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Moby-Dick | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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What is the effect of beginning Moby-Dick with the sentence "Call me Ishmael"?

The famous first line of Moby-Dick, "Call me Ishmael," suggests that Ishmael may not be the narrator's actual name. In the Bible, Ishmael is one of Abraham's sons but not by Abraham's wife. He was sent away with his mother, Hagar. The fact that the narrator has taken on this name suggests that he feels distanced from his family, or sees himself as an outcast from his family or society. In addition, this opening line invites the reader into a friendly relationship with the narrator. Readers are on a first-name (or nickname) basis with Ishmael, a stance that suggests a trusting, more intimate, relationship.

What reasons are stated and implied for Ishmael wanting to go to sea in Moby-Dick?

In Moby-Dick, Ishmael begins the novel by describing his reasons for going to sea. He says he was low on money and couldn't find much to interest him, saying there was "nothing particular to interest me on shore." His emotional state is grim and depressed, as if it is "a damp, drizzly November" in his soul. Some readers note that Ishmael may be feeling suicidal: he's pausing in front of "coffin warehouses" and joining in funeral processions; he says going to sea is his substitute for the "pistol and ball." He also describes the attraction of the sea, the wonderful feeling of being paid money, and the "wholesome exercise and pure air" that sailors benefit from. Finally, he admits that he has an "everlasting itch for things remote." The idea of sailing on faraway seas excites him in ways that activities on land do not.

What words help to establish the mood of Moby-Dick, Chapter 2?

When Ishmael arrives in New Bedford he is alone, and the night is "dark and dismal ... bitingly cold and cheerless." These adjectives immediately establish a dark, somber mood. Adding to this somber mood is Ishmael's "anxious" fumbling for money in his pocket, and his observation that he sees gloom when he looks north and darkness when he looks to the south. He continues describing his search for a place to stay, using the words weary, remorseless, and miserable plight. Once he finds an inn, he notes it is run by a man named "Coffin" and that the building is "leaning over sadly." Given the abundance of these and similar words, it is hard to imagine a chapter being more dreary or discouraging.

What is the significance of the painting Ishmael sees at the Spouter Inn in Moby-Dick?

When Ishmael enters the Spouter Inn, he sees a large painting. At first he finds it difficult to make out the subject, but while pondering the painting, he describes it as "portentous." He sees a "half-foundered ship ... with its three dismantled masts" caught in a hurricane and with an "exasperated whale" preparing to leap over the top of the ship. Many elements of this painting foreshadow events to come in the plot. As the Pequod gets closer to Moby Dick, the ship does run into a hurricane-like storm, and its sails are torn off the masts. Then it is sunk (foundered) by a whale.

What does Ishmael's childhood memory in Moby-Dick, Chapter 4 reveal about him?

As Ishmael describes the sensation of being held down by Queequeg's arm in their shared bed, he recalls an incident in which his stepmother punished him by making him stay in bed all day. This memory shows that Ishmael has been cared for by a stepmother, and that this stepmother often punished him—by sending him to bed without supper or by whipping him. These details paint a picture of a child who might not feel welcome in his own home and family—someone who might feel like an "Ishmael." As a child sent to his bed, he had a horrible dream of a "phantom" in his bedroom; however, when he wakes up now with Queequeg, he recalls the dream but is unafraid. In addition, the memory shows Ishmael's tendency to daydream and to let his imagination take hold of his conscious mind. This tendency will continue to be apparent throughout the novel, and is an important part of Ishmael's narrative style.

How does Father Mapple's sermon at the Whaleman's Chapel relate to the events of Moby-Dick?

Father Mapple preaches a sermon about Jonah—the biblical character who was sent by God to Nineveh but who decided he did not want to obey God's command. Jonah was swallowed by a giant fish, often thought to be a whale sent by God to punish him. Jonah finally repented and did what God asked him to do. Father Mapple's sermon revolves around the theme of obedience and disobedience, which will later become important in understanding Captain Ahab. Like Jonah, Ahab has decided that he will not obey others and perform the mission they hired him to do—hunt sperm whales for profit. Instead, Ahab pursues a quest for vengeance. Like Jonah, Ahab sails on a ship and has an encounter with a whale. However, unlike Jonah, Ahab does not repent. He holds on firmly to his quest for revenge until the end.

How does Ishmael justify his choice to worship Queequeg's little wooden idol in Moby-Dick?

In Moby-Dick, Chapter 10 Queequeg invites Ishmael to worship his idol with him. Ishmael reasons that God, who is all-powerful and rules both Heaven and Earth, would not be jealous of a simple piece of wood. He also explains that the ritual Queequeg wants him to participate in is not really an act of worship, because true worship is to "do the will of God." Furthermore, he says that God's will is that people should treat others the way they want to be treated, and because Ishmael would like Queequeg to worship in the Presbyterian Christian way, the right thing to do is to worship with Queequeg in his pagan way.

How does Queequeg's story in Moby-Dick, Chapter 12 reveal similarities between Ishmael and Queequeg?

As Queequeg tells his story of leaving home to find out more about Christians, it becomes evident that his experience as a young man is strikingly similar to that of Ishmael. Both men feel distanced from their families: Queequeg feels he has become too Christian to ever fully return to his pagan home, and Ishmael also seems to be an outsider in his family. They both feel that their experiences have caused them to be alone in the world. The disillusionment of Queequeg when he finds that "it's a wicked world in all meridians" is similar to the melancholy way that Ishmael views the world in Chapter 1. Both have decided that going to sea on a whaleboat is the best remedy.

In Moby-Dick, how does Ishmael feel toward Captain Ahab before he meets the man in person, and what causes these feelings?

After Captain Peleg and Captain Bildad describe Captain Ahab, Ishmael reports having a "certain wild vagueness of painfulness" about the mysterious man. While he feels "sympathy" for Ahab as a result of the loss of his leg, he also feels in awe of him—or something similar to awe—and an impatience with the way people talk so mysteriously about him. These hazy and uncertain feelings are intensified by the strange words of Elijah, and after this odd character leaves them, Ishmael describes his "vague wonderments and half-apprehensions." Once the ship has set out, Ishmael's feelings of vague anxiety fade for a time as he is now committed to the voyage and cannot turn back. As he notes, "when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself."

What does Ishmael think of Stubb calling Starbuck "careful" in Moby-Dick, Chapter 26?

Ishmael relates that Stubb says Starbuck is "as careful a man as you'll find anywhere in this fishery." Then he comments on Stubb's use of the word careful, explaining that it will become apparent that "careful" means something different to Stubb or to whalemen in general than it does to your average person. The implication is that Starbuck is careful for a whaleman, which is to say he is not very careful at all by most standards. He still willingly puts himself in mortal danger on a regular basis as he battles huge sperm whales in the middle of the ocean. However, he does not wish to take unnecessary chances, which sets him up in conflict with Captain Ahab.

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