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.