Ishmael’s relationship to the novel Moby-Dick represents his transformation from feeling insecure and powerless to confident and in control of his life. When readers first meet Ishmael, he believes that all his problems in life (such as suffering from the fictional Ishmael Leseur’s Syndrome, which makes the sufferer do embarrassing things) can be traced back to Moby-Dick’s author, Herman Melville. It’s Melville’s fault, Ishmael reasons, for writing Moby-Dick, naming his narrator Ishmael, and putting into the world a novel his parents would eventually study in college—and choose to take as inspiration for their son’s name. And his name, Ishmael believes, spurs others to exhibit “disturbing behavior,” as when Dad forces people to listen to the story of how Ishmael got his name, or when Barry Bagsley taunts Ishmael for having a “wussy-crap name.” At this point, Ishmael does everything he can to hide from his name and from his name’s origins. In this way, Moby-Dick is initially associated with Ishmael’s low self-esteem, and his mindset that outside influences (whether a book or other people) dictate who he is.
But as Ishmael gains confidence through the debating club, he begins to feel less self-conscious about his name. And things really take a turn when Ishmaels crush, Kelly Faulkner, inspires him to actually read Moby-Dick and learn what Melville’s Ishmael is like. To Ishmael’s surprise, he discovers that he’s nothing like the fictional Ishmael—and in fact, he’s a lot more like Captain Ahab, the mad captain seeking the titular whale, Moby-Dick. Reading Moby-Dick thus helps Ishmael realize that his name doesn’t define him, and that he alone gets to decide who he is. Learning about his namesake by reading Moby-Dick, and having Kelly write “Call me Ishmael” (the first line of Moby-Dick) as a way of telling him to call her, give Ishmael newfound confidence, pride, and understanding of himself. Moby-Dick therefore comes to represent Ishmael’s realization that he has the power to shape his identity and his life—and that he isn’t destined for failure and mediocrity.
Moby-Dick Quotes in Don’t Call Me Ishmael
And if it hadn’t been my terrible fate to end up as Ishmael Leseur, then none of the disasters of my life would have happened and today I would be a happy normal teenager, like everyone else my age.
“Ishmael? What kind of a wussy-crap name is that?”
What could I say? Up to this point in my life I hadn’t even known it was a wussy-crap name. No one had warned me that I had a wussy-crap name. Why would my parents give me a wussy-crap name in the first place? Was Herman Melville aware it was a wussy-crap name?
“What’s he like?”
“No—Ishmael—the person you’re named after.”
“Oh yeah, right,” I said, feeling like a dork.
“What…oh…I don’t know what he’s like. I’ve never read it.”
“Really? You haven’t read it? How come? If I was named after someone in a book, I’d definitely want to read it to find out what they were like. You know, see if I was like them.”
The second thing I decided to do was ask Dad if I could borrow his copy of Moby-Dick. “Aaarrgh, me hearty,” he said, rolling his eyes crazily, “ye be seeking the white whale!”
I wasn’t, though. I be seeking Ishmael.
But there was someone else onboard the Pequod who I could relate to. Maybe I hadn’t lost my leg to a great white whale like he had, but I understood what it was like to have a part of yourself torn away, and I also knew how much you could grow to hate whoever or whatever it was that had taken that part from you. I knew all about that, because every time Barry Bagsley taunted me and ground my name into the dirt, and every time he paid out on Bill Kingsley and I did nothing, it felt like there was much more of me missing than just a limb. But was I really like Ahab? Did I crave revenge like him? Would I really like to hunt down Barry Bagsley and harpoon him and make him suffer for what he had done?
But do you want to know the really weird thing? Well, I’ll tell you. The really weird thing was that as I lay there with only the raspy sound of my breathing filling my ears and with the spongy grass of St. Daniel’s playing fields buoying me up, I could have sworn that I was floating and bobbing on the surface of a vast green ocean. Remind you of anyone?
Go on—call me Ishmael if you like.
After all, as the Big Z would say, I’m da man!