg.* As an American, he represents independent youth, seeking adventure and economic success in unknown realms. He is differentiated from this convention, however, by his questioning mind, spiritual awareness, comic sensibility, and sensitivity to suffering. At sea, Ishmael learns; a whaleship proves his college. His friendship with Queequeg is strengthened as they share the often dangerous work of whaling on board the Pequod.* He also enthusiastically commits himself to Captain Ahab’s* monomaniacal quest for the white whale; in certain moments, such as when he stands watch for whales at the masthead and once when he takes the helm, he experiences a life-threatening, abstract trance similar to Ahab’s obsession.

Increasingly, however, Melville presents Ishmael as observing the behavior of Ahab, his shipmates, the crews of other whaleships, the changing moods of the sea, and all its creatures. As such, he is both a democrat and an Everyman, identified with the novel’s diverse characters and committed to perceiving life from diverse perspectives. As the only survivor of the Pequods destruction by Moby Dick, Ishmael resembles Job’s messengers and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, as well as Holocaust memoirists. For Ishmael to be able to tell the story of this traumatic whaling voyage, however, necessitates that he develop an alternative quest to Ahab’s, one that seeks knowledge from multiple sources and cultures regarding whales and their lives, one that affirms the value of a continued search for knowledge of all life.

Although literary critics have occasionally condemned Ishmael's openmindedness as untrustworthy, twentieth-century writers, including William Faulkner,* Ralph Ellison, Thomas Pynchon, Jay Cantor, Peter Benchley,* and David Guterson,* endorse his struggle to know by modeling their narrators or major characters after him.

Elizabeth Schultz