Call Me Ishmael - A Critical Analysis of the Narrator in Moby Dick

Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. Self-Presentation of the Narrator

3. Critical Opinions about the Narrator

4. The Narrator’s Relationship with Other Characters in the Novel
4.1. Ahab
4.2. Queequeg
4.3. The Crew

5. The Narrator as Observer

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is an epic tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the ship’s captain, Ahab, who relentlessly hunts the white Sperm Whale Moby-Dick during a journey around the world. Ever since the whale took his leg, Ahab has been seeking revenge. However the hunt ends fatally for Ahab and his crew: Moby-Dick kills them all.

The whole story is narrated by Ishmael, one of the sailors on the Pequod and the only survivor of the disaster. In a detailed and impressive way Ishmael describes the things he experienced and witnessed, the different characters he met, the friendships he formed.

This paper deals with an analysis of Ishmael, the first-person narrator in Moby - Dick. Next to concentrating on several aspects, it shall give an answer to the basic question: Is Ishmael is a reliable narrator ?

2. Self-Presentation of the Narrator

The reader is introduced to the narrator in the first chapter where he reveals a few pieces of information about himself. To some extent it is also necessary for him to explain his reasons for going to sea. Without exaggerating he describes himself as a decent fellow and modest man who doesn’t demand too much from life. Although he is not a rich man he seems to be balanced and content with what he has got. For example, he is not ashamed, but outspoken about “having little or no money” (Melville 17)in his purse.

Though he tells the reader that he is “of an old establihed family in the land” (Melville 20), Ishmael mentions neither wife nor children. Obviously, he provides only for himself and works for his living, whether as “a country schoolmaster” (Melville 20) or on “several voyages in the merchant service”.(Melville 87) Working on the Pequod is his first experience on a whaling ship. His decision to earn his money in such a dangerous business as whaling shows that he is also a brave man who spares no efforts in his work.

Ishmael says that when he goes to sea he prefers going “as a simple sailor” (Melville 20) to going “as a Commodore, or a Captain” (Melville 19). He rather abandons “the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them” (Melville 19) as he has enough responsibility taking care of himself. He doesn’t mind serving in a lower position, doing hard work or being ordered by authorities. “Who ain’t a slave?” (Melville 20) he concludes.

Ishmael calls himself “a good Christian” (Melville 68). He seems to be a religous person who believes in God and follows the Ten Commandments which he believes are the moral value system of the Church. For example, he does not fail “to make a Sunday visit” (Melville 50) to the Whaleman’s Chapel before leaving New Bedford for the voyage. Ishmael says that he particularly seeks a sea voyage when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November” (Melville 17) in his soul. In short, whenever he finds himself in a bad mood. In these kinds of situations he feels drawn to the ocean where he will go to lift his spirits and cheer himself up.

During the journey on the Pequod however, the narrator barely describes his behaviour under Ahab’s command and among the other sailors, as if his own actions are unimportant. He gives the impression that he doesn’t want to attract any attention or stand out from the crew.

Despite the reservations about himself, Ishmael is a likable character to the reader. Ishmael’s simplicity, his modesty and honesty show him as an Everyman figure the reader can identify with easily (cf. GradeSaver).

3. Critical Opinions about the Narrator

The novel starts with one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature – Call me Ishmael. In this unusual manner the narrator introduces himself to the reader by almost allowing the reader to choose his name, as if he doesn’t care. Nor does he mention his last name, but only tells the reader to call him Ishmael.

This is where a very important biblical allusion in the novel can be found: The biblical Ishmael (Genesis 16:1–16; 21:10 ff.), Abraham’s first-born son, is disinherited and dismissed from his home in favour of his half-brother Isaac. The name Ishmael suggests that the narrator is somewhat of an outcast, too. (cf. McSweeney 23)

Ishmael supports this allusion further by emphazising the need for independence he has shown during his past. He would not have been able to go wherever he wanted to with a wife and family, so the reader assumes that he actually has none. The picture of Ishmael as a loner corresponds with the Epilogue in which Ishmael, the only survivor, is rescued by the whaling ship Rachel, “that in her retracing search after her missing children”, only finds “another orphan” (Melville 589).

Ishmael survives to tell the tale of the Pequod ’s fate, and although he already knows the end, it is necessary for him to start the story at the beginning for the benefit reader. Therefore for him to remain neutral is not an easy task. Although Ishmael the narrator now “is at a critical distance” (McSweeney 41) he cannot help but foreshadow terrible events to come as he already “knows the experience from the inside” (McSweeney 41).

Here it is important to mention that it is essential for the reader of Moby-Dick “to distinguish between the judgements and generalizations of the two Ishmaels […]” (McSweeney 26): On the one hand there’s Ishmael the character or the younger Ishmael, and on the other hand there’s the above mentioned narrator. In the first 21 chapters of the novel it is clearly Ishmael the character that dominates. This Ishmael describes the many experiences he has had on shore up until he leaves on the Pequod in chapter 22. He has made friends with the pagan harpooner Queequeg, and faced the mad prohet Elijah. All these experiences seem to be described from a point of view, which is “in the main positive and upbeat” (McSweeney 27). Ishmael the character obviously gives the plot in the implied chapters a more obtimistic atmosphere.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Call Me Ishmael - A Critical Analysis of the Narrator in Moby Dick
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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ISBN (Book)
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Ishmael, Critical, Analysis, Narrator, Moby, Dick
Quote paper
Susanne Pirner (Author), 2005, Call Me Ishmael - A Critical Analysis of the Narrator in Moby Dick, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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