Don’t Call Me Ishmael begins with 14-year-old Ishmael Leseur explaining to readers that he hates his name, since he believes it’s the source of all his trouble. He shares a first name with one of the most famous characters in American literature (Ishmael from Herman Melville’s whaling novel Moby-Dick), and the school bully Barry Bagsley deemed Ishmael a “wussy-crap name” a year ago, making it his mission to torture and bully Ishmael whenever possible. So Ishmael blames his “wussy-crap name” for his awkwardness, weakness, and loneliness. But things begin to change when a new boy, James Scobie, joins Ishmael’s Year Nine class. Scobie isn’t afraid to stand up to Barry—and he also ropes Ishmael and three other boys into joining a new debating team. As Ishmael learns to master his fear of public speaking while also making friends, developing a crush on a girl from another school, and eventually reading Moby-Dick, Ishmael realizes that his name—and the identity he thought it gave him—isn’t set in stone. Rather, Ishmael discovers that his identity is something he can shape, no matter what his name might be.
When readers first meet Ishmael, he insists he’s helpless to shape his identity—he feels as though other people have all the power to tell him who, and what, he is. Ishmael first blames his parents for saddling him with such a distinctive (and, in his opinion, embarrassing) name. Ishmael believes his parents have set him up for a life of people meeting him and then saying his name is “interesting”—or, if they’re familiar with Moby-Dick, spouting off the novel’s first line, “Call me Ishmael.” Because of this, Ishmael feels cursed with a name that, in his opinion, gives others license to decide who he is: a kid who’s named after a hugely important figure in American literature, not a person in his own right. But those problems pale in comparison when Ishmael starts secondary school and bully Barry Bagsley insists that Ishmael is a “wussy-crap name.” The way Ishmael frames this episode shows that he takes Barry’s assessment as fact—rather than wonder if Barry is actually right about this, Ishmael instead asks whether his parents or Herman Melville knew that Ishmael is a “wussy-crap name.” And because Ishmael takes Barry’s opinion as fact, he immediately starts to think of himself as a “wuss” and, in the interest of avoiding Barry’s taunts, goes out of his way to make himself invisible. Essentially, because of the way Barry makes Ishmael feel ashamed and self-conscious about his name, Ishmael decides that he’s destined to be invisible and uncool.
Ishmael begins to feel more in control of his identity as he experiences success in debating and makes friends, suggesting that his perceived powerlessness was merely a reflection of his loneliness. When James Scobie joins Ishmael’s Year Nine class, he immediately puts Barry in his place. And as Barry fades into the background, Ishmael suddenly has the breathing room to experiment with who he is and who, or what, he wants to be. Because Ishmael trusts Scobie so fully, he joins the debating club despite his fear of public speaking—and even agrees, twice, to stand up and speak during debating competitions. And despite Ishmael’s poor performances (he faints the first time and stumbles through his speech the second), his friends’ support allows him to see that he’s not actually as inept as he thought he was. The friends that Ishmael makes during debating also help him decide to explore his identity, rather than accept what Barry says is true about it. For instance, Razza encourages Ishmael to believe he has a chance with Kelly—something that Ishmael brushes off as ridiculous, but that eventually seems like a possibility when Kelly gives Ishmael her phone number. And Kelly, for her part, encourages Ishmael to finally read Moby-Dick to figure out what Herman Melville’s Ishmael is like, and how Ishmael might relate to his namesake. Put another way, the friends Ishmael makes give him the support and encouragement he needs to start looking at himself in a new light.
What finally spurs Ishmael to realize that he controls his own identity is realizing that while his name is a part of him, it doesn’t define who he is. Ishmael has an epiphany when, in the course of reading Moby-Dick, he discovers that Melville’s Ishmael is nothing like him. Ishmael in the novel doesn’t faint when he sees whales and effectively performs his duties on the whaling ship without messing up. And for Ishmael, this is somewhat freeing. Realizing he’s nothing like the fictional Ishmael opens him up to realizing that he actually identifies far more with a different character in Moby-Dick: Captain Ahab, the mad captain who desperately wants to get revenge on the whale Moby Dick, which bit off one of Ahab’s legs. As Ishmael makes this discovery, he’s confronted by a choice: what kind of a person does he want to be? Initially, Ishmael decides to lean into his identification with Ahab and seek revenge on Barry for making him, as well as Ishmael’s friend Bill Kingsley, miserable. But ultimately, Ishmael decides that he wants to take the high road and not bully others, no matter how tempting that might be. And by the end of the novel, after Ishmael has decided not to humiliate Barry at an end of year school event, Ishmael is far more secure in who he is, in his friendships, and in his future.
Through Ishmael’s journey of discovering who he wants to be and who he is, the novel presents identity as something that’s in no way set in stone. One quality (such as Ishmael’s name or Bill’s love of sci-fi) doesn’t define a person’s whole identity. Rather, as Ishmael discovers, forming one’s identity is a process of discovery and of making decisions about who one wants to be.
Identity and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Identity and Coming of Age Quotes in Don’t Call Me Ishmael
So, first things first. My name is Ishmael Leseur.
Now, wait on, I know what you’re going to say—I have the same name as my condition! You probably think I just invented it, so I can use it as an excuse whenever I make a complete fool of myself. But you don’t get it. It’s not that simple. You have to understand that the name is the condition—or at least part of it.
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?
Every atom in my body told me that this was one of those times when the sensible thing to do was to make myself small. A few backward steps and I would be out of sight. Then I could forget all about Barry Bagsley and his mob. But that was just it. I could forget about the rest of them, but I couldn’t get the kid out of my mind. I won’t lie. I’m no hero. I wanted to turn around and run. I wanted to make myself small. I wanted to disappear. The problem was, I had the terrible feeling that if I did, I might not ever be able to find myself again.
“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!”
“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.”
And then it happened. Kelly Faulkner laughed, and her beautiful pale eyes melted my heart like ice cream in a microwave till all that remained was an awful empty feeling. That’s when I knew. Nothing would happen between us. I’d been kidding myself. It just wasn’t possible for eyes as beautiful as that to see anyone as ordinary as me. For the first time, I didn’t feel like a nervous wreck in Kelly Faulkner’s presence. What did I have to worry about?
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 there was another reason why I couldn’t go through with it. It was that look on Barry Bagsley’s face, the one that I had put there, the one that reminded me of Kelly Faulkner’s little brother, of Bill Kingsley, and of myself. I didn’t want to be the kind of person that made people look like that. No matter who they were.
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!