Ishmael is introduced to the reader as a contemplative, if not melancholy, young man. He is drawn to the sea as a means to escape the monotony of every day life, and cherishes it as a “substitute for pistol and ball” (CITE). As the narrator, Ishmael’s naturally contemplative nature invites the reader to ponder along with him as the ship leaves port and sets sail on the open ocean. It must be understood, though, that Ishmael does not serve as passive role as a character or a seaman, but rather goes to sea “as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head.” (CITE). As a narrator, he is presented to the reader as an awfully intelligent man in search of something – freedom, adventure, or experience—on the wave worn Pequod.
Interestingly, though, there is one event that lingers in the reader’s mind that Ishmael seems to disregard without the teeth-gnashing pontification essential to his character—that of his encounter with the prophet, Elijah. Biblically, Elijah sought to defend the sovereignty of Yahweh during a period in Northern Israel in which Baal, a pagan deity, was being worshipped. Certainly no coincidence, the most prominent...
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... has been lost—Ishmael his peace of mind, and Ahab his pride. However, while Ishmael intends to discover his by escape and exploration, Ahab seeks to find his by exacting revenge.
It is worth noting here that while many would merely chalk Ishmael’s boundless pontifications on naivety, that as literary critic Nina Baym explains, “the voice we hear is not that of the morose Ishmael who went to sea as a substitute for suicide, found escape by submitting himself to the will of a charismatic captain, and confronted annihilation in the shape of a white whale. It is the voice of the returned traveler with a far wider scope who is now writing a book” (917). At the moment that Ishmael is writing his book, he has already lived through a far worse experience than Ahab ever endured, and therefore possesses the same propensity for gloom and insanity to which Ahab once clung.
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