Don’t Call Me Ishmael is, in many ways, a story of unlikely friendships. Ishmael begins the novel without any friends at school. But midway through the year, when James Scobie—who has a facial tic that makes him an instant target for bully Barry Bagsley—starts at St. Daniel’s Boys School, he and Ishmael quickly become friends. And their circle expands when Scobie starts a debating team which attracts several other loners in the Year Nine class: sci-fi obsessed Bill Kingsley, socially awkward Ignatius Prindabel, and class clown Orazio “Razza” Zorzotto. The novel closely links Ishmael’s ability to start coming of age in Year Nine to his new friendships. His friends help him overcome his fears of public speaking, in addition to providing him with much-needed support as Ishmael grapples with various obstacles. Don’t Call Me Ishmael positions friendship as something capable of helping a person expand their worldview and, perhaps more importantly, showing a person the importance of protecting and standing up for others.
Don’t Call Me Ishmael presents friendless characters—including Ishmael—as one-dimensional, without any room to grow or develop. As Ishmael narrates his first term of Year Nine (Scobie doesn’t arrive until second term), he describes himself as someone who’s guaranteed to do embarrassing things, and who’s guaranteed to suffer bullying from Barry Bagsley. There’s no indication that Ishmael believes anything will change in his life, even as he grows older and has new experiences. Instead, Ishmael feels stagnant and stuck in his role as the “village idiot.” Ishmael also describes his classmates, including several he ends up befriending, in similar terms. For instance, he describes Bill Kingsley as being in his own world and obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, without any acknowledgement that there’s certainly more to Bill than his love of Lord of the Rings. And Ishmael also regularly includes asides from Razza, thereby presenting Razza as someone who’s good at witty comebacks—but nothing more than that. So Ishmael presents himself and his future friends as one-dimensional caricatures, not fully formed people.
On the other hand, the novel shows how friendship can help a person expand their worldview by making people who once seemed one-dimensional into complex human beings, while also helping people better understand themselves. After befriending Scobie, Bill, Ignatius, and Razza, Ishmael still has embarrassing moments (such as when he faints during a debate and accidentally gropes his crush’s breast on the way down). But he does start to see himself as capable and not just destined to be an embarrassment. And this is all because Ishmael gets to know the other boys on the debating team and starts to trust in their support as he figures out who he is. Ishmael also starts to rethink his preconceptions about his new friends. While Ishmael initially thought of James Scobie as an easy target for Barry, Ishmael comes to trust Scobie unconditionally when Scobie stands up to Barry and effectively takes away all of Barry’s power. Bill, though he remains extremely interested in sci-fi and fantasy, starts to emerge as a kind, reliable person in Ishmael’s eyes—a far cry from the disaffected boy Ishmael initially thought Bill was. And particularly after Scobie leaves school for medical reasons, Razza becomes one of Ishmael’s best friends and supporters, and a levelheaded voice of reason when it comes to Barry’s bullying. No one, the novel suggests, is entirely who they seem from the outside—and befriending someone is a good way to start to see who they really are, as well as to figure out one’s own identity.
Most importantly, the novel shows that friendships can motivate people to stand up for one another in situations where they never would’ve considered doing so before. Prior to becoming friends with the debating team, Ishmael doesn’t see the point in standing up to Barry in most situations. Barry’s endless taunts are grating, but Ishmael finds it easier to try to make himself invisible than to tell Barry to stop. But this all changes when Barry begins to target Bill for his weight and launches a bullying campaign that’s even crueler than what he’s done in the past. Seeing how upset and withdrawn Bill gets every time he finds a picture of a hippo or a weight loss ad taped in his desk or locker, Ishmael knows he can’t stay silent anymore. He may be able to withstand Barry’s bullying, but Ishmael recognizes that Bill is struggling to stay strong in the face of such cruelty. Spurred to action by his loyalty to Bill, Ishmael starts to challenge Barry as opportunities arise. At first, this doesn’t do much except make Ishmael feel even worse—he recognizes that simply telling Barry to stop won’t make Barry stop, or even do anything meaningful for Bill. But Ishmael’s anger and loyalty leads him to come up with a plan to humiliate Barry in front of the school—and, Ishmael believes, leave his victims alone for good. The novel directly links Ishmael’s ability to come up with such a plan to his friendship with Bill, as Ishmael never saw the point in standing up to Barry until he had Bill to protect.
Ultimately, Ishmael decides not to go through with humiliating Barry—he can’t stand the prospect of becoming a bully himself. But despite this, the novel still maintains that robust, loyal friendships are some of the best antidotes to bullying. Immediately following Ishmael’s choice to not humiliate Barry, Razza, in an attempt to cheer Bill up, invites himself along to a sci-fi movie and also plans a movie marathon for himself, Bill, and Ishmael. This is something that not only makes Bill feel supported and valued in the moment—it also shows that going forward, Bill will have friends who will be there for him and lessen the impact of Barry’s bullying. It’s not always necessary, the novel suggests, for friends to actually battle adversaries for one another—sometimes, it can be enough to offer support and make one’s friends feel safe, understood, and appreciated.
Friendship 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.
Even though we had improved from last time, the difference again was Scobie. It was like having Michael Phelps swimming the final leg for you in the under-seven floaties relay. As long as we could keep the opposition vaguely in sight, we knew that Scobie would reel them in and eat them up.
“Sort of…the tumor, the operation…they’re true. The other thing…not being afraid…Well, it depends on how you look at it. Maybe it wasn’t a scalpel that did it. Maybe…when you’re lying in an operating room and someone is cutting into your brain…and you don’t know whether you’re going to…”
For a few seconds all I could hear was Scobie breathing. When he continued, it was almost in a whisper.
“Well…maybe there’s just so much fear you can have…and in that one moment you use up all the fear you were ever supposed to feel…and it’s the fear that cuts you…and it cuts you so deep that you decide that nothing else is worth being afraid of…and that nothing is going to scare you anymore…because you just won’t let it.”
“Well, I guess you could say that part of it’s about how power can be used in a good way or a bad way, and you could tie that to things like the power that big companies or politicians or dictators have today, I suppose. And Harry himself faces a lot of problems that I reckon would be relevant to a lot of people—you know, like coping with death and trying to fit in when you’re different…and bullying.”
“Oh, and Orazio…I know we’re not headed for Mount Doom or anything, but we are on a bit of a quest, aren’t we? Maybe we’re even some sort of a fellowship.”
Razza sprawled back in his seat and shook his head slowly from side to side as if nothing made sense to him anymore. Finally he stood up, leaned over the table, and placed his hand on Bill’s shoulder.
I held my breath. I had a terrible feeling that Orazio Zorzotto’s razor-sharp wit was about to slice Bill Kingsley in two.
Razza fixed his eyes on the large form before him. “I will follow you,” he said solemnly, “my brother…my captain…my…Kingsley.”
Razza nudged me in the ribs and jerked his head toward Bill Kingsley, who was gazing into space beside him. I knew what Razza was getting at. Bill looked different somehow. It must have been the smile on his face.
I looked at Bill. I remembered his face after that last debate. Now he looked numb and broken.
I ripped the certificate from the desk. “That’s it. I’m taking this to Barker.”
“No, Ishmael, don’t!”
“Why can’t you just leave him alone?”
“Maybe I don’t want to. Are you going to make me?”
And there it was. The question we’d all been waiting for. The question whose answer I knew, and Barry Bagsley knew, was no. I looked at the smug, arrogant face before me, a face without a shadow of a doubt that it had nothing in the world to fear. I hated it and I hated how it was making me feel. I wanted to blow it away.
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?
I heard a strange noise come from deep within Bill Kingsley. It took me a moment to realize that he was laughing.
Razza looked back at me, flashed that deadly smile, and gave me the thumbs-up.
They were right all along. The Razzman really did work in mysterious ways.