Ishmael (Moby-Dick)

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Moby Dick character
Created byHerman Melville
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Moby Dick character
Created byHerman Melville

Ishmael is a fictional character in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). A minor character, his importance derives from his function as the narrator of the book. In early literary criticism of Moby-Dick, he was either mistaken for the author himself or was wholly overlooked. Yet from the mid-twentieth century onward, increasing attention to narrative technique, in addition to ongoing biographical research, revealed that Melville's prose was no mere autobiography and served to establish Ishmael as a central force in the book. By contrast with his namesake Ishmael from Genesis, who is banished into the desert, Ishmael is wandering upon the sea. Each Ishmael, however, experiences a miraculous rescue; one from thirst, the other as the lone surviving crewmember.


Both Ahab and Ishmael are fascinated by the whale, but whereas Ahab perceives him exclusively as evil, Ishmael keeps an open mind. Ishmael's worldview is not static, as Ahab's is, but flux. "And flux in turn ... is the chief characteristic of Ishmael himself."[1] In the chapter "The Doubloon," Ishmael reports how each spectator sees his own personality reflected in the coin, but does not look at it himself. Only fourteen chapters later, in "The Guilder," does he participate in "what is clearly a recapitulation" of the earlier chapter.[2] The difference is that the surface of the golden sea in "The Guilder" is alive, whereas the surface of the doubloon is unalterably fixed, "only one of several contrasts between Ishmael and Ahab."[3]


Ishmael moves from New York to New Bedford to sign up for a whaling voyage aboard the Pequod, under Captain Ahab. The voyage ends in disaster: Ahab is obsessed by a white whale named Moby Dick, and when he finally encounters him Ahab loses all sense of carefulness and responsibility for his crew, with the result that the whale sinks the ship. All crewmembers drown, with the exception of Ishmael, who keeps himself afloat on a coffin until he is picked up by another whaling ship, the Rachel. It is not known how long after the voyage he begins to tell his adventure, the second sentence's "some years ago" being the only clue. The shaping of his narrative with use of many different genres including sermons, stage plays, soliloquys, emblemetical readings, is itself one important theme.

"The second Ishmael," Bezanson insists, "is not the narrator, not the informing presence, but is the young man of whom, among others, narrator Ishmael tells us in his story. He is simply one of the characters in the novel. ... This is forecastle Ishmael or the younger Ishmael of 'some years ago.'... Narrator Ishmael is merely young Ishmael grown older."[4] In a later essay, Bezanson calls character-Ishmael an innocent "and not even particularly interesting."[5] According to F.O. Matthiessen, the reader would do well not "to forget that the first reason Ishmael gave for going to sea was 'having little or no money in my purse'."[6]

And Ishmael (Old Testament)[edit]

The name Ishmael is Biblical in origin: in Genesis 16:1-16; 17:18-25; 21:6-21; 25:9-17, Ishmael was the son of Abraham by the servant Hagar. In 16:11-12, the most significant verses for Melville's allegory,[7] Hagar was cast off after the birth of Isaac, who inherited the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother.

Melville shapes his allegory to the Biblical Ishmael as follows:

And so the name points to a Biblical analogy that marks Ishmael as the prototype of "wanderer and outcast,"[12] the man set at odds with his fellows. Wright says that all Melville's heroes--with the exception of Benito Cereno and Billy Budd--are manifestations of Ishmael, and four are actually identified with him: Redburn, Ishmael, Pierre, and Pitch from The Confidence-Man.[13]

As Narrator[edit]

According to M.H. Abrams, Ishmael ranks among the middle category of first-person narration types. Abrams's outer categories are: a narrator who is only "a fortuitous witness," or a narrator who is "the central character in the story." Ishmael, then, is "only a minor or peripheral" character in the story he tells (Abrams cites Nick of The Great Gatsby as another example of this device).[14] "The first Ishmael is the enfolding sensibility of the novel, the hand that writes the tale, the imagination through which all matters of the book pass. He is the narrator"[15] From time to time shifts of tense indicate that "while forecastle Ishmael is busy hunting whales narrator Ishmael is sifting memory and imagination in search of the many meanings of the dark adventure he has experienced."

The narrator explicitly states that he has experienced but not yet fully understood his adventures: "'It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.'"[16] Narrator-Ishmael demonstrates "an insatiable curiosity" and an "inexhaustible sense of wonder."[17] This Ishmael must be equated with Melville himself, and Bezanson suggests "we resist any one-to-one equation of Melville and Ishmael."[18] As the phrase "Ishmael's richly allusive text" indicates, Bezanson even attributes characteristic Melvillean features to the narrator, who in the Epilogue, likens himself to "another Ixion".[19]

Thanks to Joyce and Faulkner, the modern reader of Moby-Dick may easily get used to "the discontinuities in manner and genre."[20] Critic Robert Zoellner sees no breaking down of Ishmael's role as narrator, for if Ishmael can "speculate on Ahab's purposes" in chapter 46, then he can also "imagine a soliloquy" by Ahab.[21] Of the book is "frequently said" that Melville did not pay a great deal of attention to point of view, "and of course this is true" in the sophisticated Jamesian sense of the technique. Yet Bezanson insists that it would be a mistake "to think the narrator indifferent to how his tale is told," because the narrator's "struggle" with the shaping of his narrative is "under constant discussion, is itself one of the major themes of the book."[22] Ishmael uses, among other genres and styles, a sermon, a dream, a comic set-piece, a midnight ballet, a meditation, an emblematic reading.[23]


Abrams cites the publication of The Art of the Novel, Henry James's collected prefaces to his various novels, in 1934 as one contribution that made point of view "one of the most prominent and persistent concerns in modern treatments of the art of prose fiction."[24] His list of further reading includes Norman Friedman, "Point of View in Fiction", PMLA 70 (1955). The development of the critical view of Ishmael as a fictional narrator rather than Melville under another name reflects this growing sophistication in the study of narrative technique.

During the early decades of the Melville revival, Ishmael has been confused with Melville, whose works were perceived as straight autobiography by his early biographers. Matthiessen complained that "most of the criticism of our past masters has been perfunctorily tacked onto biographies" and to expose the "modern fallacy" of the "direct reading of an author's personal life into his works."[25] As scholars began to discover Melville's use of sources, his works have gradually been taken less and less for strict autobiography. Together with the focus on narrative technique that became en vogue in literary studies in the 1950s, this has led scholars to distinguish Ishmael from Melville himself.

In 1948 Howard P. Vincent, in his study The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, had "warned against forgetting the narrator."[26] Robert Zoellner says that "traditional criticism" argues that Ishmael's role as narrator "breaks down" either when Ahab and Stubb "have a conversation off by themselves" in chapter 29 or else when Ishmael reports "the soliloquy of Ahab sitting alone" in chapter 37.[27]

Actors who have played Ishmael[edit]


Ishmael does not appear in the 1930 film adaptation, loosely based on Melville's novel, in which John Barrymore plays Ahab.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Sweeney (1975), 94
  2. ^ Sweeney (1975), 93
  3. ^ Sweeney (1975), 95
  4. ^ Bezanson (1953), 644
  5. ^ Bezanson (1986), 185
  6. ^ Matthiessen (1941), 400
  7. ^ Mansfield and Vincent (1952), 587
  8. ^ Wright (1949), 48
  9. ^ Wright (1949), 49
  10. ^ Wright (1949), 48
  11. ^ Wright (1949), 50-51
  12. ^ Wright (1949), 47
  13. ^ Wright (1940), 187
  14. ^ Abrams (1999), 233-4
  15. ^ Bezanson (1953), 644
  16. ^ Cited in Bezanson (1953), 645
  17. ^ Bezanson (1953), 646 and 647
  18. ^ Bezanson (1953), 647
  19. ^ Herman Melville (1851) [U.S. edition November 14, 1851]. "Epilogue". Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved June 5, 2014. "Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve...." 
  20. ^ Bezanson (1986), 188
  21. ^ Bezanson (1986), 184
  22. ^ Bezanson (1986), 185
  23. ^ Bezanson (1986), 185
  24. ^ Abrams (1999), 231
  25. ^ Matthiessen (1941), xi-xii
  26. ^ Bezanson (1986), 183
  27. ^ Bezanson (1986), 184
  28. ^ Quirk (1992), 636