Ishmael serves as an “advocate” to the reader, in this chapter, of the practice of hunting whales, Queequeg’s profession and that of other harpooneers and sailors on the Pequod. Ishmael wonders aloud why whaling is not afforded more respect as a profession in the United States and around the world, and concludes that there must be some misunderstanding as to its form of “butchery,” since whaling is in some sense no more gory than is warfare or other forms of hunting.
Ishmael enjoys putting on “parts” in his conversations with the reader. Here, he plays the role of the lawyer, or advocate, making a case about whaling. In other places, Ishmael is a willing raconteur, telling stories, or a scientist or “natural philosopher,” attempting to make biological sense of the whale. Here he makes the case that whaling is as noble as war, or put another way that there is no reason to see war as noble and whaling as not.
Ishmael goes on to say that whaling is responsible for a great many of the advances in nineteenth century society, apart from its primary function: the provision of sperm-oil for oil lamps, the lamps that lit all of Europe and the Western world in the early 1800s. Ishmael says that, strikingly, whalers are some of the great explorers of the world—they have blazed watery trails throughout Australia, the Polynesian islands, and parts of Japan and the far east, although other explorers tend to get more credit for these “discoveries” than do whalers.
Ishmael also has a certain agenda with the reader: to explain that whaling is not just a noble or a heroic pursuit—but that whaling is itself one of the most important activities of man. Ishmael does this by arguing, almost as a kind of conspiracy theory, that whalers are “behind” the greatest innovations and discoveries of man. In other words, Ishmael believes that whalers are the secret engines of 1800s US society.
Ishmael closes the chapter by saying that perhaps the profession of whaling does not have its great “chronicler,” even though many noble men, and descendants of important men, have taken up whaling as a way of making a living. Ishmael states that Queequeg, and men like him, are of inherently noble and distinguished character. And Ishmael concludes, implicitly, that perhaps the manuscript of this account, which forms the novel Moby Dick, might be his testament to the greatness and heroism inherent to whaling.
Ishmael, in a move that today would be considered “postmodern,” addresses the act of composition of the book itself, saying that, in part, his job is to “speak” for those who will not speak for themselves—people like his companion Queequeg. In this sense, Ishmael is aware of, and indeed infuses the novel with, the idea of “writing a novel.” This self-awareness was considered strange in Melville’s time, and was a precursor to later developments in fictional narrative.