The narrative of Moby-Dick begins with the famous brief sentence, “Call me Ishmael.” Ishmael, a sailor, describes a typical scene in New York City, with large groups of men gathering on their days off to contemplate the ocean and dream of a life at sea. He explains that he himself went to sea because, like these men, he was feeling a “damp, drizzly November in [his] soul” and craved adventure. Shunning anything too “respectable” (or expensive), he always ships as a common sailor rather than as a passenger.
Ishmael travels from New York to New Bedford, Massachusetts, the whaling capital of the United States. He arrives too late to catch the ferry to Nantucket, the original whaling center of New England; for the sake of tradition, Ishmael wants to sail in a Nantucket whaler. For now, however, he has to spend a few nights in New Bedford. He roams the streets looking for an inn, but those that he finds seem too expensive. He stumbles into, then quickly out of, a church full of wailing and weeping African Americans, where a sermon is being preached on “the blackness of darkness.” Ishmael finally wanders into the Spouter-Inn, owned by Peter Coffin. The ominous name of the inn and the owner satisfy his mood, and the place is dilapidated and sure to be cheap.
Inside the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael finds a large, somewhat inscrutable oil painting, which he finally determines to be a depiction of a whale attacking a ship. On the other wall is a collection of “monstrous clubs and spears.” Because the inn is nearly full, Ishmael learns that he will have to share a room with “a dark complexioned” harpooner named Queequeg. He passes the evening in the bar with “a wild set of mariners,” waiting for Queequeg to arrive. Out of apprehension, Ishmael decides that he would rather sleep on a bench than share a bed with some strange, possibly dangerous man. The bench is too uncomfortable, though, and Ishmael decides to put up with the unknown harpooner, who, Coffin had assured him, is perfectly fine because “he pays reg’lar.” Still, Ishmael is worried, since Coffin adds that the harpooner has recently arrived from the South Seas and is currently out peddling shrunken heads. When Queequeg finally returns, the frightened Ishmael watches him from the bed, noting with horror the harpooner’s tattoos and tomahawk pipe. Queequeg sets up and worships a small, dark-colored idol. His prayers over, he discovers Ishmael in his bed. He flourishes the tomahawk pipe as Ishmael shouts for the inn’s owner. After Coffin explains the situation, Ishmael and Queequeg settle in for the night, Ishmael having decided that it is better to share a bed with a “sober cannibal” than a “drunken Christian.”
When Queequeg and Ishmael wake up the next morning, Queequeg’s arm lies affectionately thrown over Ishmael, as if the latter were “his wife.” Ishmael watches the cannibal don a fancy hat and boots and shave himself with his harpoon. He marvels at the “savage’s understanding of civilized manners.”
The Spouter-Inn’s breakfast table is filled with whalers, yet the meal, to Ishmael’s surprise, is not enlivened with sea stories or bawdiness. Instead, the men eat in silence. Queequeg uses his harpoon to help himself to more meat.
Ishmael wanders about New Bedford, marveling at the town and its people. Because of the maritime industry centered here, the town is full of men from all corners of the globe, from the South Pacific to the remote mountains of Vermont. The great mansions and finely dressed women of the town all exist thanks to the high prices that whale oil commands.
Ishmael finds the Whaleman’s Chapel, which contains plaques commemorating those lost or killed at sea. He ponders the contradictory message inherent in the chapel: if heaven really is a better place, it doesn’t make sense for a dead man’s friends and relatives to mourn him so inconsolably. Ishmael is surprised to find Queequeg in the chapel.
A man arrives at the chapel and climbs up a rope ladder into the pulpit, which is shaped like a ship’s bow. He is Father Mapple, the preacher in this chapel, a favorite among whalemen for his sincerity and ability to make his sermons relevant to their lives. Ishmael wonders about the symbolic significance of Mapple’s dramatic climb into the pulpit.
Mapple takes his theme for this Sunday’s sermon from the story of Jonah, the prophet swallowed by “a great fish”—in other words, a whale. Mapple, typically, uses Jonah’s story to preach about man’s sin and his willful disobeying of God’s commandments. But, Mapple claims, the story also speaks to him personally, urging him to fulfill God’s will by “preach[ing] the Truth in the face of Falsehood!” Drained by his emotional sermon, Mapple ends kneeling, his hands covering his face, as the crowd files out.
These chapters establish the basic plot and thematic conflicts of Moby-Dick and also introduce two of the novel’s most important characters, Queequeg and Ishmael, the latter of whom is the novel’s narrator. The enigmatic command “Call me Ishmael” lends a mysteriousness to the narrator’s identity; nevertheless, his seemingly adopted name signals his identification with the biblical outcast from the Book of Genesis. One of the first things we learn about Ishmael is that he is going to sea as a sort of self-annihilation—an alternative to “throw[ing] himself upon his sword.” Ishmael is a dreamer, given to philosophical speculation, but essentially passive. He is more of an observer than a major participant.
Although it is not apparent from the novel’s first chapter, Ishmael is more than just the narrator. His remarks later in the novel indicate that he has produced the text that we have in our hands and that the extracts and scholarly materials that preface the book are the fruits of his own researches. From the outset of his narrative, there is a marked difference between Ishmael’s low status as a character, in which role he is a nearly penniless and inexperienced junior hand on board ship, and his magisterial presence as a narrator, with his sweeping philosophical and scientific ambitions. Clearly, he writes as a much older and more experienced sailor than he is during the events of the novel.
Ishmael’s lengthy and speculative digressions suggest that the things he observes have metaphorical significance, but it is often difficult to discern what specific things signify: even Ishmael himself seems to be uncertain in this regard. Father Mapple’s elaborate pulpit, for example, appears to have a symbolic meaning, but Ishmael admits that he cannot quite figure out what it is. The painting on the wall of the Spouter-Inn is so dark and dirty that it is almost impossible to make out its subject, and Ishmael offers several alternatives for what it may depict. In the end, he determines that it shows a whale attacking a ship and impaling itself upon the ship’s masts. This interpretation, however, doesn’t seem particularly realistic, and offers more confusion than clarity.
The two churches that Ishmael enters in these chapters suggest two distinct religious attitudes. The sermon preached in the black church is on “the blackness of darkness,” suggesting that evil is impenetrable and cannot be understood by human beings. Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah demands that people heed God’s call and proclaim the truth even in the face of great hostility, even when that truth goes against conventional ways of thinking. While the first sermon exemplifies the belief that the human being’s power of understanding truth is extremely limited, the second suggests that God gives humans the power to apprehend truth, and that men and women should be so confident in their vision of this truth as to defy any opposition. Throughout Ishmael’s narrative, these two interpretations of human understanding vie with one another for primacy.
The comical process by which Ishmael befriends Queequeg introduces one of the novel’s major facets: the topic of race relations. By developing a relationship with this “savage,” Ishmael shows that he isn’t bound by his prejudices. Indeed, his interactions with Queequeg make Ishmael realize that although most would call Queequeg a savage, the harpooner actually has a deeper understanding of what “civilization” means than most whites do, as his grooming habits demonstrate. Realizing that Queequeg treats him “with so much civility and consideration” while he himself was “guilty of great rudeness,” Ishmael reexamines stereotypes about so-called savages. In fact, “for all his tattooings,” says Ishmael, Queequeg “was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.” Queequeg’s tattoos and supposed cannibalism mark him, in terms of nineteenth-century beliefs, as the ultimate savage. Tattooing is a voluntary alteration of the body that, unlike a hairstyle or clothing choice, is permanent; cannibalism is another fundamental Western taboo. Beyond these two characteristics, Queequeg is a veritable melting pot of different racial and ethnic traits: African, Polynesian, Islamic, Christian, and Native American. Allegedly from Kokovoko, an island in the South Seas, he worships an idol that looks like “a three days’ old Congo baby” (West African) in a Ramadan (Islamic) ceremony and carries a tomahawk pipe (North American indigenous tribal).