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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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ISHMAEL

You don't really learn much about the everyday life of Ishmael, the man who tells the story of Moby-Dick. Apparently he's young, but you don't find out his exact age. He was a schoolteacher once. He served aboard a merchant ship, but has no whaling experience before signing on with the Pequod. But you learn a lot about Ishmael's mind and soul, and it is filtered through them that you hear the story of the Pequod's search for the great whale.

His name tells you something important about Ishmael. In the Bible Ishmael was an outcast "with every man's hand against him." And at the start of Moby-Dick Ishmael does seem alone, going to sea to escape the "hypos" (depressions) that have plagued him. As you follow him through the New Bedford streets, you see that he's a sensitive young man, perhaps too ready to see signs of death in an innkeeper's name (Peter Coffin). But that's partly balanced by a youthful curiosity about the world, and a sense of humor that delights especially in bad puns.

Once Ishmael boards the Pequod, other facets of his personality become evident. One is a love for the dreamy philosophizing he practices at the masthead. Ishmael is aware of the dangers of such dreaming, yet is incapable of not indulging and it is his desire to give meaning to an ocean or a whale that lends Moby-Dick much of its power.

Closely linked to Ishmael's love of philosophizing is his love of knowledge for its own sake. Ahab wants to control the universe; Ishmael wants to know all about it. Whereas for Ahab whales represent all that is hateful, for Ishmael they stand for all that is mysterious. Ishmael's extended essays on whales and whaling are in part attempts to make sense of a confusing world.

For some readers, Ishmael's obsession with knowing the world is similar to Ahab's obsession with controlling it. Other readers, however, believe Ishmael, unlike Ahab, has a sense of balance and is able to appreciate both the world's horrors and its beauties. This sense of balance, perhaps, enables Ishmael to survive the voyage and tell his story. As you read Moby-Dick you'll want to follow Ishmael closely and figure out his personality for yourself.



MOBY-DICK

In some ways the most important figure in Moby-Dick isn't a human character at all but the mighty whale for whom the book is named. How you interpret the novel depends greatly on how you interpret this whale.

It isn't easy to understand Moby-Dick. What do you learn about him? He's a white, wrinkled sperm whale, the largest, most valuable, and most feared of all creatures of the sea. Fairly or not, he's been blamed for whaling disasters around the world.

Beyond those facts, many of you, like the men aboard the Pequod, will see Moby-Dick differently. To Ahab, who lost a leg to the whale, he's an evil part of an evil universe. To Starbuck, who maintains faith in a world ruled by a just God, Moby-Dick is simply a dumb animal who injured Ahab out of instinct. To Ishmael, whales represent the unknown, and Moby-Dick is the greatest mystery of all, his whiteness suggesting that beneath the colorful surfaces of the universe lies emptiness and chaos.

Melville's varied descriptions of the whale won't make it easy for you to understand the animal. At times he seems beautiful, like "a snow hill in the air." At other times, with his gaping mouth crowded with teeth, he seems utterly evil. Perhaps Melville is suggesting that Moby-Dick lies beyond our judgment, beyond our notions of good and evil, beyond our understanding.

QUEEQUEG

The harpooner, Queequeg, is a prince of Kokovoko, a Polynesian island. Like Ishmael, he wants to see the world from a whaling ship, specifically to learn about Christianity (which he soon decides is sadly corrupt). At the Spouter-Inn, Ishmael at first is terrified at sharing a bed with this tattooed savage, but he soon sees that even though Queequeg shaves with a harpoon and worships a small pagan idol, he is more noble than most of Ishmael's Christian friends. "We cannibals must help these Christians," Queequeg says after he rescues from drowning the very man who had been rude to him moments before. And Queequeg as helper and rescuer is a theme that continues up to the end of the book, when the coffin made for him allows Ishmael alone to survive when the Pequod sinks. If Moby-Dick presents any evidence that the universe is not evil, that man is not necessarily greedy and sharkish, such evidence can be seen most strongly in the figure of Queequeg.

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Barron's Booknotes-Moby Dick by Herman Melville
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