The novel begins with a famous sentence: “Call me Ishmael.” The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, is a young man from New York City, who is preparing to go on a whaling voyage for several reasons—to make money, to entertain himself, and to leave behind what he considers the stifling confines of city life, which make him bored. Ishmael begins the novel with a long description of the relationship of water—rivers, lakes, and especially oceans—to man’s desire for freedom and beauty. Ishmael states that artists often incorporate water into their poems and paintings, and that men who work all day in offices in New York can be found staring at the water surrounding Manhattan when they leave the office.
There is an important ambiguity in that first line. For it is not entirely clear whether Ishmael is asking us simply to “refer” to him as Ishmael—perhaps as a pseudonym—or whether Ishmael is his given name. Ishmael, in the Hebrew Bible, was the son of Abraham and Hagar, Abraham’s servant, and was therefore the son passed over when Isaac was named Abraham’s primary heir. This is consistent with Ishmael’s sense of existing apart from society—that is, as a sailor, rather than on land. And it further forebodes his total aloneness at the end of the novel.
Ishmael further clarifies that he was looking to go to sea not as the commander of a vessel, nor as a tourist, but as a “simple sailor,” one who is paid for his time on the boat, and who can enjoy the “fresh air” and “exercise” a life at sea affords. Ishmael closes the chapter by wondering why, exactly, he chose to go on a whaling vessel at this particular moment in his life, and how he ended up finding the “white whale” so central to the ensuing narrative. Ishmael says he is not sure how the Fates acted in the way they did, but he feels that his presence on this boat (to be described later), with this captain and crew, was somehow preordained, even though it seemed, at the time, that he was determining the course of his life. He closes the chapter by saying that one “grand hooded phantom,” or whale, occupies his thoughts even to the present day.
Another of the novel’s themes is here introduced. On the one hand, a sailing vessel represents an opportunity to try one’s luck on the open seas, where everything seems permitted, and where the laws of the land do not entirely apply. But life at sea is also life on a small ship, without much freedom of physical movement, and according to the customs sailors have accumulated over a number of years. Ishmael also seems to believe that life at sea is governed by a sense of “fate” far larger than any one man’s control—that the wind, seas, and behavior of animals like whales are governed by some other, more powerful force.