Ishmael’s irony

Today: Moby-Dick Ch. 17-21; Iliad Books 3-4

I notice in Moby-Dick criticism a tendency to talk about Ishmael as if he were a real person, and this gives me a strange feeling because he seems so clearly to me a /fiction/–even if he is his (the narrator’s) own fiction. We don’t even know his name, only what we are to call him.

Continuous with this is a tendency to take what Ishmael says seriously–as in Arnold Weinstein’s lectures for the Teaching Company (“Classics of American Literature”), in which he talks about Ishmael’s ‘transformation’ by Queequeg, quoting the lines from Ch. 10, “No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it.” On the one hand, this seems at the least an overstatement–we had gotten little sense of Ishmael having had a “splintered heart” (despite his opening comments about his “hypos” and knocking people’s hats off) nor, it seems to me, does he seem dramatically different afterward; on the other hand, if he /had/ really been in a state, his playful report of his exploits up til that point must be taken as somewhat masking of reality.

In Chapter 17, Ishmael begins with a proclamation of his catholicism:

…I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshiping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of the earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.
I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects.

If this is not irony…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: