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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Significance of the Narrator in Moby-Dick

Abstract

The narrator of Moby-Dick performs a crucial democratising function, linking Ahab, the text and the natural environment together as equal participants in a system of consumption and counter-consumption.

Essay

The narrator of Wharton's Ethan Frome discovers that attaining truth is difficult when a single sequence of events is relayed by different voices:

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. (p.13)

With every level of discourse delivered by an identity in the polyphonic novel, an intermediary between the events and the reader, the possibility that the narrative is corrupted or manipulated to suit that character's moral or political agenda is increased. Thus the omniscient, third-person narrator is the closest we can get to an immaculate representation of original events because he or she narrates outside the confines of the story; indeed Mieke Bal has suggested that such a narrator is simply an agent, "the linguistic subject, a function and not a person, which expresses itself in the language that constitutes the text" (Hawthorn, p.227). However, the more individualised a narrator is, the more characteristics 'it' gathers, and the more evidence of motivations and desires external to the narrative it possesses, the more plausible it becomes that the narrator will pursue its own agenda to manipulate elements of the narrative for 'its' own self-interest. Indeed, even if the narrator is simply a function of the text, the way in which that narrator chooses to write - style, digressions, humour, pathos - may reveal enough about 'it' such that 'it' becomes a 'he' or 'she', a subject character of the text. This is certainly the case in first-person narrative, at which point such a narrator moves from the objective and comes to occupy a subjective, and therefore potentially distorting, position in relation to his narrative. Indeed, the very fact of writing a text down suggests an impulse to record, and this in itself is an indicator of some motivation in the writer and, since possession of motivation suggests characterisation, the act of creating a chronicle is always automatically associated with the liability of that document being unfaithful to the truth of the original event.

When any metafictional element is present in the text, when the literary act itself is foregrounded, we become doubly alert not simply to the narrative but to the nature of the one doing the narrating. The narrator of Moby Dick therefore attempts to counter-act the sense of intervening identity that highlighting the text as an artefact, through the sub-sub librarian's extracts at the start, creates. By implying in the opening sentence, "Call me Ishmael" (p.3), that his name – usually the strongest single signifier of identity, revealing as it can gender, nationality, and, in this case, religious affiliation – is essentially irrelevant, the narrator of Moby Dick attempts to position himself as a non-complex character, simply the coincidental relayer of the events he will describe. As a part of this scheme of desubjectification, the narrator gives very few details about his life prior to the narrative timeline, which is itself taken out of history by the second sentence, "never mind how long precisely" (p.3). The drama of Moby Dick is driven not simply by the hunt for the whale that gives the book its title and intent, but by the narrator's striving for objectivity, to stick to the demands of his narrative, and his increasing failure, his gradual occupation of a position as a subject within the text he tries detachedly to relate. This increasing subjectivity is triggered by the whale and therefore the narrator becomes disturbingly like Ahab, fashioning his own sense of identity and reason for being around the hunt for the whale. By slipping unconsciously into an obsessive relationship with his book similar to that of Ahab in relation to Moby Dick, the narrator performs an ironic and also a democratising function. By participating in the game of consumption and consumer, when he portrays himself as distinct from it, the narrator figure evidences that the F/fall of man into desire and fetishism is possible in anyone but also, because consumption is shown to be the way the world is naturally configured, both in the ocean-going narrative itself and in the fact that the narrator's lapsing into a position as a consumer is itself a natural process, this cannot be an entirely a negative thing – it is simply the way the world works. Consumption can be creative and, indeed, because it relies on an interplay between consumer and consumed as much as a hierarchy of one over the other, such a system is innately democratic.

In the presentation of the extracts at the start of the novel, the 'sub-sub-librarian' demonstrates what he has learned through the composition of Moby-Dick. This makes the disorder and digression within the narrative remarkable because it must happen live, in the process of writing. Whilst Ishmael as a librarian has successfully collated, ordered and treasured vast amounts of data, in scripting it down his narrative becomes a hyperactive palimpsest, rarely settling along a single dramatic or academic line. It is as if Ishmael the academic is straining against the leashes of his discipline. The sublime nature of the whale, its vastness, refuses containment within a coherent structure and induces a terror about the failure of the methods of conventional study to describe it. The word 'whale' is a five letter container for a multiplicity of associations and physical organisations. When the whale is described, it is only in parts, as fractals or synechdoches reproducing the whole: the spout shows a whale's location, the hump, the brow, or fluke is enough to represent an entire being (p.446-447). Language, which must progress linearly in words and sentences, cannot in a single instant present the whale in totality. Paradoxically, if the whale cannot be comprehended in whole, it must be comprehended through the physiognomic pieces which constitute the whole but this only serves to enhance its vastness because of the amount of textual space required to represent each unique physical aspect. Like Wordsworth rowing his skiff (The Prelude:1805, I.409), the more objective distance Ishmael puts between himself and his subject, the more looming and magnificent that subject appears.

Ishmael's initial impulse for the voyage is not as a field study of matter he has already investigated in depth but simply because, "such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity" (p.7). Ishmael's strict course of literary study is pursued after the events he narrates and thus the text, with all its references, is spawned from the final hunt for Moby Dick, rather than the discovery of Moby Dick being the natural conclusion of the academic process. The end of the narrative of Ahab is the beginning of Ishmael's quest, and Moby Dick becomes the reason for the text which bears his name, not its end. Similarly, although Ishmael proposes that his desire to produce an epic has determined his choice of subject matter – "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme" (p.376) – it is the whale which causes the book's expansiveness, not the genre which determines the whale's magnitude. This is enforced by describing the leviathan in terms of a mighty book itself, by classifying whales along a literary system, describing them as "books" or "texts" and dividing them into Folios and Chapters (p.112). If "Out of the trunk the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters" (p.241), then every chapter which the multiple literary and technical associations which surround the whale generates further establishes the impossibility of containing the whale textually. The sense of Terror the whale invokes manifests itself as the fear that Ishmael's powers of scholarship may be disproportionate to the magnitude of the task the discovery of Moby Dick has set him:

Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand! Friends hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me (p.376)

Ishmael's battle between being a consumer and consumption, between the mighty expanding theme which asserts the prestige of the artist and its critical limit which, once reached, swamps him, leads to his invocation for the tools of control, as dramatic a request as that which Ahab makes for his harpoon, for "something that will stick in the whale like his own fin-bone" (p.401). The desire here for the whale to be killed by something from his own source, an unachievable ambition, parallels Ishmael's technique of containing whales using his own discipline's methods of literary organisation.

As a mark of the way in which the subject consumes his intention, the timelessly objective inception of the book is forgotten in the narrator's urgent desire to show the immortal history of the whale through millions of unimaginable years right up to "this blessed minute", the moment of writing his own text on the "sixteenth of December, 1851" (p.306). Disturbingly, Ishmael's obsession with representing the whale textually becomes a physical one, as he uses his own skin as the page on which to scribe and tattoo the dimensions of an unusually large whale (p.373). This increasingly intimacy with the whale forces us to question the objectivity of his study. For example, Ishmael notes that the sperm whale's hump must rise from the vertebrae:

From its relative situation then, I should call this high hump the organ of firmness or indomitableness in the sperm whale. And that the great monster is indomitable, you will yet have reason to know. (p.290)

The 'great monster' is not the whale in general – one of these has already been caught and discussed by the time the above extract occurs – but Moby Dick himself. The closer The Pequod comes to Moby Dick in the dramatic narrative, the more Ishmael in his academic narrative begins to work a priori, deducing (informed by Moby Dick) the meaning of an observation from its outcome, rather than a posteriori, the scientific method, discovering cause from effect. In his focus on the singular rather than the universal, which goes against his academic proposal to study whales as a species and which distorts the validity of his academic technique, Ishmael is increasingly like the monomaniac Ahab. Thus the narrator figure is characterised not simply by a move from being a mere function to being a subjective entity, but specifically towards a subjectivity which is defined against that of the two other dominant subjects in the text, the whale and Ahab.

However, although Ishmael's scientific method suffers in response to his experiences with Moby Dick, the narrator manages largely to leave moral scrutiny of Ahab outside of his role. By making him unconsciously become more like Ahab, but by allowing him to maintain enough control to deliberately avoid making judgements of Ahab, Melville ensures that Ahab's morality is defined in comparison to Ishmael's, rather than by Ishmael. Where the narrator does intervene in the text with a moral intent, this does not take the form of am explicit condemnation of Ahab's actions. After the first crucial insight into Ahab's character, his nailing of the doubloon to the mast and his parodying of the Eucharist in the sharing of the rum, we might expect the narrator to raise some questions about Ahab's motivations, especially given the fact that the narrator's own ethical standpoint about using money as a symbol has already been made clear, Ishmael having initially refused Queequeg's offer of money (p.45). Instead, it is Starbuck who acts as the vocal judge of Ahab's actions. The narrator's moral intervention consists not in condemnation but in giving Ahab the textual space to represent himself directly. The question of who presents Ahab's, Starbuck's, and Stubb's subsequent interior monologues (p.139) is awkward. Access to the interior thoughts of characters is the traditional privilege of the omniscient narrator, so this suggests that either Ishmael is assuming this guise – a compromising hubristic attempt which cannot allow us to do other than see the characters' monologues as Ishmael's own, and therefore morally biased, fictional imaginings projected through others – or that Melville is prepared to subvert the integrity of his text. In either case, the impulse behind the technique is a democratic one. By giving the Captain (whose Lear-like eloquence actually softens the reader to him), the mates and the rest of the crew the textual space to debate the action, the moral dialectic is set up not between the reader and Ahab guided by the intermediate focaliser but between Ahab and all others aboard The Pequod; we as readers are simply the privileged observers of the debate.

Such a tactic, which enables the reader to cast the ultimate ethical vote untainted by the slant of intermediate propaganda, is not out of keeping with the consistent democratic concern of the novel. When Ishmael returns to the narrative line, it is as a subjective part of the preceding dialogue, not as the objective moral judge of it, in a sentence which recalls the style of the very first line:

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew; my shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had welded with theirs…Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. With greedy ears I learned the history of that murderous monster against whom I and all the others had taken our oaths of violence and revenge. (p.148)

Suddenly Ishmael's signifier of identity is used not to assert detachment but for absorption, the willing merging of the individual self into the communal whole of the crew. The brilliant syntax in the final sentence enforces the idea that the ship and its quest towards the whale is as democratic, having been endorsed by all, as it is dangerously obsessive. According to the syntax, the 'murderous monster' mentioned ought to be Ahab, the last subject to which Ishmael has referred; but in a dramatic reversal it actually refers the one whale, that entity against which Ishmael, along with Ahab, has taken his oath of revenge.

The 'greedy ears', the academic instinct for consumption, aligns this interpreter and maker of novels with the destroyer of whales. The rhetoric of consumption infects the text. Queequeg is a cannibal; Stubb eats the captured whale (p.249); sharks eat chunks of the whale which are "the bigness of the human head" (p.244); Ahab has been consumed and is now on a quest, which itself consumes him, to counter-consume; The Pequod is a "cannibal of a craft" (p.59). Paradoxically, if there is a food chain, it is one in which cannibal, sharks, librarian and hunter are equalised. By applying the same symbolism of cannibalism across all spheres – ocean, human, material – of existence, Ishmael eliminates the hierarchy of the food-chain, suggesting that it functions by interdependence rather than by the dominance of any one element. It is because of this close interdependence by all who inhabit the environment of the sea – itself a stable (being devoid of political control) platform on which the game of consumption is played – that Ishmael is so keen to satirise the Royalist system by which fast-fish become the king's property (p.332). His objection is to the fact that the law of possession operates outside the closed diagram of the hunt. The mariners kill the whales and bring them onto land (that is to say, away from the apolitical environment in which the economics normally take place) but the king takes both of the mariner and of the whale, by proxy of a third party Warden. He is detached doubly from the exchange, and therefore has no right to it.

Ultimately, what differentiates Ishmael from Ahab is not his motivation – which is similarly unilateral, consumptive, obsessive – but the way in which this manifests itself, in text rather than aggression. The encyclopaedia of whales is an achievement in itself, a creation rather than a destruction. Whereas Ahab has been partially consumed, tries to counter-consume, and is ultimately fully consumed, though Ishmael is also consumed by the terror of the whale this results in a substantial artefact rather than a void of annihilation into which whale, crew, Ahab and The Pequod symbolically sink. The quest for whales in general is a glorious, expansive one – represented in economic terms by the opportunity for financial gain, and in political terms because kings are anointed by whale oil – but conversely the quest for one whale is a limiting one, which destroys all of value that has been attained previously. Ishmael's quest has been generated from the one whale, not towards it, and although this must lead us to question the integrity, in the sense of objectivity, of his academic work, nevertheless unlike the crew he ends (or, textually begins, since the extracts at the start represent all that he has learned) at the creative rather than the destructive pole. Indeed, the closer the drama comes to Moby Dick, the more Ishmael attempts to recover objectivity, recognising the concluding episode of the ship's drama as the beginning episode of his own. His use of the third-person to represent the ship and its crew shows his increasing detachment from the crew:

They were one man, not thirty...all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to. (p. 454-455)

The metaphorical system of consumership and cannibalism applied to the Pequod's crew and their environment is self-contained. Ishmael and his text perform a crucial function in denoting what that system represents, how the metaphors invested within it may relate to the real (land) world rather than simply those who share the sea:

What of it, if some old hunks of a sea-captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks? What does that indignity amount to weighed, I mean, in the scales of the New Testament? (p.6)

If the Pequod is a signifier then without Ishmael's text, which introduces the scales of religion, democracy, history and text, we would have little grounds for understanding precisely what it signifies. In the process of performing this linking function, of bringing multiple texts to him and harnessing them under a single title, he loses objectivity and becomes a character. His increasing subjectivity allows us to compare Ahab to the textual creative process itself, making the morality of the quest universal and real, rather than applicable solely to a fictional environment, because it relates directly to the real world artefact of the text itself.

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This page was published on 2003 | Keywords: Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Ishmael, Pequod

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