Ishmael (Moby-Dick)
Ishmael is the narrator (and arguably the protagonist
A protagonist is the main character of a literary, theatrical, cinematic, or musical narrative, around whom the events of the narrative's plot revolve and with whom the audience is intended to most identify...

) of the 1851 novel Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, was written by American author Herman Melville and first published in 1851. It is considered by some to be a Great American Novel and a treasure of world literature. The story tells the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael, and his voyage on the whaleship Pequod,...

by U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 author Herman Melville
Herman Melville
Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and poet. He is best known for his novel Moby-Dick and the posthumous novella Billy Budd....

. It is through his eyes and experience that the reader experiences the story of the ship Pequod
Pequod (Moby-Dick)
The Pequod is a fictitious 19th century Nantucket whaleship that appears in the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by American author Herman Melville. The Pequod and her crew, commanded by Captain Ahab, are central to the story, which, after the initial chapters, takes place almost entirely aboard the ship...

, and the fight between Captain Ahab and the white whale
Whale is the common name for various marine mammals of the order Cetacea. The term whale sometimes refers to all cetaceans, but more often it excludes dolphins and porpoises, which belong to suborder Odontoceti . This suborder also includes the sperm whale, killer whale, pilot whale, and beluga...

. He is a central character in the action in the early part of the novel, essentially fulfilling all the requirements of being a conventional protagonist. After the Pequod leaves Nantucket, he increasingly recedes into the background as a commentator, with his voice approaching that of an omniscient
Omniscience omniscient point-of-view in writing) is the capacity to know everything infinitely, or at least everything that can be known about a character including thoughts, feelings, life and the universe, etc. In Latin, omnis means "all" and sciens means "knowing"...

 narrator at times, able to see into all parts of the ship and into the private motivations of other characters.


Ishmael introduces himself in the opening sentence of the novel with the well-known line "Call me Ishmael." The name Ishmael
Ishmael is a figure in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur'an, and was Abraham's first born child according to Jews, Christians and Muslims. Ishmael was born of Abraham's marriage to Sarah's handmaiden Hagar...

 is Biblical
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

 in origin: in Genesis, Ishmael was the son of Abraham
Abraham , whose birth name was Abram, is the eponym of the Abrahamic religions, among which are Judaism, Christianity and Islam...

 by the servant Hagar
Hagar (Bible)
Hagar , according to the Abrahamic faiths, was the second wife of Abraham, and the mother of his first son, Ishmael. Her story is recorded in the Book of Genesis, mentioned in Hadith, and alluded to in the Qur'an...

, who was cast off after the birth of Isaac
Isaac as described in the Hebrew Bible, was the only son Abraham had with his wife Sarah, and was the father of Jacob and Esau. Isaac was one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites...

, who inherits the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother. In the Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

ic tradition, with which Melville was certainly much less familiar, Ishmael is an heir of Abraham. In Moby-Dick Ishmael does not comment on the significance of his own name, but he does refer to himself by that name several times in the book. In fact, in saying "Call me Ishmael", Ishmael gives reason to believe that his name is an alias.

Ishmael provides little about his personal background before his decision at the beginning of the novel to journey to Nantucket
Nantucket, Massachusetts
Nantucket is an island south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the United States. Together with the small islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, it constitutes the town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and the coterminous Nantucket County, which are consolidated. Part of the town is designated the Nantucket...

, Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...

 to enlist as a sailor on a whaler
A whaler is a specialized ship, designed for whaling, the catching and/or processing of whales. The former included the whale catcher, a steam or diesel-driven vessel with a harpoon gun mounted at its bows. The latter included such vessels as the sail or steam-driven whaleship of the 16th to early...

. There is evidence in the text to suggest that he was formerly a school-teacher who left that life of theory to pursue the more practical life at sea. At the beginning of the novel, he is an experienced seaman who has not previously served on a whaler but in the merchant marine service (an experience that is ridiculed by the owners of the Pequod when he approaches them to sign on). He begins the novel in the first chapter wandering through Manhattan
Manhattan is the oldest and the most densely populated of the five boroughs of New York City. Located primarily on the island of Manhattan at the mouth of the Hudson River, the boundaries of the borough are identical to those of New York County, an original county of the state of New York...

 in the dreariness of November with dark thoughts suggesting nearly suicidal
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

 tendencies: pausing before coffin
A coffin is a funerary box used in the display and containment of dead people – either for burial or cremation.Contemporary North American English makes a distinction between "coffin", which is generally understood to denote a funerary box having six sides in plan view, and "casket", which...

 houses and following funeral
A funeral is a ceremony for celebrating, sanctifying, or remembering the life of a person who has died. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from interment itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor...

s. His primary reason for going to sea, he suggests, is to break out of this depressive cycle and obsession with death. Ishmael tends to brood and think his way through things, going so far as to describe himself as a philosopher in The Mast-Head. Ishmael, while seemingly rejecting the arts, does confess that he is—or at least was at one point—a poet.
Ishmael doesn’t talk very much about himself in the story even though he is so involved in it. His decision to become a whaler is mentioned to be his version of suicide; meaning men who ship out to sea are “lost to the world.” Despite the fact that he seems well educated due to his frequent rants on subjects such as art, anatomy, and geology, he calls the ship his Yale College and his Harvard. Ishmael represents the contradiction between the story of Moby-Dick and the setting of it. The fact that he is so well-educated would mean that he is the only one capable of narrating the story because of his background. He tends to have deep moments of depression where he compares himself to nothing more than a common sailor. The biblical connotation of Ishmael actually goes much deeper than most realize. The biblical Ishmael was banished into the wilderness by his father Abraham; Melville's Ishmael seems also to be banished, with nowhere to go, getting through it all by sheer luck. In the Bible, God helps Ishmael survive in the wilderness, just as God helps in the book, all religious views aside. Throughout the story that Ishmael tries to convince the reader that a whale chasing a whaling ship really isn’t as farfetched as it may seem. In an extensive discourse on the biology of whales, he makes it seem almost plausible that a whale can be malevolent and know it is being hunted. In his view, the whale possesses a nearly human consciousness and is bent on killing Ahab. All in all, Ishmael's role in the book does not go much beyond that of narrator.

Actors who have played Ishmael

  • Richard Basehart
    Richard Basehart
    John Richard Basehart was an American actor. He starred in the 1960s television science fiction drama Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, in the role of Admiral Harriman Nelson.-Career:...

    , in the 1956 film adaptation in which Gregory Peck
    Gregory Peck
    Eldred Gregory Peck was an American actor.One of 20th Century Fox's most popular film stars from the 1940s to the 1960s, Peck continued to play important roles well into the 1980s. His notable performances include that of Atticus Finch in the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an...

     plays Ahab.
  • Henry Thomas
    Henry Thomas
    Henry Jackson Thomas, Jr. is an American actor and musician. He has appeared in more than 40 films and is best known for his role as Elliott in the 1982 Steven Spielberg film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.-Early life:...

    , in the 1998 television adaptation in which Patrick Stewart
    Patrick Stewart
    Sir Patrick Hewes Stewart, OBE is an English film, television and stage actor, who has had a distinguished career in theatre and television for around half a century...

     plays Ahab.
  • Tim Guinee
    Tim Guinee
    Timothy S. "Tim" Guinee is an American stage, television, and feature film actor.-Life and career:Guinee, who has two brothers and two sisters, was born in Los Angeles, California and raised in Illinois and Texas....

     (voice), in the 2000 animated movie in which Rod Steiger
    Rod Steiger
    Rodney Stephen "Rod" Steiger was an Academy Award-winning American actor known for his performances in such films as On the Waterfront, The Big Knife, Oklahoma!, The Harder They Fall, Across the Bridge, The Pawnbroker, Doctor Zhivago, In the Heat of the Night, and Waterloo as well as the...

     provides the voice of Ahab.
  • Terry O'Neill, in the 2003 movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (film)
    The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a 2003 superhero film adaptation loosely based on characters from the comic book limited series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore, who is also famous for Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and From Hell. It was released on July 11, 2003, in the...

  • Renee O'Connor
    Reneé O'Connor
    Renée O'Connor is an American actress, producer and director best known for playing the role of Gabrielle on the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess from 1995 to 2001.-Early career:...

     plays Michelle Herman, a female counterpart of Ishmael in the 2010 modern-day film adaptation in which Barry Bostwick
    Barry Bostwick
    Barry Knapp Bostwick is an American actor and singer. He is known for playing Brad Majors in the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show, replacing Peter Scolari as Mr. Tyler in the sitcom What I Like About You, and playing mayor Randall Winston in the sitcom Spin City...

     plays Ahab.
  • Charlie Cox
    Charlie Cox
    Charlie Cox is an English actor.-Life and career:Cox, the youngest of five children, was born in London, England and raised in East Sussex, the son of Trisha and Andrew, who is a publisher...

    , in the 2010 television adaptation in which William Hurt
    William Hurt
    William McGill Hurt is an American stage and film actor. He received his acting training at the Juilliard School, and began acting on stage in the 1970s. Hurt made his film debut as a troubled scientist in the science-fiction feature Altered States , for which he received a Golden Globe nomination...

     plays Ahab.
  • Stephen Costello plays Greenhorn, the renamed Ishmael character, in the 2010 opera version
    Moby-Dick (opera)
    Moby-Dick is an opera in two acts by Jake Heggie to an English libretto by Gene Scheer from Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. It premiered at the Dallas Opera in Dallas, Texas on April 30, 2010.-Background:...

     by Jake Heggie
    Jake Heggie
    Jake Heggie is an American composer and pianist.Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Dead Man Walking , The End of the Affair , At The Statue of Venus , To Hell and Back , and Moby-Dick , as well as the stage work For a Look or a Touch...


  • Ishmael does not appear in the 1930 film adaptation, loosely based on Melville's novel, in which John Barrymore
    John Barrymore
    John Sidney Blyth , better known as John Barrymore, was an acclaimed American actor. He first gained fame as a handsome stage actor in light comedy, then high drama and culminating in groundbreaking portrayals in Shakespearean plays Hamlet and Richard III...

     plays Ahab.

External links

  • s:Moby-Dick/Chapter 1 — Loomings — First (numbered) chapter of Moby-Dick, introducing Ishmael.
  • Librivox: Moby Dick Audiobook - Public Domain Audiobook
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