Narrator & Point of View in Moby-Dick

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Meet Herman Melville's narrator for 'Moby-Dick.' You may call him ~'Ishmael.~' In this lesson, you'll learn more about Ishmael's role and how his point of view shifts throughout the tale about the Pequod's journey.

The Narrator in Moby-Dick

If you want to meet the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, you need look no further than the novel's opening sentence. From 'Call me Ishmael,' the first line of the epic sea tale, readers are introduced to the narrator that will spin the story to come. The narrator is the storyteller in a literary work or movie.

Ishmael, if that's his real name - after all, he tells you to call him Ishmael, which is quite different than saying ''My name is Ishmael,'' is a smart and observant individual. He's a previous sea traveler and enjoys being aboard a ship out on the ocean, particularly when he's feeling down. His observant nature and characteristics as a strong storyteller might make you think that the point of view in Moby-Dick is pretty straight-forward. But, like a lot of other hidden messages in the book, that's simply not the case. Let's take a closer look at the varying points of view identified in Melville's work.

Ishmael's Point of View


The point of view as it relates to a novel is the angle from which the story is told. If you're recounting the events of your weekend to a friend, you're talking to your friend in first-person. First-person stories involve a lot of the pronouns ''I'' and ''we'' as you tell your tale. That's the first place we find Ishmael as the story opens:

''Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.''

Ishmael is clearly telling the readers about his own personal experiences. In this regard, Ishmael is also considered a central narrator. That is, he's telling a story that he's a participant in. In this role, he may also be serving as the voice of the author, Herman Melville, himself.

Here's another example of Ishmael as the first-person narrator:

''I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine.''

We're getting the inside track on Ishmael's thoughts and feelings in this passage from the chapter titled ''Moby-Dick.''

As the story progresses, Ishmael's perspective slowly shifts, and what the reader gets changes. Ishmael, though still narrating in first-person, has moved to a more peripheral narrator stance. A peripheral narrator is someone who is involved in the story, but is not the center of that story. In this type of perspective, Ishmael is reduced to a minor player in the story. Check out this example:

''When Stubb had departed, Ahab stood for a while leaning over the bulwarks; and then, as had been usual with him of late, calling a sailor of the watch, he sent him below for his ivory stool, and also his pipe. Lighting the pipe at the binnacle lamp and planting the stool on the weather side of the deck, he sat and smoked.''

In this example, which takes place in sight of Ishmael on the ship's deck, Ishmael is recounting what he saw Ahab doing.

Third-Person or Omniscient

Third-person omniscient narration is more like being a fly on the wall, meaning that Ishmael's observing the action but is not a part of it. In this regard, Ishmael is much more like a spectator than a participant in the story. This means he's able to see and know all, without being directly involved. In fact, there are numerous locations in the story where Ishmael is telling readers about events he could not possibly have participated in. For example:

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