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With one of the most famous sentences in all of literature, Herman Melville opens his narrative with "Call me Ishmael." With this line, Melville introduces the Biblical allusion of the son of Hagar and Abraham who, with his mother, was made to wander in the wilderness after Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had had a son of her own, Isaac. Wanting no competition for Isaac, she asked Abraham to banish Ishmael and his mother. Reluctantly, Abraham acquiesced after God told him he would take care of Ishmael. That the narrator is named Ishmael takes on great significance as the sailor goes to see for a long time--wanders--and is ultimately the only survivor of the doomed ship of the tragic Captain Ahab.
The attention of the author is clearly given to this character who is also the narrator who is touched by fate. While Ishamel explains that it is despair that makes him decide to go to sea, for the lure of the mysteries of nature, the whale and the sea are what lure him onto the Pequod in Nantucket;
Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?
Once more. Say, you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
The sea has a lure of metaphysical mystery; the answer to the questions of the universe are withing its depths. Ishamel declares,
the great floodgates of the wonder-world swung open and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul.
The preternatural sea that "hosts the grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in air," lures Ishmael, a somewhat enigmatic character who seeks adventure to relieve his depression of spirit, suggesting some similarities between him and his future captain. In Chapter 1, Melville creates mystery and introduces the narrator and the theme of the Quest for what is beyond the "pasteboard mask," as Ahab terms it, that Nature wears.
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