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Ishmael (Moby-Dick)

Ishmael is a fictional character in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). Ishmael, the only surviving crewmember of the Pequod, is the narrator of the book. His importance relies on his role as narrator; as a character, he is only a minor participant in the action and the main protagonist is Captain Ahab. The Biblical name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts.

Moby Dick character
Moby Dick p91 illustration.jpg
Ishmael (left) depicted in a 1920 edition of the book
Created byHerman Melville
OccupationSailor, Oarsman, Merchant

Because he was the first person narrator, most of the criticism of Moby-Dick either confused Ishmael with the author himself or overlooked him. From the mid-twentieth century onward, critics distinguished Ishmael from Melville, establishing the character's mystic and speculative consciousness as a central force in contrast to Captain Ahab's monomaniacal force of will.

By contrast with his namesake Ishmael from Genesis, who is banished into the desert, Ishmael is wandering upon the sea. Each Ishmael, however, experiences a miraculous rescue; in the Bible from thirst, here from drowning.


Both Ahab and Ishmael are fascinated by the whale, but whereas Ahab perceives him exclusively as evil, Ishmael keeps an open mind. Ahab has a static world view, blind to new information, but Ishmael's world view is constantly in flux as new insights and realizations occur. "And flux in turn ... is the chief characteristic of Ishmael himself."[1] In the chapter "The Doubloon," Ishmael reports how each spectator sees his own personality reflected in the coin, but does not look at it himself. Only fourteen chapters later, in "The Guilder," does he participate in "what is clearly a recapitulation" of the earlier chapter.[2] The difference is that the surface of the golden sea in "The Guilder" is alive, whereas the surface of the doubloon is unalterably fixed, "only one of several contrasts between Ishmael and Ahab."[3]

Ishmael meditates on a wide range of topics. In addition to explicitly philosophical references, in Chapter 89, for instance, he expounds on the legal concept, "Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish", which he takes to mean that possession, rather than a moral claim, bestows the right of ownership.


Ishmael explains his need to go to sea and travels from Manhattan Island to New Bedford. He is a seasoned sailor, having served on merchant vessels in the past, but this would be his first time aboard a whaling ship. The inn is crowded and he must share a bed with the tattooed Polynesian, Queequeg, a harpooneer who Ishmael assumes to be a cannibal. The next morning Ishmael and Queequeg head for Nantucket. Ishmael signs up for a voyage on the whaler Pequod, under Captain Ahab. Ahab is obsessed by the white whale, Moby Dick, who on a previous voyage has severed his leg. In his quest for revenge Ahab has lost all sense of responsibility, and when the whale sinks the ship, all crewmembers drown, with the exception of Ishmael: "And I only am escaped alone to tell thee" (Job) says the epigraph. Ishmael keeps himself afloat on a coffin until he is picked up by another whaling ship, the Rachel.

And Ishmael (Old Testament)Edit

The name Ishmael is Biblical in origin: in Genesis 16:1-16; 17:18-25; 21:6-21; 25:9-17, Ishmael was the son of Abraham by the servant Hagar. In 16:11-12, the most significant verses for Melville's allegory,[4] Hagar was cast off after the birth of Isaac, who inherited the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother.

Melville shapes his allegory to the Biblical Ishmael as follows:

  • Biblical Ishmael is banished to "the wilderness of Beer-sheba," while the narrator of Moby-Dick wanders, in his own words in "the wilderness of waters."[5] In the Bible the desert or wilderness is a common setting for a vision of one kind or another.[6] By contrast, Melville's Ishmael takes to sea searching for insights.
  • In Genesis, Hagar was visited by an angel who instructed her to call her still unborn child Yishma'el, meaning "God shall hear." The prophecy for this name was fulfilled when Ishmael, perishing in the desert, was saved by a miracle: the sudden appearance of a well of water.[5] In Moby-Dick, only Ishmael escapes the sinking of the Pequod, which is described as "that by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous."[7]
  • In direct translation from the Hebrew Bible; About Ishmael ''His hand in all, and all hands in him''

And so the name points to a Biblical analogy that marks Ishmael as the prototype of "wanderer and outcast,"[8] the man set at odds with his fellows. Wright says that all Melville's heroes—with the exception of Benito Cereno and Billy Budd—are manifestations of Ishmael, and four are actually identified with him: Redburn, Ishmael, Pierre, and Pitch from The Confidence-Man.[9]

Roles in the novelEdit

Critics have come to different conclusions on the question whether the protagonist is Ishmael or Ahab. The novel, says critic Walter Bezanson, is not so much about Ahab or the White Whale as it is about Ishmael, who is “the real center of meaning and the defining force of the novel.” [10] According to M.H. Abrams, however, Ishmael is "only a minor or peripheral" participant in the story he tells (Abrams cites Nick of The Great Gatsby as another example of this device).[11]

The reader is not told how long after the voyage Ishmael begins to tell his adventure, the second sentence's "some years ago" being the only clue. This Ishmael is only the first of two Ishmaels, suggests Bezanson. He is the narrator, “the enfolding sensibility of the novel” and “the imagination through which all matters of the book pass.” He shapes his narrative with use of many different genres including sermons, stage plays, soliloquies, emblematical readings. The “second Ishmael," continues Bezanson, is the young man who, among others, is the subject of the story "narrator Ishmael" tells us. He is “simply one of the characters in the novel, though, to be sure, a major one whose significance is possibly next to Ahab’s.” This is “forecastle Ishmael,” or the “younger Ishmael of 'some years ago.'... Narrator Ishmael is merely young Ishmael grown older." From time to time shifts of tense indicate that "while forecastle Ishmael is busy hunting whales narrator Ishmael is sifting memory and imagination in search of the many meanings of the dark adventure he has experienced."[10] In a later essay, Bezanson calls character-Ishmael an innocent "and not even particularly interesting except as the narrator, a mature and complex sensibility, examines his inner life from a distance, just as he examines the inner life of Ahab.... "[12]

John Bryant points out that Ishmael's role changes as the novel goes on, with even a “flip-flopping from Ishmael to Ahab.” He observes that the beginning of the book is “comedy” in which anxious Ishmael and serene Queequeg “bed down, get ‘married,’ and take off on a whaling adventure come-what-may.” Then Ahab enters in Ch. 29, and Ishmael does not reappear until Ch. 41. When he returns, Ishmael is no longer the “central character” as in the earlier chapters, but becomes the novel’s “central consciousness and narrative voice.” As his role as a character erodes, says Bryant, “his life as a lyrical, poetic meditator upon whales and whaling transforms the novel once again....” In this section, Ishmael wrestles with the realization that he cannot follow Ahab to a fiery doom but must be content with “attainable felicity,” (Ch. 94) but Ahab then takes over once more.[13]

The narrator explicitly states that he has experienced but not yet fully understood his adventures: "'It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.'"[14] Narrator-Ishmael demonstrates "an insatiable curiosity" and an "inexhaustible sense of wonder."[15] This Ishmael must not be equated with Melville himself, and Bezanson suggests "we resist any one-to-one equation of Melville and Ishmael."[16] As the phrase "Ishmael's richly allusive text" indicates, Bezanson even attributes characteristic Melvillean features to the narrator, who in the Epilogue, likens himself to "another Ixion".[17]

Of the book it is "frequently said" that Melville did not pay a great deal of attention to point of view, "and of course this is true" in the sophisticated Jamesian sense of the technique. Yet Bezanson insists that it would be a mistake "to think the narrator indifferent to how his tale is told," because the narrator's "struggle" with the shaping of his narrative, "under constant discussion, is itself one of the major themes of the book." Ishmael uses, among other genres and styles, a sermon, a dream, a comic set-piece, a midnight ballet, a meditation, an emblematic reading.[12]

Changing critical viewsEdit

During the early decades of the Melville revival, Ishmael was often confused with Melville, whose works were perceived as autobiography. The critic F.O. Matthiessen complained as early as 1941 that "most of the criticism of our past masters has been perfunctorily tacked onto biographies" and objected to the "modern fallacy" of the "direct reading of an author's personal life into his works."[18] In 1948 Howard P. Vincent, in his study The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, "warned against forgetting the narrator."[19] Robert Zoellner says that "traditional criticism" argues that Ishmael's role as narrator "breaks down" either when Ahab and Stubb "have a conversation off by themselves" in chapter 29 or else when Ishmael reports "the soliloquy of Ahab sitting alone" in chapter 37.[20]

Actors who have played IshmaelEdit


  • Though the novel famously begins with the words "Call me Ishmael," only once in the whole book is the narrator called Ishmael, self-address aside: when he signs up for the Pequod voyage in chapter 16, Captain Peleg refers to him as Ishmael.[21]
  • In the early twenty-first century the Melville Society and Hofstra University supported a Melville email discussion list named ISHMAIL.
  • Ishmael does not appear in the 1930 film adaptation, loosely based on Melville's novel, in which John Barrymore plays Ahab.


  1. ^ Sweeney (1975), 94
  2. ^ Sweeney (1975), 93
  3. ^ Sweeney (1975), 95
  4. ^ Mansfield and Vincent (1952), 587
  5. ^ a b Wright (1949), 48
  6. ^ Wright (1949), 49
  7. ^ Wright (1949), 50-51
  8. ^ Wright (1949), 47
  9. ^ Wright (1940), 187
  10. ^ a b Bezanson (1953), 644
  11. ^ Abrams (2011), p. 303
  12. ^ a b Bezanson (1986), 185
  13. ^ Bryant (1998), pp. 67-68
  14. ^ Cited in Bezanson (1953), 645
  15. ^ Bezanson (1953), 646 and 647
  16. ^ Bezanson (1953), 647
  17. ^ Herman Melville (1851). "Epilogue". Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers.
  18. ^ Matthiessen (1941), xi-xii
  19. ^ Bezanson (1986), 183
  20. ^ Bezanson (1986), 184
  21. ^ Quirk (1992), 636

External linksEdit


  • Abrams, M.H. (2011). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth edition, Wadsworth. ISBN 0495898023
  • Bezanson, Walter E. (1953). "Moby-Dick: Work of Art". Reprinted in Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Second Norton Critical edition 2002. Edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. W.W.Norton ISBN 9780393972832
  • Bezanson, Walter E. (1986). "Moby-Dick: Document, Drama, Dream". In John Bryant (ed.), A Companion to Melville Studies. Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press.
  • Bryant, John, "Moby-Dick as Revolution." (1998) In Levine, Robert S. (1998), The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55571-X
  • Mansfield, Luther S. and Howard P. Vincent. (1952). "Introduction" and "Explanatory Notes." In Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Hendricks House.
  • Matthiessen, F.O. (1941). American Renaissance. Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. Tenth Printing 1966, New York, London and Toronto: Oxford University Press.
  • Quirk, Tom. (1992). "Explanatory Notes." In Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Sweeney, Gerard M. (1975). Melville's Use of Classical Mythology. Amsterdam: RodopiN.V.
  • Wright, Nathalia. (1940). "Biblical Allusion in Melville's Prose". American Literature, May 1940.
  • Wright, Nathalia. (1949). Melville's Use of the Bible. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.