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A Critical Analysis of Herman Melville's Moby Dick
"Moby Dick is biographic of Melville in the sense that it discloses
every nook and cranny of his imagination." (Humford 41) This paper is a
psychological study of Moby Dick. Moby Dick was written out of Melville's
Moby Dick is a story of the adventures a person named Ishmael. Ishmael
is a lonely, alienated individual who wants to see the "watery part of the
world." Moby Dick begins with the main character, Ishmael, introducing himself
with the line "Call Me Ishmael." (Melville 1) Ishmael tells the reader about
his background and creates a depressed mood for the reader. Call me Ishmael.
"Some years ago-nevermind how long precisely- having little or no money in my
purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail
about a little and see the watery part of the world." (Melville 1) Ishmael
tells the reader about his journeys through various towns such as New Bedford,
Nankantuket. Eventually while in Nankantuket, Ishmael signed up for a whaling
voyage on the Pequod. The Pequod was the whaling boat Ishmael sailed on where
such characters as Queequeq, Starbuck, and the captain of the ship, Ahab, all
Not long once at sea, the captain of the ship, Ahab reveals his plan to
hunt down a white whale named Moby Dick. Ahab was veteran sailor, a man that had
a heart of stone. Ahab had a personal grudge against Moby Dick. Moby Dick was
responsible for taking off Ahab's leg in a previous voyage. Ahab's plan was
essentially an unauthorized takeover, what the whaling company had not in mind.
Ahab was very irrational and ludicrous; his plan seals the fate for himself and
the crew of the Pequod. In the tragic ending of Moby Dick, all of the
characters die except for Ishmael. Ishmael survived Moby Dick's attack of the
ship with the help of a coffin that his close friend Queequeq built. Ishmael of
Moby Dick was a special character because he closely relates to the author's
own life. There are many symbolism's between Ishmael of Moby Dick and Herman
Melville's own life. The name Ishmael can be traced back to the Bible. The
Biblical story of Ishamel is one of a rejected outcast. This "rejected outcast"
can be linked to Ishmael of Moby Dick and Herman Melville's own life. In Herman
Melville's Moby Dick, Ishmael is symbolic of the author's own life.
Herman Melville's childhood played an important part in his life.
Herman Melville's childhood is evident throughout his writings. Herman
Melville's childhood was an unconventional one. There were many twists and
turns that Herman experienced. Melville was born on August 1, 1819, in New York
City, the third of eight children. His mother's family the Gansevoorts of
Albany were Dutch brewers who settled in Albany in the seventeenth century
achieving the status of landed gentry. "The Gansevoorts were solid, stable,
eminent, prosperous people; the (Herman's Father's side) Melvilles were somewhat
less successful materially, possessing an unpredictable. erratic, mercurial
strain." (Edinger 6) This difference between the Melville's and Gansevoorts was
the beginning of the trouble for the Melville family. Herman's mother tried to
work her way up the social ladder by moving into bigger and better homes. While
borrowing money from the bank, her husband was spending more than he was earning.
"It is my conclusion that Maria Melville never committed herself emotionally to
her husband, but remained primarily attached to the well off Gansevoort family."
(Humford 23) Allan Melville was also attached financially to the Gansevoorts for
support. There is a lot of evidence concerning Melville's relation to his
mother Maria Melville. "Apparently the older son Gansevoort who carried the
mother's maiden name was distinctly her favorite." (Edinger 7) This was a sense
of alienation the Herman Melville felt from his mother. This was one of the
first symbolists to the Biblical Ishamel. The following are a few excerpts from
some of Melville's works that show evidence of his childhood. A passage from
Melville's Redburn shows that Melville was attached to his mother, "The name of
the mother was the centre of all my hearts finest feelings." (Melville 33) The
following poem that Melville wrote shows his unreciprocated love for his mother.
I made the junior feel his place
Subserve the senior, love him too;
And soothe he does, and that is his saving grace
But me the meek one never can serve,
Hot he, he lacks quality keen
To make the mother through the soon
An envied dame of power a social queen. (Melville 211)
Herman's father's side originally Scots with connections in the peerage,
were Boston merchants. Herman's father, Allan Melville, was a merchant and
importer dealing with French goods.
Allan Melville's family was not as high on the social ladder as the
Gansevoorts were. "Allan Melville seems to have been socially charming and
sensitive, but basically weak, with a long standing dependence on his father,
and more especially on his wife's bother Peter Gansevoort." (Humford 33) "Allan
Melville's sons may have found a more substantial father experience with their
maternal uncle Peter Gansevoort." (Edinger 8) Hermans father was to busy with
business causing his children to find their uncle as the father figure. This was
the start for the financial collapse that later happened Allan Melville was
unrealistic and had a lot of wishful optimism. "He seems to have been a man who
constantly lived beyond his means, continually expecting a great windfall to be
around the corner." (Humford 35) When Allan Melville was borrowing money for his
business, he was trying to fulfill his wife's social ambitions by moving into
larger homes. Eventually that bubble burst and Allan Melville had fallen into a
total financial and psychological collapse. Although Allan Melville meant well,
he was not managing his money properly and all of this stress took a toll on his
The masculine figure in the family was the uncle, Peter Gansevoort. Not
long after Allan Mellville's financial collapse he died. Herman's father's
death and his father's dependence on Peter Gansevoort probably had an effect on
Herman's early psychological development. Its effects would show up in his
later writings. Herman's relatives helped the struggling family in any way they
could, but they had their own interests too. At the age of twelve Herman
Melville was forced to stop his education and go to work.
Herman's older brother Gansevoort who was conventionally the successful
one owned a hat store. After a few months of job hunting with no luck Herman
decided to work at his brother's hat store. Gansevoort eventually opened a law
office and later became prominent in politics. Working at his brother's hat
store Herman felt, "This is not the way Herman doubtless felt that one's
adolescence should open." (Humford 40) All of Melville's ambitions to go to
college, become an orator, and travel were stopped. "Herman was as unambitious
as a man of sixty. Such careers do not begin at a hat shop." (Humford 41) This
lost and aimless feeling was similar to the feelings that the Biblical Ishamel
Unable to get his bearings, not knowing what to do at the age of twenty,
Herman signed up as a common sailor on a merchant vessel sailing for Liverpool.
(Edinger 22) After four months Herman was back from his voyage still lost and
aimless. At the age of twenty one he signed up for a four year voyage on a
whaling ship. (Edinger 22) While people his age were in college Melville wrote
in Moby Dick, "A whaling ship was my Yale College and Harvard." "From a
cultivated, genteel environment, Melville was suddenly plunged, unprepared into
the coarse life of the sea." (Rosenberry 31)
"Moby Dick begins with the striking sentence, "Call me Ishmael,' we are
immediately confronted with the figure of the rejected outcast, the alienated
man." (Porter 15) At the beginning of Judaic mythical history stands the figure
of Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews. Abraham had two sons, Isaac, the
legitimate, the accepted one, and Ishmael, the illegitimate, the rejected one.
In the Bible (Gen:16) an angel speaks to Ishmael's mother Hagar saying;
Behold, you are with a child and shall bear a son; you shall call him
Ishmael; because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be
a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every mans' hand
against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsman. (Gen:16)
Ishamel and his mother Hagar were cast into the wilderness to die. God saved
Ishmael who lead the Muslims. Issac, Ishmael's brother was a follower of
Christianity. From a Christian viewpoint Ishmael was the enemy, and one who
must be repressed and rejected. "To himself, Ishmael is the rejected orphan who
through no fault of his own has been cruelly cast out and condemned to wander
beyond the pale." (McSwenny 25) This sense of rejection can be connected
Melville's life by his mother's favoritism toward her other son and Herman's
father's untimely death. Herman's journeys at sea can also be interpreted as
alienation and rejection.
Melville's writings show that he was preoccupied throughout his life
with figure of Ishmael. In Mardi he writes, "sailors are mostly foundlings and
castaways and carry their kith and kin in their arms and legs." (Melville 21) In
Redburn Melville writes "at last I have found myself a sort of Ishmael on the
ship, without a single friend or companion." (60) In Pierre Melville writes "so
that once more he might not feed himself driven out an Ishmael into the desert,
with no maternal Haggard to accompany and comfort him." (125)
"Melville had what might be called an "Ishmael complex.'" It had two
sources; personal life experience and identification with an archetypal image."
(Edinger 16) The personal cause would be the insanity and death of his father
and the following hardships. Melville was twelve and a half at the time when
his father died, close to the Biblical Ishmael who was thirteen. In addition,
he was rejected by his mother, who favored her first son, "...acceptance and
rejection are properly alternating phases in the developmental process...to
become identified with only one these opposites leads to an arrested
development." Herman Melville's lack of acceptance in his life caused himself to
identify with the Biblical figure of Ishmael.
(Humford 25) "Most of the action is seen through the eyes of Ishmael. He will
thus represent the author's ego..." (Edinger 10) Melville was the rejected
sibling much like the Biblical Ishmael.
If Melville was personally identified with the figure of Ishmael, it has
more than a personal meaning, it represents the opposing attitude. "To speak as
Ishmael means to speak from a position outside the orthodox an conventional."
(Glien 89) If there is any doubt that the name Ishmael symbolizes a state of
alienation and despair, this doubt can not survive the first paragraph of Moby
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago-nevermind how long precisely- having
little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to
interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little
and see the watery part of the world....whenever it is a
damp, drizzly November in my soul... (Melville 1) Numerous literary critics have
pointed out the first line of Moby Dick "Call Me Ishmael." (Melville 1) "What
does the opening sentence of Moby Dick mean? Ishmael is trying to say never mind
what my real name is but think of me as a rejected outcast." (Dickinson 23) The
mood of a "damp, drizzly November in the soul," sets the whole mood for the
whole novel. "It is a state of depression, emptiness, and alienation from life
values." (Glien 60)
Herman Melville experienced many hardships in his life; Beginning with
his unstable childhood and the slight rejection by his mother, more of a
favoritism toward another sibling. The father was not the center male figure in
the family, it was the maternal uncle. His father was a weak willed individual
who lived beyond his means and had a dependence on his brother in law for
financial support. Melville's father also went bankrupt, had a mental collapse,
and then died. These experiences had a psychological impact on him that lasted
his whole life. These hardships are evident throughout his writings and
symbolized in Moby Dick by the character Ishmael. The name Ishmael can be
traced back to the Biblical story of Ishmael, who was alienated child. The
story of Ishmael closely relates to Melville's life. There is a vast amount of
evidence proving that Melville knew of the Biblical story of Ishmael and
purposely named Ishmael of Moby Dick, Ishmael.
The Bible. Revised Standard Version.
Edinger, Edward. Melville's Moby Dick: A Jungian Commentary. New York: New
Directions Books, 1978.
Glein, William. The Meaning of Moby Dick. NewYork: Russel & Russel, 1962.
Humford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Quinn & Borden Comany Inc, 1929.
McSweeny, Kerry. Moby Dick, Ishmael's Mighty Book. Boston: Twayne Publishers,
Melville, Herman. Mardi. New York: New American Library, 1964.
Melvillle, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.
Melville, Herman. Pierre. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.
Melville, Herman. Redburn. Garden City: Doubleday & Co, 1957.
Melville, Herman. "Timolean," Collected Poems. Chicago: Packard & Co, 1947.
Porter, Carolyn. "Call Me Ishmael or How to Make Double Talk Speak." New Essays
on Moby Dick. Ed. Richard Brodhead. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.
Rosenberry, Edward. Melville. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1979.
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2. Self-Presentation of the Narrator
3. Critical Opinions about the Narrator
4. The Narrator’s Relationship with Other Characters in the Novel
4.3. The Crew
5. The Narrator as Observer
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is an epic tale of the voyage of the Pequod and the ship’s captain, Ahab, who relentlessly hunts the white Sperm Whale Moby-Dick during a journey around the world. Ever since the whale took his leg, Ahab has been seeking revenge. However the hunt ends fatally for Ahab and his crew: Moby-Dick kills them all.
The whole story is narrated by Ishmael, one of the sailors on the Pequod and the only survivor of the disaster. In a detailed and impressive way Ishmael describes the things he experienced and witnessed, the different characters he met, the friendships he formed.
This paper deals with an analysis of Ishmael, the first-person narrator in Moby - Dick. Next to concentrating on several aspects, it shall give an answer to the basic question: Is Ishmael is a reliable narrator ?
2. Self-Presentation of the Narrator
The reader is introduced to the narrator in the first chapter where he reveals a few pieces of information about himself. To some extent it is also necessary for him to explain his reasons for going to sea. Without exaggerating he describes himself as a decent fellow and modest man who doesn’t demand too much from life. Although he is not a rich man he seems to be balanced and content with what he has got. For example, he is not ashamed, but outspoken about “having little or no money” (Melville 17)in his purse.
Though he tells the reader that he is “of an old establihed family in the land” (Melville 20), Ishmael mentions neither wife nor children. Obviously, he provides only for himself and works for his living, whether as “a country schoolmaster” (Melville 20) or on “several voyages in the merchant service”.(Melville 87) Working on the Pequod is his first experience on a whaling ship. His decision to earn his money in such a dangerous business as whaling shows that he is also a brave man who spares no efforts in his work.
Ishmael says that when he goes to sea he prefers going “as a simple sailor” (Melville 20) to going “as a Commodore, or a Captain” (Melville 19). He rather abandons “the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them” (Melville 19) as he has enough responsibility taking care of himself. He doesn’t mind serving in a lower position, doing hard work or being ordered by authorities. “Who ain’t a slave?” (Melville 20) he concludes.
Ishmael calls himself “a good Christian” (Melville 68). He seems to be a religous person who believes in God and follows the Ten Commandments which he believes are the moral value system of the Church. For example, he does not fail “to make a Sunday visit” (Melville 50) to the Whaleman’s Chapel before leaving New Bedford for the voyage. Ishmael says that he particularly seeks a sea voyage when he finds himself “growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November” (Melville 17) in his soul. In short, whenever he finds himself in a bad mood. In these kinds of situations he feels drawn to the ocean where he will go to lift his spirits and cheer himself up.
During the journey on the Pequod however, the narrator barely describes his behaviour under Ahab’s command and among the other sailors, as if his own actions are unimportant. He gives the impression that he doesn’t want to attract any attention or stand out from the crew.
Despite the reservations about himself, Ishmael is a likable character to the reader. Ishmael’s simplicity, his modesty and honesty show him as an Everyman figure the reader can identify with easily (cf. GradeSaver).
3. Critical Opinions about the Narrator
The novel starts with one of the most famous opening sentences in English literature – Call me Ishmael. In this unusual manner the narrator introduces himself to the reader by almost allowing the reader to choose his name, as if he doesn’t care. Nor does he mention his last name, but only tells the reader to call him Ishmael.
This is where a very important biblical allusion in the novel can be found: The biblical Ishmael (Genesis 16:1–16; 21:10 ff.), Abraham’s first-born son, is disinherited and dismissed from his home in favour of his half-brother Isaac. The name Ishmael suggests that the narrator is somewhat of an outcast, too. (cf. McSweeney 23)
Ishmael supports this allusion further by emphazising the need for independence he has shown during his past. He would not have been able to go wherever he wanted to with a wife and family, so the reader assumes that he actually has none. The picture of Ishmael as a loner corresponds with the Epilogue in which Ishmael, the only survivor, is rescued by the whaling ship Rachel, “that in her retracing search after her missing children”, only finds “another orphan” (Melville 589).
Ishmael survives to tell the tale of the Pequod ’s fate, and although he already knows the end, it is necessary for him to start the story at the beginning for the benefit reader. Therefore for him to remain neutral is not an easy task. Although Ishmael the narrator now “is at a critical distance” (McSweeney 41) he cannot help but foreshadow terrible events to come as he already “knows the experience from the inside” (McSweeney 41).
Here it is important to mention that it is essential for the reader of Moby-Dick “to distinguish between the judgements and generalizations of the two Ishmaels […]” (McSweeney 26): On the one hand there’s Ishmael the character or the younger Ishmael, and on the other hand there’s the above mentioned narrator. In the first 21 chapters of the novel it is clearly Ishmael the character that dominates. This Ishmael describes the many experiences he has had on shore up until he leaves on the Pequod in chapter 22. He has made friends with the pagan harpooner Queequeg, and faced the mad prohet Elijah. All these experiences seem to be described from a point of view, which is “in the main positive and upbeat” (McSweeney 27). Ishmael the character obviously gives the plot in the implied chapters a more obtimistic atmosphere.