The Whale’s Wisdom Chapter 1 – A Moby-Dick Analysis


or how to treat depression in a totally normal and healthy way

As far as first lines go, “Call me Ishmael” might seem mundane at the start; you wouldn’t be blamed for assuming the narrator is introducing himself and nothing more. But like the rest of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, so many lines are packed with hidden morsels of meaning, making this whale of a book a new voyage with every reading. Like a great film or television series, Moby-Dick is a book that invites the audience to discover more with each journey through it. Every time I read it, I’m taken on a new figurative adventure that lends further insight into the book’s deeper questions. For a margin-scribbler like myself, this epic draws me in again and again to find something new between its pages while rediscovering my own old musings and how the reader I was compares to the one I am today.


Before we ever reach Melville’s famous first line, we are confronted with a couple of bizarre opening notes to contend with. The first, titled “Etymology,” explains the “ignorance” inherent in leaving out the letter “H” in pronouncing “Whale,” then goes on to provide the word in a variety of languages, from Hebrew, to Danish, to Erromangoan, which I can only assume was Melville’s interpretation of a language belonging to the Vanuatu island of Erromango. A key point the narrator seems to be getting at is that this book will focus heavily on the smallest detail surrounding whales (boy will it!) and that he’s an authority on the matter. Secondly, this passage is our first hint at some of the multicultural elements of the book. Many different people will come together on board the Pequod, but they will all have the same purpose: whhhale.

Next up is the exhaustive (and exhausting – honestly, let’s just start reading about ropes… yes, we’ll get there) list of “Extracts” as provided by a “Sub-sub-librarian,” whatever that is. Here, we find “higgledy-piggledy whale statements” from a variety of notable sources like The Bible, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Cook’s Voyages, and even sailing songs from whaling crews – higgledy-piggledy indeed! This collection is offered to dispel any preconceived notion you may have about the behavior and being of whales, noting that what you’ve heard and read prior to this is not to be taken as “verifiable gospel cetology.” The narrator goes on to condemn the Sub-Subs of the world (those who may side with the offered extracts as evidence against the story and information about to be supplied) as a “hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm.” Damn, Melville! Pull a punch! The introduction to the Extracts does actually go on to throw a small bone to the Sub-Subs… by saying they’ll find their thanks in death).

After all of that, we finally reach the beginning of Chapter 1.

So, we come to “Call me Ishmael.” It’s loaded. First off, we have to contend with the biblical meaning of the name. Throughout the book, we’ll encounter various biblical allusions, and this first one comes as a good introduction to many themes. The biblical Ishmael was born to Abraham when his wife Sarah became worried they might not have children. She offered her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham and the two bore Ishmael. Some time later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and asked that Abraham expel the hand maid and her child into the desert. While blessed and ultimately saved by God, Ishmael was an outcast to his home.

Moby-Dick‘s Ishmael is not literally expelled from anywhere that we know of, but it seems that he feels compelled to leave dry land and pursue a place where “everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way” or treated equally. He is driven to a different kind of desert (the sea) by some force within himself, yet out of his control. As he puts it, “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts.” He also seems to be plagued by a mental darkness that drives him to the dangers of the ocean. He says he must sail “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul […] this is my substitute for pistol and ball.” Instead of resorting to fatal measures, Ishmael seeks something only the water can give him. He tells us “there is magic in it.”

About the book’s first line, it’s our first hint that Ishmael is not who he claims to be. He could actually be one of many of the book’s characters. The command to be known as “Ishmael” can imply that our narrator’s name is not that at all. He very specifically doesn’t say to the audience ‘I am Ishmael’ or ‘My name is Ishmael.’ Instead, he obscures his identity and revels in the figurative implications of this pseudonym.

Towards the end of the chapter, we receive some foreshadowing of events to come. We learn that Ishmael assigns his desire to join a whaling vessel to “the Fates,” and that they are especially responsible for the resulting turn of events that will follow “Whaling Voyage by One Ishmael,” which he marks as equally fraught as the headlines “‘Grand Contested Election for the President of the United States” and “Bloody Battle in Affghanistan.”

Led by a sense of wonder for whales, Ishmael sets off to find a crew, but not without a vision that “floated into my inmost soul.” He senses an “endless procession of the whale, and mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.” While we don’t have much of an image for the titular white whale at this point in the book, this image is a hint of the “Looming” perils and villains to come. But despite that feeling of dread, let’s hop onto a whaling ship!

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