After rereading my last post, I realized that my argument about Ishmael screwing up his timeline is…pretty screwed up. So here it is again, with helpful images.
The core of the argument is this: because Ishmael demonstrates a knowledge of practical whaling at points in the novel where he should have no such knowledge, we can infer that he’s not actually the whaling n00b he claims to be.
To begin, it helps to have a basic timeline of the novel. Moby-Dick is written in the first person; the narrator is Ishmael, telling us the story of this one time he went whaling and it ended badly. I’ll use “now” to refer to “the point in time at which Ishmael is telling us the story”:
Because Ishmael is telling us about his voyage on the Pequod and what happened to it, we can assume that “now” is later than any of the events involving the Pequod. For better understanding later in this argument, I’ll break down “the events involving the Pequod” into three main parts: Ishmael’s decision to ship on the Pequod, the time he spends on the ship (in red), and the ship’s destruction:
What happened before Ishmael boarded the Pequod? We don’t know much, but we do know the following things:
- He served on merchant ships, but never a whaling ship,
- He got periodically depressed,
- He (apparently) read a lot of natural history about whales,
- He (may have) taught primary school.
We don’t have specific points in time for any of these events, so we’ll fill them in on the left side of the timeline generally:
After the Pequod, Ishmael served on at least one other ship, making at least one stop in South America on the way (where he tells the tale of the Town-Ho to some sailors). He does not say whether or not this was a whaling ship. However, since at “now” Ishmael describes his time in the whaling business as a “solo interlude” between the events in his life before the Pequod and the events afterward, let’s assume that the post-Pequod ship was another merchant vessel and not a whaler:
At “now,” Ishmael has all the practical knowledge of whaling he gained on the Pequod. His hands-on experience isn’t comprehensive; he was just a sailor, not a harpooneer or specksynder. But he has a good working knowledge of just about everything that goes on in the process of hunting sperm whales, even if he is very bad at remembering to draw our attention to details that matter to the plot of his story as opposed to details that merely interest or amuse him.
Ishmael also has this knowledge at all the green points on the timeline – after he survives the wreck of the Pequod and while he’s serving on some other ship. During the red points on the timeline, he is learning this knowledge. He has, we can assume, almost none of it when he leaves port on the Pequod, and all of it when he’s floating around on the life-buoy after the Pequod has been destroyed.
At the blue points on the timeline, of course, Ishmael has zero working knowledge of whaling. He knows something about ships, having served on merchant vessels, but he doesn’t know anything about whaling ships particularly.
Then Things Get Weird
This is where the argument gets a bit trickier.
In one sense, Ishmael is telling the entire story “now,” after he’s gathered all his practical whaling knowledge. While the story unfolds, however, Ishmael frequently tells it from his point of view at the moment the events he’s describing happened. So, even when Ishmael is telling us the story “now,” he’s also telling it “then” – as it’s happening.
“Now,” Ishmael knows all the stuff he knows about whaling. “Then,” however, he doesn’t know it yet – he’s learning it. So when “then” Ishmael talks about whaling as if he’s actually an old hand at whaling, something seems off. He becomes more difficult to trust, because “then” Ishmael can’t possibly know the stuff that “now” Ishmael knows. So if Ishmael is using his “then” voice but talking about whaling stuff he knows “now,” he begins to sound like he’s had practical whaling knowledge all along – even at the times in his life during which he claims he was completely new to the business.
Warning: Objects in Analogy May Be Murkier Than They Appear
Perhaps the easiest literary parallel to draw is that of the distinction in the Commedia between Dante the Poet and Dante the Pilgrim. Dante the Poet is the guy writing Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. He knows where the whole journey is going. When various characters provide advice or warnings, Dante the Poet already has a context and interpretation ready for them.
Dante the Pilgrim, by contrast, doesn’t know anything Dante the Poet knows. He’s discovering Hell/Purgatory/Paradise for the first time. When characters in these places prophesy, say, the fall of the Guelphs or Dante the Pilgrim’s eventual exile from Florence, Dante the Pilgrim is either shocked or doesn’t understand the reference. Dante the Poet, of course, recognizes all of them. He’s writing “now,” after the political events that are “foreshadowed” to Dante the Pilgrim, so he knows full well that he’s about to be driven from Florence in disgrace. But these things have not happened to Dante the Pilgrim yet – he’s still at “then.”
Dante never, in the Commedia, accidentally conflates “now” Dante (the Poet) and “then” Dante (the Pilgrim). Ishmael, however, either regularly conflates “now” Ishmael (experienced whaler) and “then” Ishmael (n00b whaler), or he’s lying about his whaling experience. And if he’s lying, it’s in some way and to some end – my argument in the previous post being that that way is by being a literary persona of Ahab (much as Dante the Pilgrim is a literary persona of Dante the Poet) and that that end is to process Ahab’s feelings of trauma, revenge, and guilt (much as Dante the Poet uses Dante the Pilgrim to process his own feelings of betrayal and hopelessness).