Moby Dick: The Creation Of Identity
One of the most common topics written about Moby-Dick is that Moby-Dick us an allegory for American white culture dealing with the anti-slavery issues that inevitably lead to the Civil War. However, I instead plan to show Melville uses Ishmael as a way to show the audience that the creation of identity is one of the core purposes of the narrator. That Ishmael exists in Melville’s narrative as a means of introducing an alternate way to view the world and that this view comes about in Ishmael’s journey to make a new identity.
The first line in Moby Dick and its most famous is “Call me Ishmael” (Melville 3). The narrator does not state whether his real name is Ishmael. However, by giving the reader the name he wished to be called by Ishmael is already shaping and controlling how he is perceived by others. Ishmael further shows this desire by stating, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can” (Melville 3). The reason Ishmael leaves on his journey to become a sailor is because his soul is sick. In order to heal Ishmael wants to leave behind his past and go out into a new world. Ishmael wants to go someplace where he is unknown and can recreate himself as someone new; who is open to the differences in the people and society around him.
In chapter 1 of Moby Dick, Melville introduces the Myth of Narcissus by stating, “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned” (Melville 5). To understand the significance of this quote I must first explain the Myth of Narcissus. The most commonly accepted version of the myth comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story goes that as Narcissus grew from a boy to a man, he had such great beauty that many desired him, but none could get close enough to develop a romantic relationship. In Ovid’s version, Narcissus is aware of this distance and had purposely created it due to his pride and insensitivity. He mocks Echo and his other suitors until finally one suitor decides to pray to the gods for Narcissus to love him like and love in vein. The god’s answer the suitor’s prayer and while Narcissus is drinking water from a pool of water; he falls in love with his reflection. However, he does not realize that the one he loves is himself. Narcissus repeatedly attempts to kiss and embrace the image only for it to disappear when he disturbs the water. It is only while grieving his unrequited love that Narcissus realizes that the image mimics his movements and finally recognizes that it is merely his reflection. In self-recognition, Narcissus realizes that it is himself that he loves and sees. Narcissus is now faced with “his solipsism and self-delusion, Narcissus would rather perpetuate the illusion than accept the true natures of both his reflection and his self, and the subsequent despair this acknowledgement would bring” (Hansen 6). Narcissus is afraid of the unknown. In his despair Narcissus strikes through the image in morning of his loved one. When the image returns to normal Narcissus realizes that what he has hurt was himself. In death, he continues to stare at his own image in the river Styx.
The myth of Narcissus is about the loss and gain of identity. Narcissus desires the self that is reflected in the water, thus that reflection “becomes a means of interrogating and knowing the self” (Hansen, 6). But you also must consider the inverted nature of a reflection, in this case it then represents exploring the other or for Narcissus his imagined self. Narcissus’s constant efforts to grasp his reflection transforms into an attempt to make what he sees it real. “This attempt represents his desire to make his imagined self-significant in the real world by demonstrating that it has the means of affecting the real world” (Hansen 8). The Narcissus Myth in the context of Moby Dick means that it is a, “universal impulse to imagine a new, meaningful identity and the desire to become like that imagined identity” (Hansen 5). The reason that Ishmael leaves on his journey to become a sailor is because he wants to leave behind his past and go out into a new world. As someone completely unknown and recreate himself as someone new, who is open to the differences in the people and society around him. Someone who is not held back by what his up bring taught him. Ishmael himself stated, “But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville 5).
The next time we see Ishmael creating a new identity of being someone who is open to the difference of the people and society around him is through his interactions and subsequent relationship with the cannibal harpooner Queequeg. When he first meets Queequeg, Ishmael first impression was, ‘It was now quite plain that he must be some abominable savage…A peddler of heads too…I quaked to think of it” (Melville 24). Ishmael’s stereo typed view turns Queequeg into a frightening figure that does not allow him to appreciate a new culture that he could embrace. By observing Queequeg’s alternate cultural practices from the safety of his bed, Ishmael sees Queequeg as an enigmatic figure with tattoos and other features that are mysterious to him.
By Queequeg initiating physical contact with Ishmael when he jumps into the bed Queequeg breaks Ishmael’s illusion that he can gain knowledge through observation and forces Ishmael into the role of a participant. Ishmael’s physical contact with Queequeg serves to initiate his embrace of Queequeg’s cultural identity, ‘What’s all this fuss I have been making about…the man’s a human being just like me” (Melville 26). It is through physical contact with Queequeg that Ishmael transforms, and this transformation allows him to open his mind to being more accepting of the difference in other cultures and races. When Ishmael awakens, he states ‘I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife” (Melville 28). It is this quote that the reader beginnings to see Ishmael’s continued transformation into a new man. It is widely accepted that this quote means that Ishmael and Queequeg are married. Using this inference, we can say that Ishmael is already breaking away from his Christian bringing by entering a homosexual relationship with Queequeg. Ishmael’s love for Queequeg continues to grow as they journey together, ‘Be it said, that though I had felt such a strong repugnance to his smoking in bed the night before, yet see how elastic our stiff prejudices grown when love once comes to bend them” (Melville 60). In this quote, Ishmael himself admits that it is because of his love for Queequeg that he can get over Queequeg smoking in bed. And that because of his love he has overcome the prejudices towards another race.
Queequeg not only becomes the love interest of Ishmael but in the novel Moby-Dick, but he also becomes a way for Ishmael to point out that one race is not superior to other races. This is first seen when Ishmael states, ‘Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed” (Melville 56). Here, Ishmael disrupts the notion of race by equating Queequeg an islander to George Washington the first president of the United States. Ishmael continues to further show disruption of race in the following quote, ‘as though a white man were anything more dignified than a white-washed negro” (Melville 66). What Ishmael is saying is that white men are not superior to any other race and should not act like they are.
In the beginning of the novel Ishmael starts out as a ‘ good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Chruch” (Melville 58). However, through Ishmael’s relationship with Queequeg, Ishmael finds himself undergoing a conversion that leads him to embrace a spiritual identity that exists outside of the traditional orthodox Christianity. In chapter 10, Bosom Friend, we find Ishmael breaking away from Christianity by telling the reader, ‘I’ll try a pagan friend, thought I, since Christian kindness has proven but hollow courtesy” (Melville 57). Here Ishmael is telling the reader that Christian kindness may be given but it is never truly sincere. He would rather side with the “Other” then lie and play a part.
It is also thanks to Queequeg that Ishmael is introduced to cultural otherness and relativism. Once again continuing Ishmael’s transformation into a man who is not held back by his up bring. In chapter 10, Bosom Friend, Ishmael ask Queequeg ‘ Soon I proposed a social smoke; and, producing his pouch and tomahawk, her quietly offered me a puff. And then we sat exchanging puffs from that wild pipe of his, and keeping it regularly passing between us” (Melville 57). By sharing the pipe with Queequeg, Ishmael allows himself to embrace a new cultural practice and views Queequeg as an equal. Ishmael’s transformation through the influence of Queequeg is so profound that he eventually transitions from observing Queequeg’s tattoos in a detached manner in chapter 3,The Spouter Inn, to placing similar tattoos on his own body, “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed” (Melville 491). Ishmael then expresses his desire to leave the rest of his body “blank” so that his remaining skin can serve as the canvas for a poem he is composing, possibly in remembrance of Queequeg. Ishmael’s description of these tattoos is particularly significant because these tattoos serve to define Ishmael, since nowhere in the novel does Ishmael provide the reader with any type of physical description of himself. This suggests that Ishmael is continuing to change who he is because these tattoos also represent Ishmael embracing Queequeg’s culture to the extent that Ishmael uses it to define who he is.
The reason that Ishmael leaves on his journey to become a sailor is because he wants to leave behind his past and go out into a new world. As someone completely unknown and recreate himself as someone new, who is open to the differences in the people and society around him. Someone who is not held back by what his up bring taught him. Ishmael himself stated, “But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville, 5). By using Ishmael’s journey in his narrative, Melville is introducing an alternate way to view the world.
- Butler-Probst, Emily (2017) ‘Raciocultural Union and ‘Fraternity of Feeling’: Ishmael’s Redemption in Moby-Dick,’Criterion: AJournal of Literary Criticism: Vol. 10: Iss. 1, Article 4
- Dragoo, Will M. “‘I MUST TURN IDOLATOR’: RELIGIOUS INVERSION AND THE QUEST FOR GENUINE FAITH IN MOBY-DICK.” UTC Scholar, The University of Tennessee, May 2017, scholar.utc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1659&context=theses.
- Grabher, Gudrun M. “Adding To The Myths Of ‘Moby-Dick’: The Question Of Being As Shared By Existential And Oriental Philosophy.” Vol. 14, No. 2, 1989, Pp. 167–178. Jstor, Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/43023501.
- Hansen, Gerald E. “Examining The Myth Of Narcissus And Its Role In Moby-Dick.” Byu Scholars Archive, All Student Publications, 1 Oct. 2007,
- James, Paula. “Crises Of Identity In Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses.’” Bulletin Of The Institute Of Classical Studies, No. 33, 1986, Pp. 17–25. Jstor, Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/43646516.
- “Melville’s Marginalia Online.” Melville’s Marginalia Online, Boise State University Foundation, melvillesmarginalia.org/
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