Ishmael is both the protagonist and narrator of the story. As evidenced by his own words, he is a man who craves adventure and welcomes testing his wits against any respectable adversary. He is greatly proactive in his attitude towards life's challenges; when he finds himself 'growing grim about the mouth,' he likes to take himself off to sea, instead of resorting to 'pistol and ball' and 'knocking people's hats off.' Ishmael presents himself as a stubbornly independent individual who is used to deciding his own fate. He is adventurous, courageous, and resourceful.
In Chapter One, Ishmael demonstrates his keen attention to detail (he is observant), his obvious intelligence, and his love for the sea through his philosophical musings about the psychological benefits of the sea.
...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.. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever...And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Ishmael's self-awareness propels him to wrestle with life's great questions by testing his courage against an ambiguously, unpredictable ocean. It's the only way he knows of to deal with depression. He also tells us that, when he goes to sea, he likes to go as a sailor 'because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of.' Ishmael's fierce independence is circumscribed by his frugal, practical attitude about money and material gain. He doesn't mind being ordered around as a sailor because he would rather be paid than to have to fork over money to be a passenger.
His frugality is demonstrated in his search for an inn in New Bedford, in Chapter Two. He rejects every expensive inn he sees and finally settles on the Spouter Inn, only because it looks like it's falling apart and would probably be cheap.
...the dilapidated little wooden house itself looked as if it might have been carted here from the ruins of some burnt district, and as the swinging sign had a poverty-stricken sort of creak to it, I thought that here was the very spot for cheap lodgings, and the best of pea coffee.
In Chapter Three, Ishmael's adventurous and courageous nature is severely tested when he finds out that he has to share a bed with a strange bedfellow, a harpooner who happens to peddle heads for a living. That Queequeg is a cannibal doesn't help matters; however, the inn owner, Coffin, assures him that Queequeg is a dependable fellow because 'he pays reg'lar.' When Queequeg later brandishes his tomahawk because of his surprise at discovering a strange bedfellow in his room, Ishmael calls frantically for Coffin. Coffin comes running and reassures both men. Upon hearing the inn owner's words, Queequeg displays a side of himself Ishmael doesn't expect to see.
"You gettee in," he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk, and throwing the clothes to one side. He really did this in not only a civil but a really kind and charitable way. I stood looking at him a moment. For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself—the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.
This incident highlights Ishmael's openness, not just to new experiences, but also in his ability to reevaluate the practicality of preconceived notions. In the 19th Century, a harpooner such as Queequeg, who sported tattoos and worshiped idols, would be classed as a primitive savage of sorts. However, Ishmael once again displays his keen sense of observation and tolerance for unconventional experiences when he philosophizes that Queequeg has as much right to be in the inn as he does.
I turned in, and never slept better in my life.