Chapter 1 Summary and Analysis

New Character
Ishmael: the narrator of the story; a seaman

Summary
Ishmael explains he has chosen to go to sea to cure his depression as an alternative to suicide. There is “magic” in bodies of water, he says. “Crowds of water-gazers” flock to the wharfs of Manhattan, a temporary escape from the occupations in which they are “pent up.” Wanderers in the woods find their way to lakes.

Ishmael never goes to sea as a passenger; he doesn’t have the money to pay. He never goes as an officer; he has all he can do to take care of himself. He never goes as a cook. Rather, he goes to sea as a “simple sailor” to get paid, to get exercise, and to breathe the pure air. He overcomes the indignity of being ordered around since he believes that everyone else is a slave in one way or another.

Although he may delude himself into believing his choice is his own, it is fate that sends Ishmael on a whaling voyage. His chief motives are the mystery of the whale itself and the marvels of the seas he will sail.

Discussion and Analysis
“Call me Ishmael” is undoubtedly one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. The name is an allusion to the biblical character who was cast out of Abraham’s household, set adrift as it were. The title of the chapter, “Loomings,” meaning an ominous event about to occur, establishes a sense of foreboding.

At the outset, in analyzing his own motives, the narrator shows himself to be open-minded, philosophical, and observant. His journey is nothing less than a quest for knowledge and understanding: the sea, or perhaps Ishmael’s own reflection in it, is “the ungraspable phantom of life; … the key to it all.” The ocean as a central symbol is introduced in this chapter. The water offers not only freedom from a mundane existence, but also freedom of thought.

The first chapter is written in an ironic, humorous tone. Ishmael’s depression is serious and borders on self-destruction, but it is described in such understated terms as “pausing before coffin warehouses” and “bringing up the rear of every funeral.” Ishmael humorously describes God’s plan for him as a warm-up act sandwiched between “more extensive performances.” There is a good deal of irony and humor in Moby-Dick that must not be overlooked.