On Ishmael’s first day of Year Nine, his English teacher, Miss Tarango, demonstrates for the class the “power of language.” Spurred to action by bully Barry Bagsley’s taunts and disrespect, Miss Tarango invites Barry to sit in her chair while she walks around him three times. If he manages to stay in the chair until she completes her third circle, she promises he can have the rest of the week off. Miss Tarango, of course, refuses to finish the third circle before the bell rings, and Barry is forced to admit defeat—after all, her language was powerfully vague: she never said when she would complete the third circle. With this demonstration, Miss Tarango positions language’s power as one of the novel’s chief concerns. This is apparent as Ishmael joins a debating team and conquers his fear of public speaking—and as Barry torments Ishmael and Ishmael’s friends with rude nicknames and insults, rather than physical violence. Don’t Call Me Ishmael presents language as a power that’s available to anyone who can use their voice to speak up and communicate with others. But the trick, the novel shows, isn’t just learning to speak up—the true power of language comes in knowing how and when to speak up, and when to stay silent.
The novel links Ishmael’s perceived helplessness in the beginning of the novel to his unwillingness to use his voice to advocate for himself. Ishmael is, on some level, aware of the power of language from the very beginning of the novel. Indeed, he explains how his dad regularly regales people with the tale of how Ishmael got his name, a story that Ishmael frames as a sort of punishment for anyone who’s forced to listen to it (including Ishmael himself). And Ishmael also sees how bad Barry can make him feel, simply by regularly butchering Ishmael’s name. But Ishmael insists that it’s futile to try to stop either Dad or Barry from forcing their victims to listen to whatever it is they have to say. Ishmael describes Dad in storytelling mode as “a runaway semitrailer,” and he sarcastically implies that while Barry can use language for his own cruel aims, he’s impervious if anyone tries to speak to him and get him to stop. But, importantly, Ishmael suggests that it’s impossible to even try—implying, perhaps, that he hasn’t tried to use his words to either stop Dad from telling a story that humiliates Ishmael, or to get Barry to stop bullying him or others. Silence, in this situation, is a source of powerlessness.
But after Ishmael joins the debating team and pays more attention in Miss Tarango’s class, he starts to see that it’s not so frightening to use his voice to advocate for what he wants—and that doing so can yield positive results. After Miss Tarango’s demonstration with Barry on the first day of term (which makes Miss Tarango a hero in Ishmael’s mind), Ishmael’s lessons in the power of language mostly come from James Scobie. When Barry tries to torment Scobie on Scobie’s first day of school, Scobie does “what you’re not supposed to do” and engages with Barry. At first, Ishmael describes the boys’ exchange as a shootout from a Western film, the implication being that Barry will inevitably shoot Scobie down and emerge victorious. But as the exchange proceeds, Ishmael changes his perspective and decides that what’s going on is actually like a boxing match. And while Barry’s “punches” (meaning his words) might be wild and strong, Scobie’s words are quick and do just as much, if not more, damage. Scobie’s rousing poem supporting the St. Daniel’s football team also shows Ishmael the power of language—it gets everyone, fans and players alike, revved up and helps the St. Daniel’s team win a match they were sure to lose. Seeing Scobie use language encourages Ishmael to learn to do the same. While his first attempt to speak during a debate leads to Ishmael fainting, his second attempt goes fairly well—and after this, Ishmael finds that he’s not so afraid of speaking up anymore. Following his successful debate, Ishmael isn’t as afraid of taking on Barry when Barry torments Bill Kingsley, and he also encourages others (like Bill) to use their words, just as Scobie did for him earlier in the novel.
But as Ishmael finds his voice, he also finds that his true power lies in knowing when to use it—and when to stay silent. Ishmael grows increasingly angry as, without Scobie around to stop him (Scobie has to leave school for medical reasons), Barry targets Bill and bullies him incessantly about his weight. Ishmael’s righteous anger and newfound belief in the power of language lead him to formulate a plan to take Barry down: to read a prayer that Barry will stop bullying people in front of the student body, students’ parents, and teachers at the final school function of the year. Ishmael is confident that through language, he can stop Barry in his tracks by humiliating him and exposing him as the bully he is. But Ishmael has to confront the true power of his words when he sees how defeated Barry looks in the moments before Ishmael is slated to speak. Ishmael realizes that he’s not really using his power to protect Bill—he’s actually using his power to stoop to Barry’s level and bully Barry, just as Barry has bullied others for years. So, the novel presents Ishmael’s choice to read a different prayer that doesn’t call Barry out as taking the high road. And it also suggests that sometimes, even the threat of certain words is enough to create change—Barry is, after all, barely able to speak when he confronts Ishmael after the event is over. With this, the novel encourages readers to find their voices and advocate for themselves—but also to use their voices kindly, rather than using language to make others feel bad.
The Power of Language ThemeTracker
The Power of Language 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.
“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?
As for Barry Bagsley, rumor had it that Brother Jerome had given him the “last warning” speech. In any case, when he finally returned to class, he was as sullen as a caged animal, a bit like the T-rex at the beginning of Jurassic Park, trapped inside that steel enclosure with a zillion volts of electricity zinging through the wires (which was fine by me). The only trouble was, I kept thinking that when you watch a movie like that, you just know that eventually, for some reason or another, someone or something will turn the electricity off.
“Now, some of you may feel that debating is for wimps. I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. Research shows that most people are more afraid of speaking in public than they are of dying. Debating is not for wimps. It’s for boys with courage. That’s right, courage—the courage and commitment to stand up and perform under pressure.”
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.”
“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.
“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?
I let my eyes drift over the words. They seemed so simple, so harmless—just marks on a page. I read them to myself for the hundredth time.
Let us pray that Barry Bagsley can learn to let other people be themselves instead of bullying them and putting them down all the time.
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.
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.
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!