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CHAPTER 1: LOOMINGS
"Call me Ishmael." This is probably the most famous opening sentence in American literature. It begins Ishmael's account of a past adventure that started when, burdened by "hypos" (depression), he decided to escape his stale life in Manhattan for the sea. Why the sea? It is, he says, a longing every one of us shares. Notice, for instance, how in Manhattan people crowd around the docks, and how in the country people flock to ponds; how Persians and Greeks worshipped sea-gods.
Already in these opening pages you've learned some important facts about the man who is telling the story and about the way Melville intends you to understand him. The first thing to notice about the narrator is his name. Ishmael, in the Bible, was the outcast son of Abraham, who had "every man's hand against him." Melville fills Moby-Dick with names, objects, and actions that are symbolic-that carry a meaning greater than might first appear. In this case, Ishmael's name indicates that the depression he feels is profound, and that, like the biblical character, he is lost, and alone.
A second character trait is readily visible, too-Ishmael's love for gathering (and showing off) knowledge. You soon learn that he's a former schoolteacher.
Ishmael has no intention of going to sea as a passenger: he doesn't have the money. He has no desire to be a commander either, because he wants nothing to do with responsibility. No, he won't go as anything but a common sailor. So what if he's ordered around? "Who ain't a slave?" And unlike passengers, he gets money for his trouble.
After giving us all these reasons for going to sea, Ishmael throws up his hands and says he can't really explain his behavior. Fate, he says, guided him on this journey, just as fate determines who wins elections, and sends men to fight bloody battles in Afghanistan. If he had one chief motive for taking a whaling voyage, it was his eagerness to know the whale. Ishmael likes the wild, the exotic, the barbaric, the horrible. The whale, who is all these things, attracts him.
In his question, "Who ain't a slave?" and in his jokes about the fates sending him on his journey, Ishmael brings up a theme you should follow closely as you read the book. How much choice do we have in the things we do? Can we choose our destiny, or are we predestined to meet a certain end?
At the end of this chapter, you also get an early hint of how much importance Ishmael gives to the subject of whales and whaling. These mysterious, mighty creatures drive Ishmael to explore. They represent all that he doesn't know about the world. They're contradictory: barbaric and horrible, yet "a snow hill in the air." Perhaps you have had a similar experience, finding yourself both fascinated and repelled by something.Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version