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CHAPTER SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The book begins with the narrator Ishmael introducing himself to the reader. Tired of the daily routine of his mundane life, Ishmael decides to go to sea in search of some excitement. In defense of his decision, he states that human beings have always had a fascination with the "watery world." It is, therefore, only natural that Ishmael is attracted to the sea, "for there is magic in it."
Ishmael does not want to go on a ship as a traveler or an officer; he wants to be an ordinary sailor, paid for his services. According to Ishmael, there is nothing that can beat the feeling that one experiences when one receives a salary. Besides, he also enjoys the physical exercise he gets out of the work as a sailor in the pure sea air and is fascinated by the whale.
The chapter starts on a casual note as the narrator Ishmael addresses the reader, ‘call me Ishmael.’ This must be perhaps one of first books in the nineteenth century, which starts in such a manner. Melville, like many other American writers in the 1840s, was moving away from a formal style of writing novels.
While he is narrating his story, he also pauses to reflect upon various subjects, both directly and indirectly related to his story, i.e., the journey on the ship Pequod.
Several motifs are begun in this first chapter--the main one being that there is no one meaning of any occurrence. When Ishmael relates the various reasons for going to sea, he is also purporting his philosophy that there is more than one way to interpret events, actions, and incidents. He cites several good reasons for why he goes to sea, any of which is as good as the next. Because of his ability to see many sides of an event, Ishmael will prove to be an all-seeing narrator, unwilling to view the world in black and white as Ahab does.
The vastness of the ocean as a source of life is also introduced in this chapter. Here the influence of Transcendentalism can be seen as Melville reveals how the ocean is a powerful aspect of nature which is simultaneously awe-inspiring and mysterious. Humans are drawn to it because truth can be discovered through our contemplation of it.
In this chapter, the subject of conventional religion is mocked as when Ishmael says that he enjoys receiving money more than paying anyone. He adds: "considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and on no account can a moneyed man enter heaven. Ah! How cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!" His tongue in cheek reference to religious belief must have shocked the readers then. Such remarks appear very often in the book. Probably, this must be one of the reasons why the book wasn’t received very well during Herman Melville’s lifetime.