Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who Is Ismael?

During our reading of Moby Dick, I have noticed the stark changes in narration between the chapters. The novel begins with Ishmael’s account of Nantucket and the ships, but he quickly moves on to chapters entirely consisting of description and his witness to the going-ons aboard the ship. He is less and less relevant as a character in the plot as he takes on his role of narrator and informer. That he describes himself as a teacher seems a matter of convenience for Melville’s lesson chapters (such as cetology). But because Ishmael seems to take on such an expansive role as the sailor, thinker and teacher, his true nature is questionable. So then, who is Ishmael?

Thomas L. Dumm was concerned with Ishmael’s role and its evolution throughout the book. In his article “Who Is Ishmael?” Dumm both discusses Eyal Peretz’s analysis of Ishmael and presents his own theory. He describes Peterz’s argument as a relation of Ishmael to the lonely survivor who is merely giving his testimony. Dumm then goes on to make the argument that Ishmael is actually Pip, the black, fearful ship-keeper who hardly displays sailing ability and is more of a burden on the boat than helpful. He uses Ishmael’s views into the captain’s quarters and dining room and also his high regard for Pip as the most important sailor on the ship as his reasoning for this argument.

Ishmael does share characteristics with Pip. His name, as Dumm discusses, is a link between the two men. According to Dumm, in the bible Ishmael was Abraham’s illegitimate son born to his slave, Hagar (Dumm 401). He argues that Pip created Ishmael and chose this name for himself as a disguise to share his testimony because of this biblical connotation because Pip is the slave of the ship. His argument is plausible, because they do share many similarities such as this and as Pip he would have access to the quarters of the ship forbidden to the average sailor. But Pip is not the only character that Ishmael shares strong connections to. He has insight into the thoughts and emotions of many other characters as well.

I would argue that Ishmael is Pip, but he is also a piece of all of the characters. He is the conscience of the ship. When Captain Ahab walks among the ship, always thinking, Ishmael seems to share insight with him and understand his anxious desire to catch Moby Dick. When Ishmael sees the captain thinking, he is thinking as well, and analyzing the captain’s pacing on the ship. While Pip would have time to observe the captain, he could not definitively know of the pressing anxiety. Pip seems also to be a more simple character, so even if he constantly watched the captains mannerisms and observed the madness that the whale was driving him towards, he would not have insight into his thoughts to understand that Moby Dick was the sole source of this madness.

When Elijah ominously enters the text, he forewarns Ishmael and Queequeg of a danger that comes with boarding the Pequod. He is speaking of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick that we learn about after the ship has already sailed. In this instance, Elijah represents Ishmael’s own fears that he cannot acknowledge on his own. When Elijah comes, Ishmael quickens his pace and tries to escape him, as if he is escaping his own questioning of his destiny aboard the ship. But while he externally seems to ignore Elijah and deems him a mad fool, the warning lurks below. He has constant anxiety awaiting Captain Ahab’s ascent to the deck, always in fear of what is unknown. Ishmael sustains a connection to Elijah through his suspicion, and so he is also a piece of him.

In all of his roles, Ishmael is an observer. He watches and analyzes the interactions of the sailors and relays through his narration those interactions of significance. He is always listening and watching because he is all of them. He is Pip, but his is also the captain and Elijah. He is also Queequeg and Starbuck. He is the soul of the Pequod and all who sail it.


Dumm, Thomas L. “Who Is Ismael?” Massachusetts Review, Sept. 2005, 46:3, p. 398-414.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Penguin Group, 2003.

1 comment:

  1. That's an interesting idea (about Pip and Ishmael, I mean). My take on that idea is that that's the sort of thing a modern reader wishes for - to take a relatively liberated and liberating novel (on the topic of race) and push it farther, to make it more liberated and liberating than it actually is. But it's a fascinating reading, and I can see several reasons why one would make it.

    For the record, I think your insight (which you should have made using a couple passages...) that Ishmael fluidly slips in and out of various people's minds (or however you want to say it) is more correct, although it's still a good idea to work through the consequences of that idea through examples (like Pip).