The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What Do We Know about "Ishmael"?

During the "stump the experts" program that the New Bedford Whaling Museum held as part of this year's Moby-Dick marathon, one audience member posed a question premised on the assumption that Melville tells us nothing, "nada," about Ishmael.  The experts quickly corrected that assumption, however.  Melville does in fact tell us a number of things about his narrator, as the experts went on to demonstrate.

He was a Presbyterian (Ch. X).  Interestingly, however, he says, "I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church" (emphasis added).   One is left wondering whether Ishmael had subsequently ceased to be a good Christian, or the past tense was used here simply in keeping with narrative convention.

¶ He had a stepmother, who was a stern disciplinarian (Ch. IV). 

¶ He strongly implies that he had been a schoolmaster shortly before going to sea in the Pequod (Ch. I).

¶ He had "repeatedly" sailed as a merchant sailor before signing aboard the Pequod (Ch. I; also Ch. XVI).

¶ He did not attend college -- "a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard" (Ch. XXIV).

¶ He was nearly destitute when he arrived in New Bedford, having only "a few pieces of silver" (Ch. II). 

¶ He was nevertheless a well-read and bookish fellow, as testified by his "Etymology" and "Extracts," by his use of book sizes for classifying whales (Ch. XXXII), by his numerous references to the works of other authors, and by his learned vocabulary and highly literate style.

¶ He traveled to the Arsacides (Ch. CII) and Lima (Ch. LIV).

¶ He "talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney" (Ch. LIV).

¶ Finally, in telling his story, Ishmael reveals an enormous amount about his private fears, beliefs, doubts, and hopes.  He injects himself unhesitatingly into almost every topic he takes up; we are never permitted to forget for a moment that we're hearing this tale from a man who puts the unique stamp of his worldview on all he recounts. 


  1. He is a nephew of Captain D'Wolf, of Dorchester, MA (Ch. XLV).

  2. That's a good one! Herman was himself a nephew of Captain D'Wolf, who was married to one of his father's sisters. (I'm planning an aunts-and-uncles post in my series on Melville's relations.) Before the couple moved to Dorchester they lived on Narraganset Bay in Bristol, RI, where young Herman visited them once or twice.