Moby-Dick employs a variety of tones that range from the light-hearted and flippant to the more philosophical and reflective. Ishmael’s opening introduction, in which he explains his draw to the sea, encapsulates this fusion of the trivial and the profound:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
This extract demonstrates the way Ishmael’s prose often blends the morbid and the comical, with the comment on his desire to knock everybody’s hats off, for example, tempering the otherwise dark sentiment of his draw towards death. While overall the tone of the novel tends towards the more grand and emotive, Melville proves himself a very versatile writer who's able to quickly flip between highly evocative and emotive prose to the more matter of fact and intellectually rigorous accounts of a chronicler.
This extract also reflects the personal nature of the tone that dominates the novel, as Ishmael frequently refers to himself and his own personal involvement in the tale he's telling. Indeed, Ishmael’s tone is often self-aware, a feature that makes Moby-Dick seem self-conscious of its own process of construction.