“And whereas all the other things, whether beast or vessel, that enter into the dreadful gulf of this monster’s (whale’s) mouth, are immediately lost and swallowed up, the sea-gudgeon retires into it in great security, and there sleeps” (Montaigne. – Apology for Raimond Sebond).
Melville makes his intentions known at the very beginning of the novel with the chapter of “Excerpts.” It is something that gives the reader context to follow throughout the novel. It also sets up a framework for the reader to take these phrases and attempt to interpret them while they read. The quote shown above is one that I found particularly interesting in the way it allowed me to interpret some of the characters. It seemed very appealing to look at how this quote applies to the character of Ishmael. He is a narrator that Melville allows the reader to form their own opinions about his actions and motivations. I simply believed that the excerpt allowed me to view Ishmael in a certain context from the very start of the novel.
The statement above says a lot about Melville’s intentions for the main character of his novel. He is a narrator that can come across in all different ways depending on how it is read. He could be telling this tale of the Pequod after the fact, or it could be during their long adventure. He could also be making up some facts, or he could serve as an omnipotent narrator that has knowledge of things that are going on without his involvement. Ishmael originally decides to take up whaling as an endeavor because he is essentially lost and looking for a way to cast himself away. At the beginning of the novel, he states that “Whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (Melville 3). This statement is a very early indication of the comfort that Ishmael finds within all the darkness and terror of the ocean. To him, this death sentence on the ocean is like a liberating experience that, like suicide on land, will remove him from the real world and place him in a new, fantastical environment at sea. When discussing the Pacific Ocean, Ishmael says, “There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John” (Melville 525). Ishmael obviously finds something calming in the endless mystery of the ocean. He uses phrases there such as “sweet mystery” and “gently awful” that really make his feelings and intentions about the sea known. Knowing this, the excerpt can apply to him exceptionally well. The word gently in particular really ushers a sense of ease in Ishmael when placed within the tempestuous environment of the ocean. He would basically find his “great security” in the consumption by a whale or the sea. It is like he is looking for a more honorable way to kill himself, and the whale would offer this great release for him by just ending it all. The great whale consumes anything that is in its path, and that thing will be destroyed. However, there are some situations, such as with the sea-gudgeon, where this consumption gives them something more than just death. Ishmael has essentially accepted the sea as his burial ground throughout the novel and finds serenity in the depthless and haunting abyss.
Ishmael has nothing to return to back on land, and the people on the Pequod, particularly Queequeg, become very close to him over time. His relationship with Queequeg develops very rapidly from the original perception that he forms. When Queequeg first enters the room at the Spouter Inn, Ishmael says that “I confess I was now as much afraid of him as if it was the devil himself who had thus broken into my room at the dead of night. In fact, I was so afraid of him that I was not game enough just then to address him” (Melville 24). Melville uses such strong language as to compare Queequeg to “the devil himself.” This is a very extreme comparison, but it serves to state how truly frightened Ishmael was of this man. It also can be seen that Ishmael finds Queequeg to be some sort of monster. He recognizes that men of the South Seas have been known to be cannibals so he may believe this to be true of Queequeg as well. Clearly, South Sea cannibals are not people that many Americans are familiar with, and they’d be very afraid to be confronted by such an uncivilized looking person with tattoos all over his body. Queequeg is a savage with dark skin who uses a harpoon at the breakfast table originally. However instead of being swallowed up by his first impression of this man, he finds peace in the man that Queequeg actually is. Not long after becoming acquainted with him, Ishmael is already saying, “Savage though he was, and hideously marred about the face … You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart” (Melville 55). He is able to very quickly identify the man beneath all the tattoos as just another human being with a good heart. Ishmael begins to enjoy his time with Queequeg, and the two form a very tight bond which even becomes quite sexualized throughout the novel, including the two sharing a metaphorical marriage. “He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married” (Melville 57). This is a very overtly sexual act by Queequeg, and for Ishmael to use language like the word “married” is an extremely strong statement. Homosexuality is something that was very common among whaling ships as they were at sea with all men for several years at a time. However, homosexuality is not something that was generally accepted, and people could even see it as a monstrous act. Harold Beaver gives a length description of the problems associated with homosexuality, “The primal injunction was formulated long ago by none other than God: ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ Homosexuality defies that injunction … like cannibalism, it threatens to turn abundance to sterility … It transgresses not merely against breeding but against the institution of marriage and the family” (Beaver 99). Homosexuality does go against human biology and the necessity of humans to pass on their own genes because it is impossible with another man. This act can be compared to the monster from the excerpt in a way. It is all-consuming for those involved and often seen as someone being swallowed up by the Devil for religious types. People were generally disapproving of homosexuality. However, Ishmael is able to find refuge when he is with Queequeg. Towards the start of the story, they are literally sleeping together, and Ishmael awakes with Queequeg’s arm around him. So, it is possible for Ishmael to be compared to the sea-gudgeon when looking at him compared to the traditional taboos of homosexuality and the comfort he is able to find with Queequeg. These two have obviously formed a relationship beyond that of friends, and it would only become stronger when they are stranded on a boat together for years in the face of impending doom. When first introduced to his shipmates, many of them seem strange to Ishmael, and he doesn’t seem immediately ready to accept them. Towards the end of the novel, he has become very close to all of his shipmates, and his relationship with Queequeg has grown even further. In something of a final sign of his acceptance of Queequeg, Ishmael allows his formerly clean body to be covered in tattoos. Tattoos were a sign of savagery and a lack of cleanliness in America at that time so Ishmael’s willingness to do this is quite a tribute to his partner. After Queequeg recovers from his fever and inscribes his tattoos onto the coffin, it eventually comes to serve as the boat’s life buoy. This coffin was to be the noble symbol of Queequeg’s death, and it now serves as the very thing that can keep someone alive in the event of an accident. This strange irony eventually serves an enormous purpose as it is the device which Ishmael grabs onto after the attack from Moby Dick when all the other shipmates are killed. From his early fear of Queequeg as a cannibalistic savage to his “marriage” with him, it is clear that Ishmael is able to look past this “dreadful monster” and find serenity in his relationship with him.
Ishmael seems to find comfort in the whole dangerous situation at sea. He is able to learn new things from the people around him and is highly proficient with whaling terminology and practice. A large theme of this novel is the pursuit of knowledge although it is almost unobtainable, particularly in the form of Moby Dick. Ishmael narrates many chapters that consist of very little narrative and just information about whales, whaling, culture, etc. It is clear that he is a man who enjoys learning and finds some amount of comfort in it. If the metaphor that the great whale is an unobtainable source of knowledge could be seen as true, Ishmael would be able to find much comfort in this search as it is leading him towards a goal which would benefit him immensely. He mentions many times during the novel that sperm whales are an elusive organism, and it has been nearly impossible for anyone to get a completely accurate story for their appearance and behavior. In the chapter “Cetology,” he states, “But it is a ponderous task; no ordinary letter-sorter in the Post-office is equal to it. To grope down into the bottom of the sea after them; to have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing” (Melville 147). He uses very extreme metaphors when describing how difficult it is to sort out whales because it is such an unknown subject. He even describes the sperm whale as “majestic” on page 149. This impossibility to completely describe them would bring intrigue and mystery to the sperm whale for Ishmael, and he would be motivated to learn more about it because he is searching for knowledge in this empty abyss. He would find great comfort in being consumed by the monster’s mouth, as the monster is simply a metaphor for surpassing the limits of human knowledge and transcending. He will not be consumed by the edges of human knowledge that can destroy so many men. Instead, he will actively seek it out for his own benefit and comfort.
Ishmael is like the sea-gudgeon in many ways throughout Moby Dick. Whether it is the reason for his quest, his relationship with Queequeg, or his search for knowledge in the form of the whale, he is always searching for “great security,” and there he will find the sleep he has been searching for since the beginning of the journey.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. 1851. New York City: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Beaver, Harold. “Homosexuality Signs.” Critical Inquiry 8.1 (1981): 99-119. Print.