Reading Moby-Dick isn’t at all straightforward. Dad insists that Ishmael can’t read the abridged version, so Ishmael finds himself staring down a thousand pages of tiny print—600 pages of the story, and 400 pages of notes on whales and whaling (which he can skip). When Ishmael starts reading, it somehow feels like he’s connected to Kelly.
Ishmael’s sense that he’s connecting to Kelly as he reads Moby-Dick suggests that as Ishmael figures out who he is, it’ll also be easier for him to connect with others. Specifically, it seems like it’ll make it easier for Ishmael to connect with possible romantic partners.
Reading is difficult, but Ishmael eventually gets caught up in the story. By the time he’s halfway through, though, he realizes he’s nothing like Ishmael (aside from the fact that both Ishmaels have “weird friends”). This is a surprise, because Ishmael expected there to be some similarities between them. Ishmael in the novel doesn’t have a Barry Bagsley to torment him. He doesn’t faint when he sees whales. He’s never embarrassed. He never gropes anyone. Ishmael in the book isn’t a loser at all. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have a last name; he can’t suffer from Ishmael Leseur’s Syndrome without one.
Ishmael, of course, ignores the fact that his namesake is an adult, while Ishmael is currently in the throes of puberty and is experiencing all the attending indignities. But the fact that Ishmael is surprised that he’s nothing like his namesake suggests that Ishmael thought his identity was set out for him—inevitably, he implies, he’d end up a lot like Melville’s Ishmael. So finding he’s not like Melville’s Ishmael is freeing, in a way.
Ishmael does relate to one character in Moby-Dick, though: Captain Ahab. Ishmael still has both his legs, but he knows what it feels like to have part of himself ripped away and hate the person who took that part away. Every time Barry taunts Ishmael or torments Bill, Ishmael feels like he’s missing something. But is Ishmael like Ahab, craving revenge? Does he really want to hunt Barry down and make him pay? Absolutely.
It also seems freeing for Ishmael to discover that he identifies with Ahab. Ishmael implies that Ahab’s mad quest for Moby Dick gives him the language he needs to talk about his desire for revenge on Barry. Suddenly, things start to make sense for Ishmael. So his project of reading Moby-Dick is helping Ishmael figure out who he is—and it’s not at all who he thought he was.
This feeling persists, not because of Moby-Dick but because Barry’s attacks on Bill continue to escalate. Barry leaves pictures of sumo wrestlers, blimps, and weight-loss ads in Bill’s desk. He and his friends start grunting whenever Bill passes. What really angers Ishmael is that every time after Barry taunts Bill, Barry looks at Ishmael like he’s daring Ishmael to intervene. Ishmael tries to get Bill to tell Mr. Barker, but Bill refuses. Though Bill insists he’s fine, he looks more and more desperate and wounded as time goes on.
The way Ishmael frames this passage shows that he learned an important thing from reading Moby-Dick: that the novel is part of his identity and his story, but it’s in no way the biggest or most important part. Indeed, what’s important to Ishmael right now is that his close friend is being bullied, and the effects of that bullying are becoming more pronounced every day.