Updated: May 14, 2020
Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick tells the “swashbuckling” tale of the voyage of the whaling ship the Pequad and its Captain, Ahab, who relentlessly pursues Moby Dick, the great Sperm whale, on a journey around the world. Within the text, there are a great number of images, motifs, and themes that reoccur throughout the novel and influence every element of the narrative. In the critical essay, “Loomings”: Yarns and Figures in the Fabric, Harrison Hayford examines how these literary devices mentioned above occur in the opening chapter of Moby Dick and directly relate to the element of character. Particularly Hayford forms his argument around the character of Ishmael and how the elements being analyzed depict the similarities and differences between Ahab and himself.
Hayford is correct in the observation that Ishmael and Captain Ahab are similar in many ways however, he is incorrect in suggesting the two men are in any way different from one another. On the contrary, Chapter one of Moby Dick “Loomings” only suggests that Ismael is the exact copy of Ahab in his physical, mental and spiritual nature because perhaps these two characters who are so central to the narrative are the same individual.
Hayford writes that “In Moby Dick Ishmael plays the role of the sympathetic but perplexed observer,” (658). In truth, while Hayford’s statement about Ismael's overall role in the text is correct there are some flaws in his interpretation of the statement itself. Ishmael begins the story as an observer and what he observes is “the tragedy of Ahab in his revengeful attack upon the White Whale, (658).” In the opening paragraphs of the novel, Ishmael is building both the physical and conceptual world where Ahab is able to exist. While Ishmael's habitual and systematic way of dealing with situations is indeed reflective of Ahab however these methods are not simply sympathetic in nature. On the contrary, Ishmael's way of processing information and scenarios mirrors that of Captain Ahab because he is a younger version of the captain looking back upon his quest for the White Whale as a ghostly figure.
If the text is viewed with this idea in mind then Ismael is functioning as an observer but he is not perplexed as Hayford proposes. Instead, Ismael is watching the journey to conquer Moby Dick unable to do anything to prevent the ultimate demise of Ahab at the closing of the novel. He is Sympathetic to Ahab because he and the captain of the Pequad are the same people driven mad by obsession, love, and greed. Empathy stems from the inevitable truth that Ishmael knows that Captain Ahab will never get his revenge on Moby Dick and the life long mission that he has set his feet to will never be completed because he loses the battle. Therefore, Ismael wishes that if it were possible that he could go back and never embark on his quest for the white whale. But seeing that he can’t do that being that he is dead Ismael has to be a viewer of events as the tragedy of his former life in which he was known as Ahab unravels.
In the Chapter “Loomings”, Ismael answers the question that he considers to be important to the story. The first question Ismael chooses to answer is, why go to the sea? When Ismael answers the question however he does not give a single answer instead he gives three different ones. Hayford, suggests that this is a key difference between Ahab and Ishmael. This is based on the fact that Ahab has a very concrete reason for going to sea (killing the whale) in contrast to Ishmael's that presents itself to be more ambiguous who “cannot analyze in what he declares is an almost universal feeling toward the ocean,”(660). Ismael cites the lack of money as well as a lack of general interest in anything to do with the shore as among other things as reasons to take to the sea. However, the motives of Ishmael(the spirit of Ahab) may not be as abstract and different as Hayford states.
When the character of Ishmael is presented perhaps as the spirit of the once-living breathing being of Ahab every reason for going to the water is able to be argued effectively. On the one hand, Ismael says that he goes to the sea in part because he is poor which would make sense because Ismael is dead and therefore does not have to pay for anything with tangible materials. In addition, if he is simply the spirit of Ahab walking around it would make sense that Ismael is experiencing violence and bouts of depression that call him to journey out to sea. Ismael is a restless spirit doomed to wander the earthly realm until he figures out a way to correct his endless thirst for revenge against the whale. However, because Ismael has no real way in which he can fix what time has already determined his reason for going to sea remains ambiguous, due to the fact that Ahab also has no real grasp on what is pushing him to kill Moby Dick.
Ismael is also simultaneously Ahab because throughout the novel Ishmael seems to know way too much about certain topics, while at the same time he also at times seems to know very little. This concept is a theme that begins in the first chapter of Moby Dick and continues to be prevalent as the dramatic action of the story moves forward. In “Loomings” Ismael is able to not only describe in locative terms his purpose for going to the water but he is all able to describe other details with great accuracy. Take his description of the whale for example on pages fifteen and sixteen of Chapter 1.
“Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish.”
It seems that for a gentleman who claims to know absolutely nothing about the business of whaling Ismael knows an awful lot. In fact, Ismael knows more then he should, just by looking at this quote alone the idea that something doesn’t quite add up is rather obvious. Ismael claims to have never been on a whaling voyage before and yet his description of the idea of seeing the whale suggests otherwise. His diction points to the possibility that he has at one time or another laid eyes on Moby Dick. He describes the beast as if he has a personal relationship with the whale based upon the in-depth way that he is able to communicate the animal's nature.
The second question of why go to sea as a sailor in contrast to any other seafaring position such as captain is simple. Ismael can not go on a whaling voyage as anything but a sailor because he has already gone aboard the Pequad as its captain in his former existence as a person with flesh and bone.
The Third question that Ismael addresses give a more general answer to why many individuals go to the sea. This time Ismael cites the overarching feeling of mystery as the more general rationale for choosing to embark on a whaling voyage instead of going on a merchant ship. Hayford writes, “Why he took into his head to go this time on a whaling voyage is a puzzle to Ismael, one which is answerable only as part of the cosmic mystery,” (666). Here, what Hayford suggests about there being an overall connection between every man having a desire to “go to the sea” and the concept of the sea itself being clouded in mystery is correct. In the end, every character chooses to set themselves aboard the Pequad for their own personal reason and at their own risk because none of them truthfully know the outcome of the voyage except Ismael. No man can escape the vengeance and passion of Captain Ahab although at times they may desire an escape route more than life itself. In truth, Ismael cannot even seek protection from the actions and thoughts of his older self.
At the most basic sense, Ahab is being drawn by something bigger than himself to ultimately chase down the “Great White Whale,” that is Moby Dick. It could be argued that every single character within the novel who sets sail on the Pequad has no idea what they are doing due to the fact that Ahab is blinded with feelings of revenge toward Moby Dick and does not fully comprehend his rage. As a result, Ahab leads his entire crew on a whaling voyage that no one truly understands because the fear of the white whale is in itself blinding. The only Character in the entire novel who seems to grasp what is happening around them is the beloved Bulkington and he ends up dead before the voyage even begins. Nobody on the voyage sees that the animal their chasing is unable to be tamed or brought to its death. The quest for the whale is a suicide mission in every way and yet no one seems to realize it.
In the end, nature will prevail and the vengeance of mankind will fade like the passing of a storm. It doesn’t matter that Ahab is hell-bent on killing Moby Dick because life just like the description of a person is made up of moments and these moments are never the same. Ismael is extremely aware of this fact in the opening pages of Moby Dick, he sees how each moment in life weaves together into one large picture. However, even though he has seen the events of the pequad and experienced them first hand, the iconic whaling voyage is still shrouded in darkness and mystery.
Ismael knows that the ocean is calling for him to correct Ahab but how to ultimately make this happen remains the ultimate mystery to poor Ismael. In fact, the mystery of the sea is so vast and unknown that it becomes the very thing that drives the character of Ahab almost to the point of being considered clinically insane. Although, it is probably safe to say that if he was a real human being and not fiction Ahab would be spending his days in some psychiatric wing of a hospital if he were alive today. Therefore, Ishmael and Ahab are in reality not two separate individuals, instead, they are merely different reflections of the same person situated on the different ends of a timeline. One is eternal and while the other is finite in nature.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.