The Whale is a Lie

Sperm whale jumping off the Azores. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Moby-Dick starts with the line “Call me Ishmael,” which most Americans immediately recognize even if they know almost nothing else about the book (“it’s about a whale!”).  In saying “Call me Ishmael,” the narrator implies that “Ishmael” isn’t his real name; it’s what he wants to be called.  There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest what his actual name is, but I’m about to argue for one:

Ishmael is Ahab.

“But wait!” you’re probably thinking.  “Isn’t Ahab [SPOILERS] killed off by Moby-Dick?  Doesn’t Ishmael only get to tell this story in the first place because he was the only one who survived the wreck?”

Yes!  But I’d argue the text also supports this reading: that the narrator is Ahab simultaneously working through the trauma of losing his leg and the guilt triggered by his vengeful urges clashing with the inevitable disaster that would follow from them.

Here’s why:

(Note: throughout, I refer to the first-person narrative voice as “Ishmael,” although I’m arguing that “Ishmael” is a persona of Ahab, the one-legged captain.)

[Image: on the open ocean, a large black whale surfaces underneat a small rowboat, which is in the process of breaking into splinters and sending four or five people hurtling into the ocean. A sailing ship sits off in the distance.] Image via Wikimedia Commons.
1. Ishmael tells the whole story from his point of view…and Ahab’s.

Most of Moby-Dick is told by Ishmael from a first-person point of view, with zero insight into the thoughts or mental states of the other characters or their behavior when they’re out of Ishmael’s sight.  Even when Ishmael purports to know how other characters think or feel, he makes it clear that he is speculating based on what he knows or observes, not that he is reporting others’ experiences in the way those others actually experienced them.

Except when it comes to Ahab.  Throughout the book, we’re given repeated (and increasingly frequent) glimpses into Ahab’s thoughts, usually in situations where Ishmael is not present and lacks the information required to make an educated guess – as when Ahab is holed up in his cabin, ostensibly plotting the ship’s course but actually seething about his prior experiences with the White Whale.

When we finally get the point of view of someone other than Ishmael or Ahab, the point of view we get is Starbuck’s, as the first mate considers shooting Ahab in order to save the ship and crew from his surely-disastrous pursuit of Moby-Dick.  In particular, Starbuck considers shooting Ahab with the same gun Ahab threatened Starbuck with in a previous scene – a scene that took place in the closed cabin, with only Ahab and Starbuck present, and to which Ishmael was neither privy nor capable of extrapolating from the deck.  (In fact, Ishmael doesn’t report it as if he’s extrapolating from outside the scene, but as if he’s there.)

This sudden shift to Starbuck’s perspective, though, is consistent with a narrator (Ahab) struggling with a fierce desire to court death that conflicts with his duty to his ship and crew.  The original dispute is over whether the crew ought to hoist the oil-casks to determine which is leaking (Starbuck) versus whether they ought to damn the casks full speed ahead (Ahab).  Starbuck’s position, which is consistent with the duty of a whaling ship’s captain, eventually prevails, but not until after Ahab points a loaded gun at his first mate.

Starbuck’s meditation on killing Ahab to save the ship, then, reads as a foil concocted by a guilty captain/narrator who knows his desire for vengeance places him firmly in the wrong.  It’s also consistent with Starbuck’s role as Ahab’s foil in a number of other guilt-related ways; the narrator reminds us several times that both Ahab and Starbuck are married men with young children, for instance.

The introduction of Starbuck as a point-of-view character also heralds the beginning of the end of the novel.  Bad omens become obsessively heavy-handed, and point of view becomes erratic, even paranoid – as it should, if our narrator is drawing ever closer to thoughts that, for reasons of trauma or of treason, should not be thought.

2.  Ishmael omits details about himself and Ahab that he includes about everyone else.

The Pequod’s owners, Peleg and Bildad, have carefully-explained Biblical names.  So does the “prophet” who attempts to warn Ishmael not to ship with the Pequod (Elijah) and the ship that rescues Ishmael after the Pequod‘s demise (the Rachel).  Ships without Biblical names (the Town-Ho, the Rose-bud, the Samuel Enderby) also have their names carefully explained by Ishmael, as do various inns (the Spouter-Inn, the Try-Pots) – even inns Ishmael never actually enters (the Trap).  Peleg and Bildad’s carelessness in recording Queequeg’s name incorrectly in the Pequod‘s manifest is so carefully described by Ishmael that we are obviously meant to understand it as an omen.  The owners’ religious affiliation – Quaker – is also carefully explained, as Ishmael takes as much pains to explain how he understands they’re Quakers as he does to explain everything else.

So ubiquitous and careful are Ishmael’s attempts to explain everyone’s name, origin, and religious affiliation that his failure to explain two of them is glaringly apparent.  Ishmael never explains himself at all, and he utterly fails to explore either Ahab’s name or the fact that Ahab is also a Quaker, even though Ahab demonstrates all the same personal qualities on which Ishmael bases his estimation of Peleg and Bildad’s religious affiliation: the quaint Old Testament name, the characteristic clothing, the use of “thou” instead of “you.”

It’s easy enough to forget to describe your own personal quirks while describing the quirks of others.

3.  Ishmael keeps screwing up his timeline.

Ishmael attempts to excuse his own jumbled timeline in the very second sentence of the book: “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely….”  This sentence arguably accounts for some timeline aberrations, like how Ishmael becomes fond of recounting certain scenes of the Pequod’s voyage in the same fashion in which he has previously told them to other ship’s crews, implying that enough time has passed between the Pequod and the “now” in which Ishmael is telling the tale for him to have shipped on at least one other vessel.

However, what this sentence does not account for are any of the multiple instances in which Ishmael alludes to knowledge about whaling that he has procured on previous whaling voyages.  By “previous,” I mean not only “previous to when he is telling the Pequod‘s story” but also “previous to his actually shipping on the Pequod,” since many of these instances involve Ishmael describing himself on the Pequod applying this previously-learned information.  It’s previously-learned information he could not have gotten from books (unlike, say, his constant misquoting of natural-history tomes on whales) and that he is in fact proud of not having gotten from books.

But we know that the Pequod is Ishmael’s first-ever whaling voyage; prior to shipping with her, Ishmael’s only sailing experience is on merchant vessels (much to her owners’ dismay), so Ishmael should have no whaling-specific experience when he’s talking about his perspective on board the Pequod.  He should also have no whaling-specific experience gained since the Pequod either; Ishmael describes his adventures on the Pequod as a “solo interlude” between other phases of his life, implying that he’s only ever been on one whaling voyage.

Nothing in the narrative accounts for Ishmael’s utter abstraction when it comes to showing off his whaling knowledge.  If Ishmael is in fact Ahab, however, the pieces fit.  Ishmael/Ahab would have firsthand practical knowledge of whaling gained from voyages before the fatefully-imagined voyage recounted in Moby-Dick, as well as firsthand practical knowledge of whaling gained from voyages before the voyage in which the whale bit his leg off – which, for lack of a better anchor, I’d argue is the voyage on which Ishmael’s experiences on board are based, spliced perhaps with general scenes from Ahab’s early life as a mere mast-hand.

Ahab would also find it nearly impossible to keep that knowledge out of the narrative, even if he were trying to tell it from the point of view of a “total innocent” to whaling.  And telling the story from that point of view seems like the most powerful approach if what the narrator really wants to do is to convince himself that pursuing vengeance upon this whale is not only deadly but morally reprehensible.

4.  Ishmael knows too much…and not enough.

Ishmael knows an awful lot about whaling for someone who claims to have been on only one whaling voyage, and his in-story self knows an awful lot about whaling for someone who claims to have been on no whaling voyages.  Yet his information is wrong at least as often as it’s right.

There’s a line from Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons (an otherwise wholly unrelated book) that I find apt here:

“He can’t talk about anything but tourneys, and half of what he does say he gets wrong.”

Ishmael is, as far as I can tell (Nantucket whaling not being among my special interests), fairly accurate about the parts of whaling that actually take place on the boat.  But he screws up every single time he tries to quote natural history or talk about the “academic” parts of whaling, like whether whales are mammals or fish.  And it’s not just ignorance; he’s clearly read the naturalists who argue that whales are mammals.  He just doesn’t agree with them.

What I haven’t linked up yet is how this demonstrates he’s actually Ahab, since we know absolutely nothing about Ahab’s schooling or interest (if any) in natural history.  It does, however, imply to me that Ishmael is not in fact an itinerant schoolmaster, as he claims to be in the first part of the novel.  He’s read a lot of books; he just doesn’t understand their contents at all.

Moby-Dick is one of those books that people can and have built their entire careers around.  It’s a book one could read for one’s entire life, over and over.  While this may or may not be a mark of its quality (I can’t stop reading Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl but I’d argue it’s not a great work of literature), it is certainly a mark of its complexity.

Ishmael is a highly unreliable narrator.I’d argue that he may be unreliable because he, his ship, and the events of the book are the secondary workings-out of trauma and guilt, not because we are supposed to believe any of the characters “actually” lived through them.