We meet Ishmael, as odd a choice for narrator as ever there’s been. Until the moment the Pequod leaves its Nantucket port, Ishmael is essentially the entire story – his uncomfortably romantic nights with Queequeg the “cannibal” harpooneer, his journeys through the streets of New Bedford, his debate with the owners of the whaling ship regarding his pay, and his secret desire to become the world’s first serial hat-assaulter. Then, once the journey has begun, Melville conveniently forgets his mouthpiece, to the point that there are many scenes described later in the book that Ishmael could not possibly have observed, yet somehow can faithfully record. No matter, as at least he gives us one of the most memorable first lines in all literature.*
*Copied by P. Roth in his epic baseball tale, The Great American Novel, in which Roth’s narrator Word Smith begins by intoning, “Call me Smitty.” It’s no Great American Novel, that Great American Novel, but it’s worth reading. You can look it up.
Before the Pequod, before Ahab, and long before the eponymous whale, while we are still exploring with Ishmael at the edge of the unknown, there comes a scene in which Melville stirs the blood of this atheist reader, almost (almost) convincing him that the book will be that clarion call to reason that will win my soul (irony is thick in these here parts). In Chapter 7 (only 128 to go!), Ishmael enters a whaler’s chapel and, after some solemn reading of long-lost sailor epitaphs, he comes so close to embracing the secular.
(W)hy the life insurance companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals . . .how is it that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss . . . wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. These things are not without their meanings. (p 55)
So close, Ishmael. So close. But then he frontslides.
Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance . . . methinks my body is but the lees of my better being . . . come a stove boat and a stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. (p 56)
There’s no question that Ishmael’s views of Christianity and religion are quite unorthodox for his day. There’s no doubt that he would have shocked many a reader of his own time with his irreverence (at one point (p 55) Ishmael delivers a lovely backhanded compliment, “But faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”) But as much as I’d like to turn Ishmael into my non-believing guide through the wide ocean to come, the text simply won’t allow it. Melville may be throwing rotten tomatoes, but they’re tomatoes aimed from within the sanctuary.