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The narrator of Moby-Dick famously tells readers to "call me Ishmael." Is this implying that this might not have been his real name? If so, why would he lie about that?

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Yes, there is an implication that Ishmael might not be the narrator's real name. However, it is also possible to read the sentence as merely a friendly greeting - perhaps an introduction via a nickname. The question remains open and is never resolved in the progress of the novel.

This is likely deliberate. Although Ishmael is the narrator of the tale, his name and identity have three different symbolic significances. The fact these are not resolved encourages the reader to be open to other interpretations of Ishmael's identity.

The first and most obvious is the Biblical Ishmael. In the Bible, Ishmael is an outcast who wanders in the wilderness, much as the Ishmael of Moby-Dick wanders in the sea (actually described as "the wilderness of waters" in chapter 88). The Biblical character is saved from death by the miraculous appearance of a well, while his whaling counterpart is saved from the wreck of his ship "by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous". Ishmael is thus to be seen as an explorer, at odds with other men, a recurring feature of characters in Melville's fiction.

The second is that Ishmael is a stand-in for Melville himself. There are similarities in their back-stories: both began their years at sea as merchant sailors before moving to a whaling ship, for example. Part of his motivation in writing Moby-Dick was to set down his experiences of a lifestyle that was beginning to vanish in the face of increasing industrialisation. The most striking example of this, however, is the story of Ishmael's uncle, D'Wolf, which is actually a real story of Melville's real-life uncle.

The third and most tenuous is Ahab himself. As the novel progresses, the view switches away from Ishmael and toward Ahab instead, to the point where Ishmael is supposedly able to relate Ahab's inner thoughts and feelings. Indeed critics differ as to whether it is Ishmael or Ahab who is the real protagonist of the novel - see the different view of Abrams and Bezanson in the references for example.

Indeed it is possible to construct an argument that Ishmael is, in fact, Ahab and that this is the reason why he gives an assumed name. It would explain, for instance, why Ishmael is able to relate so much of Ahab's private minutiae and how come, as a first-time whaler, he knows so much technical detail on the subject.

References:

  • Wright, Nathalia. (1949). Melville's Use of the Bible. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
  • D'Wolf, John, Captain (1779-1872). A Voyage to the North Pacific and a Journey through Siberia. Cambridge: Welch, Bigelow, and Company, 1861.
  • Abrams, M.H. (2011). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Tenth edition, Wadsworth.
  • Bezanson, Walter E. (1953). "Moby-Dick: Work of Art". Reprinted in Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Second Norton Critical edition 2002
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    I've expanded on your 3rd possibility in a separate answer, using an article I found a couple of days ago. Let me know if I made any stupid mistakes :-) – Rand al'Thor May 29 '18 at 21:33
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Ishmael may actually be Ahab.

This is more of an extension to Matt Thrower's broader answer, but I found this theory and the evidence for it so interesting that I felt it should be written down, and it does answer the question by providing an alternative possibility for the name of Ishmael. This answer is heavily based on The Whale is a Lie, a blog post written by Verity Reynolds.

  1. Points of view.

    Although the story is ostensibly narrated solely by Ishmael, the only survivor, some parts seem to relate things that Ishmael couldn't have known - such as Ahab's inner thoughts, or the meeting between Ahab and Starbuck without anyone else present. Admittedly we do also see the inner thoughts of Starbuck, and Ishmael can't be both Ahab and Starbuck. But Reynolds has an explanation for this which fits into the "Ishmael = Ahab" theory:

    When we finally get the point of view of someone other than Ishmael or Ahab, the point of view we get is Starbuck’s, as the first mate considers shooting Ahab in order to save the ship and crew from his surely-disastrous pursuit of Moby-Dick. In particular, Starbuck considers shooting Ahab with the same gun Ahab threatened Starbuck with in a previous scene – a scene that took place in the closed cabin, with only Ahab and Starbuck present, and to which Ishmael was neither privy nor capable of extrapolating from the deck. (In fact, Ishmael doesn’t report it as if he’s extrapolating from outside the scene, but as if he’s there.)

    This sudden shift to Starbuck’s perspective, though, is consistent with a narrator (Ahab) struggling with a fierce desire to court death that conflicts with his duty to his ship and crew. The original dispute is over whether the crew ought to hoist the oil-casks to determine which is leaking (Starbuck) versus whether they ought to damn the casks full speed ahead (Ahab). Starbuck’s position, which is consistent with the duty of a whaling ship’s captain, eventually prevails, but not until after Ahab points a loaded gun at his first mate.

    Starbuck’s meditation on killing Ahab to save the ship, then, reads as a foil concocted by a guilty captain/narrator who knows his desire for vengeance places him firmly in the wrong. It’s also consistent with Starbuck’s role as Ahab’s foil in a number of other guilt-related ways; the narrator reminds us several times that both Ahab and Starbuck are married men with young children, for instance.

  2. Descriptive detail.

    The story goes into detail in explaining the names of various people, ships, and inns ... but not those of Ishmael and Ahab. Not explaining his own name makes sense, as it's not a new thing to him and he wouldn't have any particular reason to think about it and its background. But why omit explaining someone else's name? Unless that someone else is also the same person.

  3. Knowledge and experience.

    It's made clear at the beginning of the book that Ishmael hasn't been on a whaling voyage before ... but he seems to have an awful lot of knowledge and even experience about whaling. This would be consistent with an experienced whaler telling a story while pretending to be a newbie: signs of their knowledge would slip through occasionally despite their best efforts.

And if Ishmael really is Ahab, that would explain the first line of the story: "[My real name is Captain Ahab, but you can] call me Ishmael."

  • The article you link to is excellent by the way, I read it the other day after you posted it in chat. – EJoshuaS May 29 '18 at 21:31

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