Revision to: The Influence of Ishmael
Ishmael is a character who has a large impact within Moby Dick but the reader may sometimes forget how important he is. 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 attributes it to a reader’s interpretation of the novel. Joseph Fruscione goes along with the same idea as Pütz but he decides to focus on the races of the characters as seen by Ishmael.
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 it seemed as if there was a little tenderness in the way he described Queequeg’s actions. One instance of this was when Queequeg saved Tashtego from the whale’s head. No one on the ship was doing much to try as save Tashtego,
“when a naked figure with a boarding sword in its hand, was for one swift moment seen hovering over the bulwarks. The next, a loud splash announced that my brave Queequeg had dived to the rescue” and “And thus, through the courage and great skill in obstetrics of Queequeg, the deliverance, or rather, delivery of Tashtego, was successfully accomplished, …Midwifery should be taught in the same course with fencing and boxing, riding and rowing” (Melville 375 & 376).
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. “Queequeg is different, and Ishmael knows this because he never stops looking at him – nor do we” (Fruscione, 14).
Fruscione explored the topic of race and how it is portrayed by Ishmael. Ishmael seems to romanticize the characters of “other” races, like the harpooners, Fleece, and Pip. “Ishmael dramatizes Queequeg’s exoticism….Queequeg’s confusingly intricate tattoos and language fascinate Ishmael, effectively sating his desire for the exotic and ‘other’” (Fruscione, 7). Ishmael loves Queequeg because of how different he is. Ishmael needed something different in his life, this is why he chose to go whaling instead of commit suicide. He ultimately clings to Queequeg for life, emotionally throughout most of the novel and then physically at the end through the coffin. We, as the reader, cling to Queequeg as well because we see him just like Ishmael does. Ishmael describes Pip in “The Castaway” saying that, “this little black was brilliant, for even blackness has its brilliancy; behold yon lustrous ebony, paneled in king’s cabinets” (Melville 451). Again, Ishmael likes the uniqueness of the “other” and exotic characters. We see at the end of the novel that he is so intrigued by them that he joins their society following this voyage.
Fruscione then goes to show Ishmael’s comparison of the “other” races to the white characters, specifically Ahab. The whiteness of Ahab is overemphasized with his “lividly whitish” scar, white brow, his leg made from sperm whale bone, and his ivory stool and table (Fruscione, 10). As stated in “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter and class, white can be a symbol for power as well as fear. This was also seen during “The Candles” chapter where lightning had struck and lit the masts with a white flame, evoking fear throughout the crew. Ahab, on the other hand, sees it as a symbol of power and a sign of the presence of Moby-Dick in nearby waters. Ishmael shortly focuses on the harpooners and compares them to the flames: “Daggoo, loomed up to thrice his real stature, and seemed the black cloud from which the thunder had come. The parted mouth of Tashtego revealed his shark-white teeth, which strangely gleamed as if they too had been tipped by corpusants; while lit up by the preternatural light, Queequeg’s tattooing burned like Satanic blue flames on his body” (Melville, 549). Ishmael sees the power of these men and is obviously in awe, rather than in fear of it, and uses vivid language to express it.
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 Starbuck was the narrator, he would have seen the mission as a suicide mission and Ahab would have been viewed in a different light. Starbuck would have centered many thoughts on the impending doom of the mission that Ahab had the ship on. He would have also seen Ahab as insane and self-centered. This occurs in “The Quarter-Deck” chapter where Ahab reveals the true purpose of the Pequod’s crew and he has a disagreement with Starbuck. Starbuck wants to hunt whales and make a profit, not help Ahab achieve his revenge or die over one animal. Starbuck would have also had a different viewpoint compared to Ishmael in regards to the one small instance where Ahab shows his humanity since he is the only one who experienced it.
With having the readers believe what is said and begin to think how a narrator thinks, I am reminded 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. “Language not only reflects these controls but becomes itself an instrument of control even where it does not transmit orders but information; where it demands, not obedience but choice, not submission but freedom” (Marcuse, 103). Ishmael may not be intentionally controlling the thoughts and opinions of his audience, compared to politicians and advertisements in today’s world, but he still has the same effect. Just like Kermode has stated when he gave a short summary of a story, “In the circumstances I had better give a brief account of it. Probably, in doing so, I shall unconsciously cheat a bit, and favor the particular interpretation that follows” (5). We see people and events through the author or storyteller’s eyes, and it is unavoidable, “Yet the world is full of interpreters; it is impossible to live in it without repeated, if minimal, acts of interpretation”. The only way to make our own interpretation of things is to experience it completely on our own. In the case of Queequeg, since he is a fictional character, there is no way to make our own and completely unbiased opinion about him, the only way to see him at all is through the descriptions provided by Ishmael.
Ishmael painted positive pictures for those of different colors like Pip, Fleece, and the harpooners. Some people could argue that Ishmael is not the main reason that we see the characters of “other” races this way. I completely believe that it is. If someone like Ahab was the narrator of Moby-Dick instead of Ishmael, the members of the crew who were of a different race would probably have been seen in the opposite way as Ishmael did. Ahab only connected with his harpooners to keep them motivated and make sure that Moby-Dick ultimately dies. I don’t believe that Ahab would have had much contact with them at all if it was a regular whaling quest for profit. Ahab stands on top of Fedallah in “The Candles” as he gives his little speech regarding the flames. If this is not a symbol showing his feelings on “other” races, then I don’t know what is. Ahab’s language would have probably been emphasized in looking down upon the “other” races. His language could have ultimately “hypnotized” the reader into believing that they did not like those characters or that they were inferior and had no real purpose for being on the ship other than to kill Moby-Dick. Someone could argue that Ahab did like the “other” races since he had a relationship with Pip. I think that Ahab liked Pip because he could connect in terms of sanity. Otherwise, Ahab kept the hierarchy in the relationship and eventually separated himself when he realized that he was straying from his goal of hunting Moby-Dick.
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.
Fruscione, Joseph. “What is called savagery”, Leviathan vol 10, issue 1 (2008): 3-24. 29 March 2011.
Kermode, Frank. The Genesis of Secrecy on the interpretation of narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1979.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Harper & Brothers, 1851.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon Press 1964.