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Despite his centrality to the story, Ishmael doesn’t reveal
much about himself to the reader. We know that he has gone to sea
out of some deep spiritual malaise and that shipping aboard a whaler
is his version of committing suicide—he believes that men aboard
a whaling ship are lost to the world. It is apparent from Ishmael’s
frequent digressions on a wide range of subjects—from art, geology,
and anatomy to legal codes and literature—that he is intelligent
and well educated, yet he claims that a whaling ship has been “[his]
Yale College and [his] Harvard.” He seems to be a self-taught
Renaissance man, good at everything but committed to nothing. Given
the mythic, romantic aspects of Moby-Dick, it is
perhaps fitting that its narrator should be an enigma: not everything
in a story so dependent on fate and the seemingly supernatural needs
to make perfect sense.
Additionally, Ishmael represents the fundamental contradiction between
the story of Moby-Dick and its setting. Melville
has created a profound and philosophically complicated tale and
set it in a world of largely uneducated working-class men; Ishmael,
thus, seems less a real character than an instrument of the author.
No one else aboard the Pequod possesses the proper
combination of intellect and experience to tell this story. Indeed,
at times even Ishmael fails Melville’s purposes, and he disappears
from the story for long stretches, replaced by dramatic dialogues
and soliloquies from Ahab and other characters.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Moby-Dick!