And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber.
There are many scenes early on in the work that highlight Ishmael’s character traits, but it is a passage in Chapter 35: The Mast-Head that stands out best to me. Ishmael is a sallow-faced dreamer, not much of a sailor or whale hunter, but a man who extrapolates upon his experience in great allegorical and metaphysical detail. What better ability, in a game system, to give such an observer than that of a mimic? Ishmael is rarely described as fulfilling ship’s duties, but often describes others performing those duties, pitying, loving, or fearing their aspect, even recording for us their inner monologues, especially those discovered profundities of Ahab’s private moments. Though it is Queequeg who declares himself and Ishmael to be ‘bosom friends’, Ishmael is bosom friend to all, and his story unfolds through the words and actions of others.
When Ishmael is lost in a hunt, he is gathered up by the next arriving whaleboat—soaking, shaken, at the edge of himself—always surviving, always present to witness and describe the heroic/demonic deeds of his mates.
One of the most iconic narrators in American literature, Ishmael’s voice is extremely complex and changes throughout the work. Many equate Ishmael with Melville himself, due to the effulgent and personalized nature of some of Ishmael’s impassioned ramblings. But Ishmael is more of a conduit than that—the wildness of his heart and his observant character allow Melville to take these flights with feet firmly planted on the ship itself—Ishmael’s cries go up with the rest.
Original Image Courtesy of The New Bedford Whaling Museum.