A young man who asks us to call him Ishmael gets sick of life in NYC and decides to head up to Nantucket to take work on a whaling vessel. He arrives in town and finds a place for the night, but he’s told he’ll have to share a bed when a mysterious harpooner.
Why Ishmael might be hard to identify with: He’s not telling us the whole story. It’s unclear if that’s even his name. He gives us so many reasons that he’s going to sea that it seems likely that none of them is the real one.
- He paints Manhattan and Nantucket vividly.
- He conveys his economic situation compellingly.
- Lots of objects speak of the doom coming up: “The opposite wall of this entry was hung all over with a heathenish array of monstrous clubs and spears. Some were thickly set with glittering teeth resembling ivory saws; others were tufted with knots of human hair; and one was sickle-shaped, with a vast handle sweeping round like the segment made in the new-mown grass by a long-armed mower. You shuddered as you gazed, and wondered what monstrous cannibal and savage could ever have gone a death-harvesting with such a hacking, horrifying implement. Mixed with these were rusty old whaling lances and harpoons all broken and deformed. Some were storied weapons. With this once long lance, now wildly elbowed, fifty years ago did Nathan Swain kill fifteen whales between a sunrise and a sunset. And that harpoon—so like a corkscrew now—was flung in Javan seas, and run away with by a whale, years afterwards slain off the Cape of Blanco. The original iron entered nigh the tail, and, like a restless needle sojourning in the body of a man, travelled full forty feet, and at last was found imbedded in the hump.”
- He’s depressed and out of sorts: “Whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
- He’s estranged from himself: “I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs.”
- He seems to be a competent sailor, but we don’t have much reason to invest in him, and indeed he will be pretty hapless throughout the novel. He will be the only survivor the mission, but only by sheer luck.
- But we do like that he’s an enthusiastic storyteller: “But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land.”
- He’s funny: He self-mockingly imagines where his sea voyage will be listed in the book of fate, hidden between bigger events: “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States. “WHALING VOYAGE BY ONE ISHMAEL. “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.”