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Ishmael is the narrator and protagonist of the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by U.S. author Herman Melville. It is through his eyes that the reader experiences the story of the ship Pequod, and the fight between Captain Ahab and the white whale. After the Pequod leaves Nantucket, he increasingly recedes into the background as a commentator, with his voice approaching that of an omniscient narrator at times, able to see into all parts of the ship and into the private motivations of other characters.
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Ishmael introduces himself in the opening sentence of the novel with the well-known line "Call me Ishmael." The name Ishmael is Biblical in origin: in Genesis, Ishmael was the son of Abraham by the servant Hagar, who was cast off after the birth of Isaac, who inherits the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother. In the Islamic tradition, with which Melville was certainly much less familiar, Ishmael is an heir of Abraham. In fact, according to stronger traditions in Islam mentioned in Qisas Al-Anbiya, his mother was a daughter of the king of Maghreb, whose father was killed by Pharaoh and she was taken as slave. In Moby-Dick Ishmael does not comment on the significance of his own name, but he does refer to himself by that name several times in the book.
Ishmael provides little about his personal background before his decision at the beginning of the novel to journey to Nantucket, Massachusetts to enlist as a sailor on a whaler. There is evidence in the text to suggest that he was formerly a school-teacher who left that life of theory to pursue the more practical life at sea. At the beginning of the novel, he is an experienced seaman who has not previously served on a whaler but in the merchant marine service (an experience that is ridiculed by the owners of the Pequod when he approaches them to sign on). He begins the novel in the first chapter wandering through Manhattan in the dreariness of November with dark thoughts suggesting nearly suicidal tendencies: pausing before coffin houses and following funerals. His primary reason for going to sea, he suggests, is to break out of this depressive cycle and obsession with death. Ishmael tends to brood and think his way through things, going so far as to describe himself as a philosopher in The Mast-Head. Ishmael, while seemingly rejecting the arts, does confess that he is—or at least was at one point—a poet.
Ishmael does not appear in the 1930 film adaptation, loosely based on Melville's novel, in which John Barrymore plays Ahab.