What is the significance of the first-person narrative perspective in Herman Melville's Moby Dick?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick is narrated in first person by Ishmael. Interestingly, Ishmael opens the book from a narrator's perspective looking back on the past, as we see in the phrase, "Some years ago," yet the novel ends in the last chapter without the reader truly knowing whether or not Ishmael survived the wreck. Yet, obviously he did or he could not have lived to tell the story. It's not until the epilogue that the narrator announces, "On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last." There are also places in which it seems like the story is being told through a third-person omniscient narrator, no longer Ishmael, especially during the course of Ahab's monologues. Inconsistencies in the narration are connected to Ishmael as a symbolic character and the novel's themes as a whole.

The Hebrew name Ishmael can be translated as "God hears," or "God understands." Hence, it's very fitting that a character named Ishmael should tell a story that can be interpreted in so many different ways from the perspective of so many different characters--only God truly hears and truly understands the story.

In addition, the biblical Ishmael was treated as a social outcast. In Genesis, after Sarah still had not given birth to any children, she granted Abraham permission to conceive a son with her maid Hagar, and that son was named Ishmael. However, sadly, when Sarah did finally conceive, she cast both Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. In Moby Dick, Ishmael sees himself as a social outsider. In the beginning of the story, Ishmael informs the reader he was suffering from some deep spiritual problem and that he took a job on a whaler as his attempt at putting an end to his own life. Ishmael also stands in great contrast to other characters in the book because he can discourse to the readers on random thoughts about art, literature, and law, showing us how educated he is, whereas other characters are of the uneducated working class.

The inconsistency and complexity of Ishmael as a narrator directly parallels the inconsistency and complexity of the story's most important symbol, Moby Dick, the great white whale. The white whale symbolizes different things to different characters, showing us that only God truly hears and truly understands this story. Whiteness generally symbolizes purity, yet Captain Ahab sees the whale as being evil. In contrast, Ishmael sees all of the killing and need for revenge as evil and the whale as a symbol of glory and power, similar to God. Other characters do not believe the white whale really exists, similarly to how one might not have faith in God's existence.

The inconsistencies of the narrator and symbols help to develop themes concerning limited knowledge and the power of nature or God.

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