As the novel opens, the narrator, a young man called Ishmael, expresses a yearning to lift his spirits with a sea voyage. Carrying only a change or two of clothing, he leaves his home in Manhattan and arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on a cold Saturday night in December. From there, he hopes to catch a small boat to the historical port of Nantucket in order to sign on with a whaling ship. Unfortunately, there is no passage to Nantucket until Monday so he must find lodging that he can afford. He finally settles on the Spouter-Inn, Peter Coffin proprietor.
The novel opens with one of the most famous first lines in American literature: "Call me Ishmael." The biblical Ishmael (Genesis 16:1-16; 21:10 ff.) is disinherited and dismissed from his home in favor of his half-brother Isaac. The name suggests that the narrator is something of an outcast, a drifter, a fellow of no particular family other than mankind (foreshadowing the very last word of the novel's epilogue). Ishmael confirms his independent ways when he tells us that he never travels the ocean as a passenger because passengers tend to rely on others, becoming seasick or having other problems; worse, they must buy their passage instead of being paid. Nor does he seek any special rank aboard ship, neither captain nor cook, because he abominates "all honorable, respectable toils" and has enough trouble just taking care of himself. Because this novel presents such a strong first-person narrative voice, the reader can expect that this will be Ishmael's story as well as Moby Dick's or Ahab's or anyone else's. We might also remember that the narrator is Ishmael, not Melville.
We soon learn that Ishmael is a narrator who is open to the complexities of life. Others may accept simple explanations; Ishmael does not. Moby-Dick deals with depths and complications of meaning, presented primarily through the narrator. Ishmael is, above all, an observer. He avoids responsibility for others but genuinely cares for his friends. He doesn't mind servile occupations. After all, he says, "Who ain't a slave? Tell me that."
There is an ominous atmosphere in the setting of New Bedford on this frosty, wind-swept December night. The streets are nearly deserted, dreary blocks of blackness, only a solitary light flickering here or there, "like a candle moving about in a tomb." Ishmael is alone. The name of the inn where he finds a kind of shelter is reminiscent of the whaling industry; the proprietor's name foreshadows death. Ishmael is justified in being a bit wary, even afraid.
hypos here, hypochondria, imaginary illnesses.
Manhattoes residents of Manhattan Island, New York City.
circumambulate to walk around.
lee leeward, downwind, on the sheltered side.
salt here, an experienced sailor.
forecastle the front part of the ship where the crew's quarters are located.
Leviathan a sea monster, a whale (biblical).