Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Biblical and Literary Ishmael
“It is generally well known that out of the crews of Whaling
vessels (American) few ever return in the ships on board of which they
--Cruise on a Whale Boat (l)
According to the quote above, whaling was considered one of the most dangerous jobs, and that it was common knowledge that many whalers did not return at all. It would stand to reason, then, that Ishmael knew the danger that awaited him on the vessel. However, Ishmael begins the tale of Moby Dick “Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” (3), which immediately clues the reader in to the fact that Ishmael has survived. Perhaps the fact that he has lived through this almost certainly fatal experience is a nod to his name.
It seems, by the way he introduces himself—“Call me Ishmael” (3)—that perhaps this is a name he has given himself after the fact, after he has survived all this hardship. Instead of introducing himself more concretely—“I am Ishmael”, “My name is Ishmael”, etc— or introducing himself later through narrative constructs like dialogue, Melville chooses to begin the novel with an assertion of conditional identity. In Genesis, it is written, “‘…Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him a great nation.’” (Gen. 17-18). It seems that perhaps Ishmael began calling himself Ishmael after Abraham’s illegitimate son because of the “hostility” (Gen. 25:18 he had faced and hardships he had overcome.
Perhaps Ishmael had always felt underprivileged or underappreciated, the son of a slave. Ishmael identified with the feelings of inferiority that were forced upon the Biblical Ishmael, being blessed, but not of the covenant with God (Gen. 17:20-21). Perhaps these feelings of inadequacy brought about by Melville’s Ishmael’s monotonous life and poverty may have led him to identify with the Biblical character of Ishmael.
Ishmael knew of the danger of whaling and his slim chance of returning alive, but, still he was eager to get to sea. “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;” Melville writes. “[W]henever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street…I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (3). It seems that Ishmael craves the excitement of the whale hunt over the monotony of his life and over the poor house. “This is my substitute for pistol and ball,” Ishmael tells the reader. “With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (3). Ishmael takes pride in the fact that he has chosen a quiet, inconspicuous way to die. If he returns, then, it will be a pleasant surprise and fate will have blessed him, and he may continue on in life having survived what many would consider certain death.
Like the slavery of Ishmael of the Bible, Melville’s Ishmael becomes a slave to Ahab and his mission, and comes out on top. It is important to read into Ishmael’s
calm acceptance of danger and death. He has become apathetic to the life he is
living and longs for adventure, even if it means death. When Elijah warns
Ishmael and Queequeg about Ahab—“Well, well, what’s signed, is signed; and what’s
to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all” (102)—Ishmael seems
more curious than anxious, when thinking on what Elijah had told him, “begat
[Ishmael] all kinds of vague wonderments and half-apprehensions,” (103).
Ishmael is worried about what might become of him aboard this ship under his master
It seems that this curious assertion by Elijah that “what’s to be, will be; and then again, perhaps it won’t be, after all” (103), hearkens back to the Biblical text when Hagar flees from her mistress, Sarai (Sarah), for she is worried about the mistreatment she is receiving and about the safety and wellbeing of her unborn son (Ishmael). The angel puts her worries at ease, promising “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count” (Gen. 16:10). And so, too, do Ishmael and Queequeg decide to continue in their employment on the Pequod.
The literary Ishmael identifies with the Biblical Ishmael and so, after enduring a form of slavery to the ocean and to Ahab, and facing almost certain death, The Melvillian Ishmael becomes a symbol of and a sort of expansion of the Biblical Ishmael. Inadequacy brought on by monotonous lifestyle and lack of funds pushes Ishmael towards adventure and danger, whereas Biblical Ishmael lives “in hostility toward all his brothers” (Gen. 16:12), represented here by the sea, the other sailors, and, ultimately Moby Dick himself.