Friday, March 18, 2011

The Influence of Ishmael

I have been intrigued by Ishmael and how he went about telling the story. He does not focus on himself very much even though he has such a big role in the novel. Ishmael is a character who has a large impact within Moby Dick but the reader may sometimes forget how important he is. People may not understand his importance as a character since it doesn't seem like he is very involved in the ongoings of the ship. But, he probably has the most impact on the story out of everyone because he is the one telling it. Manfred Pütz analyzes the styles in which Ishmael describes certain events and works, like books and art, and attributes it to a reader’s interpretation of the novel.

Pütz explains throughout his article how Ishmael orients his views and descriptions in two different ways depending on the subject or circumstance, “in some cases his responses are reader/viewer-oriented, whereas in others they are object-oriented, which is to say that in the one case they tell us something about the perceiver, while in the other case they tell us something about the perceived” (161).

When Ishmael tells us of something that is being perceived, it can sometimes give us a glimpse on what is going on with Ishmael without him directly stating it. For example, Pütz points out how Ishmael describes the painting in the chapel where Father Mapple’s sermon took place. Ishmael sees an angel over a ship that is fighting through a storm and perceives the angel to be encouraging the ship to persevere. Pütz focuses more on Ishmael’s reaction to the painting rather than the painting itself. He believes that Ishmael’s reaction gives the reader insight into Ishmael’s state of mind. “What Ishmael as a personified audience figure believes he has grasped – lost in himself though seemingly reaching out beyond himself to a world of signs and significances – is that the angel’s message spells hope and blessing for the ventures he is soon to embark upon” (164). If the reader were to realize this, they could understand Ishmael a little more by his underlying opinions and mind frame within almost every event and description that he tells throughout Moby-Dick.

Ishmael is so important because he has control over how the story, each character, and each event is portrayed. “Ishmael as a personified audience figure, then, functions as an interpretative model for the reading of the story he himself narrates” (170). I agree with Pütz that Ishmael has a lot of influence on how the reader perceives the characters and events that happen throughout Moby-Dick. Yes, many times Ishmael spoke objectively about certain things, but at the same time, it seemed as though there were hidden opinions and views of Ishmael’s within his descriptions. Whenever Ishmael describes something regarding Queequeg, like when he dove after the man that went overboard or when he rescued Tashtego from the whale head, it seemed as if there was a little tenderness in the way he described Queequeg’s actions. When a reader sees characters in this light, they begin to believe it themselves. I found myself growing fond of Queequeg because of the things he does for others but it was probably encouraged or amplified through the remarks and feelings of Ishmael.

If Ishmael “misreads signs” and interprets things according to his moods or circumstances, how much of a reader’s interpretation is their own and how much is a result of Ishmael’s? Would Queequeg have been just like any other character if Ishmael had not grown so close to him? What if the story was told from a third person narrator? How different would Ahab be in the eyes of the reader if, for instance, Pip was the narrator or maybe even Starbuck? I believe that the story, as a whole, would be the same but the portrayal of individuals would be different. For example, if Pip or Starbuck were the narrator, Ahab would have been seen in different ways. Pip would have seen him as a friend or companion where Starbuck could have emphasized more of the transformation, or at least temporary transformation, of Ahab when he became compassionate since it probably affected Starbuck more than anyone else.

I noticed how open Ishmael is when it comes to people of other races. He painted positive pictures for those of different colors like Pip, Fleece, and the harpooners. This could have been the complete opposite if someone who was of the white supremacy ideology narrated the story instead. I think of Marcuse when it came to what he called “hypnotic language”. Even though Marcuse references it in terms of manipulation through advertisements and politicians, the narration of Moby-Dick is almost manipulation in regards to the reader’s perception of characters through Ishmael’s eyes.

Pütz, Manfred. “The Narrator as Audience: Ishmael as Reader and Critic in Moby-Dick”. Studies in the Novel 19.2 (1987): 160. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 16 Mar. 2011.


  1. Your research is quite good, and your explanation of it, and of how it accurately (in your view) describes how we read is excellent. Really, I find myself without a great deal to say, in a good way, but let me at least take the opportunity to imagine how a revision would work.

    1) Clearly, your views are here, and are well articulated, but are also just starting out. The most obvious way to beginning describing and building on your views more systematically would be to read some passages, presumably passages where Ishmael's viewpoint seems especially important (cutting Tashtego from the whale's head is a good example), or where another character's view would be radically different (Starbuck's point of view description of "The Quarterdeck" would surely be radically different.

    2) Your discussion of Marcuse's hypnotic language in relationship with MD is both perceptive and interesting, but it doesn't really integrate well with the rest of your essay. It would be an excellent main focus, and a more detailed discussion might fight it into a longer essay just focusing on Ishmael's point of view - but it doesn't, at this time, flow smoothly.

  2. I like your choice of topic, I found myself wondering about the exact manner in which Ishmael narrated the story while I was reading Moby Dick. It seemed odd to me that a "narrator" wasn't explicitly expressing his opinions, but you make an interesting argument as to how he is in fact doing this.
    I think the statement itself that Ishmael influences the readers views is somewhat obvious in that a narrator who took part in the story being told should and does do this. I agree that choosing a passage or a few passages in particular would help you to argue your point more clearly and I also think would give you a better chance to utilize your views and connections to Marcuse. Just as a suggestion, I think some of Ishmael's passages on Queequeg would be a great point to start; you're clearly already interested in this part of the narrative and it would also be interesting to examine (like we did in class) the language surrounding Ishmael's descriptions. Why is he so seemingly open about their relationship early in the novel but seemingly (at least through his language) apathetic in others?