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Ishmael is the narrator and protagonist of the 1851 novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It is through his eyes that the reader experiences the story of the ship Pequod, and the fight between Captain Ahab and the white whale. After the Pequod leaves Nantucket, he increasingly recedes into the background as a commentator, with his voice approaching that of an omniscient narrator at times, able to see into all parts of the ship and into the private motivations of other characters.
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Ishmael introduces himself in the opening sentence of the novel with the well-known line "Call me Ishmael." The name Ishmael is Biblical in origin: in Genesis, Ishmael was the son of Abraham by the servant Hagar, who was cast off after the birth of Isaac, who inherits the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother. In the Islamic tradition, with which Melville was certainly much less familiar, Ishmael is an heir of Abraham. In fact, according to stronger traditions in Islam mentioned in Qisas Al-Anbiya, his mother was a daughter of the king of Maghreb, whose father was killed by Pharaoh and she was taken as slave. In Moby-Dick Ishmael does not comment on the significance of his own name, but he does refer to himself by that name several times in the book.
Ishmael provides little about his personal background before his decision at the beginning of the novel to journey to Nantucket, Massachusetts to enlist as a sailor on a whaler. There is evidence in the text to suggest that he was formerly a school-teacher who left that life of theory to pursue the more practical life at sea. At the beginning of the novel, he is an experienced seaman who has not previously served on a whaler but in the merchant marine service (an experience that is ridiculed by the owners of the Pequod when he approaches them to sign on). He begins the novel in the first chapter wandering through Manhattan in the dreariness of November with dark thoughts suggesting nearly suicidal tendencies: pausing before coffin houses and following funerals. His primary reason for going to sea, he suggests, is to break out of this depressive cycle and obsession with death. Ishmael tends to brood and think his way through things, going so far as to describe himself as a philosopher in The Mast-Head. Ishmael, while seemingly rejecting the arts, does confess that he is—or at least was at one point—a poet.
Actors who have played Ishmael
- Richard Basehart, in Moby Dick, a 1956 film adaptation in which Gregory Peck plays Ahab.
- Henry Thomas, in Moby Dick, a 1998 television miniseries adaptation in which Patrick Stewart plays Ahab.
- Tim Guinee (voice), in Animated Epics: Moby Dick, a 2000 animated movie in which Rod Steiger provides the voice of Ahab.
- Terry O'Neill, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a 2003 movie.
- Jack Aranson (and 8 other characters) in a 2003 stage adaptation of the book.
- Renee O'Connor plays Michelle Herman, a female counterpart of Ishmael in Moby Dick, a 2010 modern-day film adaptation in which Barry Bostwick plays Ahab.
- Charlie Cox, in Moby Dick, a 2010 television miniseries adaptation in which William Hurt plays Ahab.
- Stephen Costello plays Greenhorn, the renamed Ishmael character, in the 2010 opera version by Jake Heggie.
- PJBrennan, in Moby Dick as a young man in the BBC Radio 4 radio-play.
Ishmael does not appear in the 1930 film adaptation, loosely based on Melville's novel, in which John Barrymore plays Ahab.
- s:Moby-Dick/Chapter 1 — Loomings — First (numbered) chapter of Moby-Dick, introducing Ishmael.
- Librivox: Moby Dick Audiobook - Public Domain Audiobook