Ishmael narrates how he wound up on the particular boat, the Pequod, on which the novel focuses. He decided to leave Manhattan and to travel first to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from which he could catch a smaller boat to Nantucket Island, where many whalers begin their journeys. But after arriving in New Bedford on a cold night in December, he found that there were no more small boats to Nantucket, and that he would have to spend the night in town. Because he was poor at the moment, he decided to find the cheapest in that would take him.
Melville often writes of the burgeoning seaport towns of the northeastern coast of the United States. Here, New York, New Bedford, and Nantucket are all regions that deal in shipping and other port activities. New Bedford is also a very successful town—rather than the relatively small town it is today—and New York has yet to fully differentiate itself as the largest and most prosperous city in the country.
Ishmael walks by a series of inns, attached to bars (or “public houses”) that appear too expensive for his budget. He finds, down by the water, a place called the Spouter Inn, owned (as stated on the sign) by a man named Peter Coffin. Although Ishmael is worried by the dreary look of the place, and ominous name of its owner, he decides to walk inside regardless. Ishmael pauses in the narration to muse upon the story of Lazarus and the rich man (known as Dives), from the Gospel of Luke. In that story, Lazarus lay outside the rich man’s house for many days, and the rich man gave him no food or money—after both died, however, the rich man found that Lazarus received divine care, and the rich man did not. Ishmael then interrupts his own musing, and states he will describe the dark, sooty Spouter Inn in the next chapter.
Although Ishmael worries a great deal about money in the early chapters of the novel, money will cease to be a primary concern once the novel shifts into its section on the open seas. For the gold doubloon that Ahab so dramatically nails to the main-mast of the ship is worthless on the sea—it cannot be spent on anything—and many of the sailors are not even sure that they will return to land alive at all. But, in the beginning of the novel, one of Ishmael’s primary motivations for shipping out to sea is to make a living for himself, as he barely has any money to his name. Meanwhile, possible foreboding abounds.