Read an Excerpt
From Carl F. Hovde's Introduction to Moby-Dick
It is clear that Melville is not Ahab, nor is he Ishmael, though here the relationship is more complicated. "Call me Ishmael," chapter I begins: The borrowed name lets us know that he will tell us only what he wants to, and that he is a man apart from his fellows. The biblical Ishmael is the illegitimate son of Abraham by Rebecca's servant Hagar, and even though the Lord is good to Ishmael later in Genesis, his half-brother, Isaac, inherits the Lord's covenant through their father (Genesis 16, 17, 21, and 25).
Melville's narrator promptly describes dark thoughts approaching self-destruction: He pauses before coffin warehouses and follows every funeral he meets. But in the novel things don't remain so grim for long. Just as the Lord in Genesis is good to Ishmael despite his illegitimacy, so Melville's Ishmael floats to rescue with his best friend's burial box. The image of death has become the means to life, a change typical of Melville's density of view and sense of ambiguity. And the narrator's depressions spoken of at the beginning are modulated by the very language in which they are described: He is serious in describing his "spleen" and the "drizzly November" in his soul, but he presents them in a way that masks the pain even as it bodies it forth. The joking tone in which that account is developed is one we hear very often from the narrator even when he speaks of serious things.
The Ishmael we hear at the beginning is in some ways the book's most illusive character because, just as the biblical name suggests an outsider, a wanderer of sorts, he wanders in and out of the novel's narrative voice as it moves along. In the early chapters he is fully present as a character as he leads us toward the Pequod, but once on board he soon melds into the crew as his storytelling duties are taken over by the much more knowledgeable narrator whose arrival is not announced, but whose presence is clear as early as chapter XXIX when we overhear an exchange between Ahab and Stubb, the second mate.
They are on the quarterdeck, where Ishmael, as a common seaman, has no right to be unless working, and even if he were he could not overhear Stubb's private thoughts as he descends into the cabin. There is much in the book that Ishmael the crew member could not see or overhear: conversations between the ship's officers, Ahab's behavior at dinner with his officers, to say nothing of Ahab's private thoughts in a dramatic monologue complete with stage directions. In "Sunset" (chap. XXXVII), the scene is "The cabin; by the stern windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out." As in the preceding chapter, "The Quarter Deck" (chap. XXXVI), we have suddenly changed literary genres-we are for a short time in a play, not a novel.
As the action requires of him, Ishmael now and then returns as a man with a particular role on the ship, someone who could not have the wider knowledge we are often given. In chapter LXXII he is at one end of a rope with Queequeg at the other; in chapter XCIV he is squeezing coagulated oil back into liquid; in chapter XCVI he almost capsizes the ship; in the Epilogue he is floating with Queequeg's coffin so that the ship Rachel can bring him back to tell the story.
These are inconsistencies, but how bothersome are they? Most readers have not been much troubled. Both narrators have the same voice and personality-one simply becomes the other, and it is best to think of them as the Ishmael who acts and the Ishmael who narrates, two functions of the same identity. Often enough we may not even notice the change from one to the other because we are caught up in the action and the strange brilliance of the style.
The book's general narrator occupies a position between Ishmael, on the one hand, and Melville, on the other. We don't confuse Melville with the other two-that shared personality is the author's construction to serve his ends. But it is true that Moby-Dick is an opinionated work, and it is not surprising that the narrator sometimes expresses views that we assume to be Melville's. This is true, for example, in "The Ship" (chap. XVI), where Melville seems to wonder what it will take to turn an old American sea captain into a noble figure worthy of the greatest classical tragedies. The paragraph is a virtual recipe for what Melville will do in creating Ahab later in the book, so much so that he might have written it after he had largely finished with Ahab, and placed it early in the book as a sign of what is to come.
There are also passages in which the narrator expresses directly to the reader opinions that are appropriate to the text and are views that Melville clearly held. After explaining how property rights are established after a dead whale is temporarily abandoned, he asks, "What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish! And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?" We should be annoyed if we thought that the story line were there only to set us up for the generalization, but Melville's gifts as a storyteller prevent this: The comment rises from the action. While the passage is not about Ahab, it implies what is wrong with him-in his arrogance and isolation he denies the inevitable interdependence of personal identity and community, one of the novel's great themes.
In a novel where ambition reaches out to some of the largest matters-man's position in the natural world, the nature of charismatic rule in its moral dimensions, the very nature of reality itself-there are notable exclusions in Moby-Dick, though not through oversight. Important aspects of daily life are less represented than one would usually expect in a novel: Food, sleep, hygiene, pastimes are hardly present, nor matters of health-important on such a vessel-except for Queequeg's illness.
These exclusions come about because the literary genre closest to Moby-Dick is not the traditional prose narrative, but the epic-a form in which the texture of common life is often treated lightly to allow concentration on the protagonist and heroic action. After the nights and steaks in New Bedford's Spouter Inn and the meals of Mrs. Hussey's Nantucket chowder, there is little detail of this kind once the Pequod leaves the dock, with four-fifths of the novel still to come.