"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."
The opening lines of the novel offer key information about Ishmael which in turn set up a thematic framework for the rest of the narrative. His instruction to the reader to “call [him] Ishmael” invites the possibility that Ishmael may not even be the narrator’s real name but rather an identity he has chosen for himself. The Bible’s Ishmael is a wanderer dispossessed from his family, a situation which reflects the uprootedness the narrator feels at the beginning of the novel. While this attitude initially works to introduce a rather forlorn mood, it also alludes to Melville’s broader interests in the limits of knowledge and the power of interpretation.
"Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e., what is called savagery. Your true whale-hunter is as much a savage as an Iroquois. I myself am a savage, owing no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him."
Ishmael offers this image in Chapter 57 as he describes fishermen’s varying artistic interpretations of whales. In terms of Ishmael’s character development, this moment suggests a departure from his white, Presbyterian worldview and a move toward an existence which resists a clear definition. His use of the word “savage” calls back to his earlier revelation that Queequeg, whom he initially interpreted as an “abominable savage,” is far different than what he initially assumed. Given his altered understanding of the word, “savage” functions here to refer to a state of resisting social constructs.
"Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side."
In the novel’s Epilogue, Ishmael explains to the reader that he survived the sinking of the Peqoud after being flung from Ahab’s boat into the sea away from the battle with Moby Dick. The language in this line in particular is significant because of the way that it reorients the narrative around Ishmael. For most of the novel, he plays a fairly marginal role while Ahab drives the narrative forward. In the end, however, Ishmael himself becomes the “vital centre” of the story, living to tell the tale and allowing his changed perspective to influence how he does so. The fact that Queequeg’s coffin saves Ishmael’s life also reflects the sacrifices that occurred in order to make his journey possible.