On Ishmael

“Call me Ishmael,” he said. And so begins one of the all-time epic narratives about hate, obsession, and man versus nature. The novel by Melville, Moby Dick, is often rejected, or even reviled, unjustly, by readers who just don’t understand a five hundred-page novel that often reads like a “how-to” manual on whaling. Ishmael was/is an itinerant sailor who from time to time would pack his gear and off to sea to make a little money, have a little adventure, see some different scenery, breathe some fresh sea air, and search for his own existential self. Although we know his name, we know almost nothing about him. Parents, family, friends, ties to other people, he is bereft of human connections, so when he wants to take off, he can. Ishmael is an Everyman who is a little different in the sense that although he a part of crew, he stands alone, a bit of an island, around which swirls the crew of Pequod, its insane captain, and his obtuse obsession–the white whale. Ishmael’s principle function as narrator is to act as a reliable witness to Ahab’s obsession and eventual destruction, but he is also a lingering metaphor about the value of a human life, the purpose of that life, how a life is shaped, and how we become the sum of our decisions, good or bad. Ishmael is less hero and more witness to this tragedy because he must survive the sinking of the Pequod and the loss of her crew. Structurally, without Ishmael, there simply is no story. Shipwreck, either metaphorical or literal, must be witnessed and verified by a survivor or the loss of the ship is just a mysterious footnote with no details and no story. In a way, our errant sailor and narrator is an exercise in existential energy and one of the book’s larger enigmas, existing on the margin of the moral or ethical considerations presented by Ahab who is willing to take his entire crew into Hell just to get his vengeance on the white whale who had taken his leg. It is Ishmael’s isolation which clarifies his voice as he describes the nuts and bolts, literally of the whaling trade, the ships, the tools, the crews, the techniques for hunting whales on a massive, industrial scale in a world lit only the oil which could be gleaned from each of their victims. Yet far from an ecological commentary of the uncontrolled finishing that would eventually drive the whale almost to extinction, Ishmael’s narration is a bird’s eye view into the insane and brutal world which Ahab has constructed on the Pequod, which is by itself a microcosm of the world itself, populated by men of all colors from across the entire world. The fact that the novel details the voyage of an almost random whaling ship in the mid-nineteenth century, has little to do with the allegorical content of the narrative which speaks to the ever-present battle/conflict of man against his environment. Ahab thinks that the whale is the very incarnation of evil representing the vital forces of nature against which he rails, leading to his own destruction and the sinking of the Pequod. Those who would think that this book is only about whaling ad nauseum will miss the opportunity to witness and experience vicariously Ishmael’s quest for the truth about the nature of the human soul or the lack thereof. The ship, its crew, the mates, its orphaned narrator, searching for identity in the wilderness of the Earth’s vast oceans, are led by a mad man who considers everything expendable in his irrational search for vengeance at any cost. If Ishmael is alone at the beginning of the novel, he is the sole survivor at the end. The last man standing and witness to the catastrophe brought on by Ahab, he is a tribute to the strength of the human heart to endure almost anything, but he is also a tribute to narrating, the importance of words, language, and story.