Who is Melville’s Ishmael?


“Call me Ishmael.”

This oft-quoted opening sentence from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” is a call to confusing ambiguity. Who is this Ishmael?

Is he Melville himself, the omniscient narrator? Or is Ishmael an independent character, a somewhat naïve but sensitively observant young sailor who turns out to be the calm and calming foil to the crazily demonic and charismatic Captain Ahab? Or perhaps Ishmael’s primary function is to be the sole survivor, the only one left to tell the story?

Truth be told, Ishmael is all of the above; his identity keeps shifting from just another name for Herman Melville to an independent actor throughout the book’s 135 chapters and all-significant epilogue.

It is because of Melville’s continuous changes in point of view that his contemporaries by and large labeled “Moby Dick” a “chowder,” overstuffed with every sort of this and that. Other, less-charitable critics dismissed the book as a mess, a hodgepodge, a mishmash of materials that don’t belong between the covers of a single volume.

It was during the 1920s, 40 years after Melville’s death in 1881, that literary critics began to see “Moby Dick” not as a failure, but as a prime candidate for “the great American novel.” Those who resurrected the novel, and its author, saw Melville as a prophet; they saw in the story of the great white whale a harbinger of emerging existentialist sensitivities.

While the old critics condemned “Moby Dick” as shapeless, sloppy and carelessly written, the new critics praised this formlessness for its experimental audacity, a new way of writing that told the same story from multiple and often conflicting points of view.

The last sentence of Chapter I – significantly titled “Loomings” – hints of the complex relationship between Melville and Ishmael. Melville foreshadows the eventual arrival of the great white whale by revealing Ishmael’s dreamlike musings: “… there flowed into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.”

Why would Melville implant this vision of Moby Dick into an unsuspecting Ishmael? Because Melville, as omniscient author, is pulling all the strings.

It is true that, especially in the opening chapters, Melville allows Ishmael to behave independently – especially in his developing relationship with the harpooner Queequeg, a gentle savage, even if perhaps a cannibal.

It is also true that at times Ishmael strongly affirms his participation as an independent character in the advancing drama: “I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me; Ahab’s quenchless feud seemed mine .…”

As the story proceeds, Melville seems to cede less and less narrative authority to Ishmael; at times it seems that Melville, as author, has absorbed Ishmael into himself. When it comes to Ahab, only Melville – never Ishmael – is the omniscient narrator:
“… Ahab plainly saw that he must still in a good degree continue true to the natural, nominal purpose of the Pequod’s voyage; observe all customary usages; and not only that, but force himself to evince all his well known passionate interest in the generate pursuit of his profession.”

Chapter XLII, “The Whiteness of the Whale,” begins with “What the White Whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what, at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.” Only in the most technical sense can it be said that the speaker here is Ishmael; for this longish chapter, often excerpted from “Moby Dick” and published as an independent essay, footnotes and all, bears all the marks of Melville himself.

Throughout “Moby Dick,” Melville continues to affirm himself as author and to keep the putative narrator, Ishmael, in his place. And so it is that as he is composing the first paragraph of Chapter XLLLV, “The Fountain,” Melville is gazing through his north-facing study window at the snow-covered 3,500-foot Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts, and declares to his readers in no uncertain terms: I am the author of this book, sitting at my desk at “this blessed minute (fifteen and a quarter minutes past one o’clock P.M. of the sixteenth day of December, A.D.,1851).

And so it was that shortly before 1 p.m. on this past 12th day of August, A.D. 202I, I stood at the window of Melville’s study at Arrowhead, his farmhouse in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he lived with his family for 13 years – and I, too, found myself gazing at the same Mount Greylock that had inspired Melville to compose “Moby Dick” 170 years earlier.

As noted by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man to whom Melville dedicated “Moby Dick,” the snow-covered mountain offered Melville the strength and substance for “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale.”

When I stood where Melville stood, when I saw what Melville saw, I knew at that moment that I was a pilgrim. I was standing in the very room where Herman Melville launched my high school self into a lifelong quest for a God that both devours and heals.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.