Is Ishmael an unreliable narrator?

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Is Ishmael an unreliable narrator?

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1prophetandmistress
Aug 6, 2006, 3:45pm

People spend a lot of time talking about Ahab and with some good reason. His mania is fascinating but I think it might be less of a driving force in the story than is often assumed.

"Ishmael" is a very assertive narrator once you start examining him. He starts consciously shaping the events from that famous introduction. "Call me Ishmael," which, to me, is a vastly different statement from "My name is Ishmael," and it implies a level a certain illicitness in the narration, along similar lines with the common statement, "Don't tell anyone I told you but..."

There is another scene where rather than just telling us what he heard (second or third hand) about a mutiny on a passing boat, he tells us he is going to tell us the version he told some Catalan sailors he was drinking with. (A first hint at the worldliness of "Ishmael.") A second glimpse, if we can believe it, is his tour of a whale skeleton given by an Oceanic king.

Given those facts and a number of other narrative choices that Ishmael makes, I would argue that he is a quintessential unreliable narrator, giving us a version of the events tainted by his own agenda, which also makes him one of the most original and interesting voices in American literature.

I'll leave my opening statement at that. I'm interested in seeing how you all react.

2oona
Aug 7, 2006, 10:26am

Very interesting! The second example (Catalan drinking story) is especially good. I hadn't seen "Call me Ishmael" quite that way before, but I like what you're saying. In the past I'd seen it as the tone of a survivor—it brought to mind thoughts of the men who'd survived the "unspeakable" after wrecks like the Essex(?), such as cannibalism in small boats adrift at sea. Some few may have never spoken about their experiences for the rest of their lives, or would have preferred anonymity—a pseudonym—if they did. But there's so much more going on here, of course. Thank you for your analysis.

3andyray
Jun 18, 2007, 8:58am

on my M.A. exam at University of Central Florida they asked what I considered the great English/American novel and how it changed the shape of the novel. they were expecting us to take Pamela or maybe the so-called first novel "Robinson Crusoe," but I chose "Moby Dick" strictly because of Ishmael.

Note there is no change in the protagonist/narrator from the beginning through the end. Heretofore, one of the singularaties of the novel structure was the protagonist had to change in some way. ishmael began alone and ends alone. his welchmertz (sp) doesn't change, and he expresses no philosophical/religious change of thought.

I dont know how valid my paper was, but I got an "A".