"Call Me Ishmael"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: No other American book, and few of any people, begins with five syllables that have come to mean so much. Like the beginning four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, these words establish the motif of the book. Ishmael is the narrator of the greatest whale hunt in literature. He rides the waves on the Pequod as the monomaniacal Captain Ahab strives to destroy the, to his eyes, evil albino whale Moby Dick. Ishmael joins in with the other members of the crew in a diabolical pledge to chase and kill the whale. But Ishmael, although of the crew, is not always with it. He stands somewhat aside, acting as a prism to reflect Melville's attitude toward life. And like Melville, Ishmael–like the Biblical character for whom he was named–is a lonely man in life, estranged and doomed to wander. When the ship is destroyed by Moby Dick on the third day of the insane chase, only he "escaped alone to tell thee." The tone and power of the book can be illustrated in the three sentences with which it begins:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.