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.