Chapter 1 - Loomings.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

There now is your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs--commerce surrounds it with her surf. Right and left, the streets take you waterward. Its extreme downtown is the battery, where that noble mole is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes, which a few hours previous were out of sight of land. Look at the crowds of water-gazers there.

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?--Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster--tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?

But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive. Strange! Nothing will content them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand--miles of them--leagues. Inlanders all, they come from lanes and alleys, streets and avenues--north, east, south, and west. Yet here they all unite. Tell me, does the magnetic virtue of the needles of the compasses of all those ships attract them thither?

Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries--stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.

But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? There stand his trees, each with a hollow trunk, as if a hermit and a crucifix were within; and here sleeps his meadow, and there sleep his cattle; and up from yonder cottage goes a sleepy smoke. Deep into distant woodlands winds a mazy way, reaching to overlapping spurs of mountains bathed in their hill-side blue. But though the picture lies thus tranced, and though this pine-tree shakes down its sighs like leaves upon this shepherd's head, yet all were vain, unless the shepherd's eye were fixed upon the magic stream before him. Go visit the Prairies in June, when for scores on scores of miles you wade knee-deep among Tiger-lilies--what is the one charm wanting?--Water--there is not a drop of water there! Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it? Why did the poor poet of Tennessee, upon suddenly receiving two handfuls of silver, deliberate whether to buy him a coat, which he sadly needed, or invest his money in a pedestrian trip to Rockaway Beach? Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. 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. 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.

Now, when I say that I am in the habit of going to sea whenever I begin to grow hazy about the eyes, and begin to be over conscious of my lungs, I do not mean to have it inferred that I ever go to sea as a passenger. For to go as a passenger you must needs have a purse, and a purse is but a rag unless you have something in it. Besides, passengers get sea-sick--grow quarrelsome--don't sleep of nights--do not enjoy themselves much, as a general thing;--no, I never go as a passenger; nor, though I am something of a salt, do I ever go to sea as a Commodore, or a Captain, or a Cook. I abandon the glory and distinction of such offices to those who like them. For my part, I abominate all honourable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not. And as for going as cook,--though I confess there is considerable glory in that, a cook being a sort of officer on ship-board--yet, somehow, I never fancied broiling fowls;--though once broiled, judiciously buttered, and judgmatically salted and peppered, there is no one who will speak more respectfully, not to say reverentially, of a broiled fowl than I will. It is out of the idolatrous dotings of the old Egyptians upon broiled ibis and roasted river horse, that you see the mummies of those creatures in their huge bake-houses the pyramids.

No, when I go to sea, I go as a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal mast-head. True, they rather order me about some, and make me jump from spar to spar, like a grasshopper in a May meadow. And at first, this sort of thing is unpleasant enough. It touches one's sense of honour, particularly if you come of an old established family in the land, the Van Rensselaers, or Randolphs, or Hardicanutes. And more than all, if just previous to putting your hand into the tar-pot, you have been lording it as a country schoolmaster, making the tallest boys stand in awe of you. The transition is a keen one, I assure you, from a schoolmaster to a sailor, and requires a strong decoction of Seneca and the Stoics to enable you to grin and bear it. But even this wears off in time.

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? Do you think the archangel Gabriel thinks anything the less of me, because I promptly and respectfully obey that old hunks in that particular instance? Who ain't a slave? Tell me that. Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about--however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or other served in much the same way--either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other's shoulder-blades, and be content.

Again, I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But BEING PAID,--what will compare with it? The urbane activity with which a man receives money is really marvellous, considering that we so earnestly believe money to be the root of all earthly ills, and that on no account can a monied man enter heaven. Ah! how cheerfully we consign ourselves to perdition!

Finally, I always go to sea as a sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the fore-castle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim), so for the most part the Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it. But wherefore it was that after having repeatedly smelt the sea as a merchant sailor, I should now take it into my head to go on a whaling voyage; this the invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way--he can better answer than any one else. And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago. It came in as a sort of brief interlude and solo between more extensive performances. I take it that this part of the bill must have run something like this:


Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage, when others were set down for magnificent parts in high tragedies, and short and easy parts in genteel comedies, and jolly parts in farces--though I cannot tell why this was exactly; yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment.

Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself. Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it--would they let me--since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.


  1. The structure of this opening chapter is as much expository as narrative. While setting the story on its feet, Ishmael is most concerned with the construction of an argument about the deep philosophical importance of water to humans. Pay attention to Ishmael's rhetorical tendencies throughout the novel. You may find that a great many of the novel's chapters step away from the plot and into a space of intellectual reflection.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. This paragraph is exemplary of the experimental styles Melville plays with throughout the novel. Ishmael's direct address to the reader clues us in to the reality that Moby-Dick is not a traditional novel, with an expected first- or third-person narration that adheres to the telling of the story. Note the oratorical bravado. Notice the combinations of long, rapturous, list-based sentences with short, punchy commands and questions.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. "Driving off the spleen" means ridding oneself of pent up feelings. In the traditional medical model of the humors, the spleen was associated with anger and bad temper.

    — eric martin
  4. Ishmael is used to people making fun of him because he desires only to be "a simple sailor."  Here he states that each and every person is a slave to something or someone on the earth. Therefore, what is the harm of obeying a few orders from someone with high rank and high responsibility (hence high stress)?

    — Noelle Thompson
  5. Now for Some Words of Interpretation. Ah, “Call me Ishmael.” This is probably the most famous opening line and, quite possibly, the most quoted and most famous three words in all of American Literature. In all who love the literature of the Americas, hearing those three words proclaim both self reliance and the image of the ocean, … the ocean of peace as well as the ocean of brute instinct. Further, I have always found the name of Ishmael to be an incredibly interesting and even biblical choice. Born to Abraham, but not of Sarah. Ishmael was a child of Abraham and a servant girl, due to the fact that Abraham was not able to father children with Sarah as of yet. Of course, at this point, Abraham had NO idea that God would bless Abraham and Sarah (as husband and wife) with Issac. Thus beings a vast history of Judaism and Christianity (following the line of Issay) and Islam (following the line of Ishmael). I have spent a long time wondering why this name has been chosen by Melville. The best I can do is think about how the Ishmaelites never really had a homeland belonging to them; therefore, they set about to wander. It also calls to mind Ishmael’s later devout, spiritual friendship with Queequeg, the pagan … and how unity in spirituality is achieved (in a sense) as a result. Some of the irony about Ishmael’s first statements is that they are so clear in his reasoning about going towards the ocean. The truth of the matter is that Ishmael (as the main character and narrator) will struggle with reasoning all throughout the book. For example, Ishmael will struggle with what the white whale eventually represents. Ahab does not have that struggle. Ahab simply believes the white whale represents evil itself. Learning about Ishmael also puts him in contrast with some of the other sailors. Some of them go to the ocean for the money in the voyage. Some of them go to the ocean for the excitement of catching whales. Ishmael touches on the idea that the sea can represent life itself or, in another way, can be the actual “source” of all life. As readers of Melville, we must get used to ethereal metaphor. Why? Because Melville, as an author, almost never states his ideas clearly, but hides them inside grandiose figurative language. For a further explanation and description of plot, please see my first note that begins with the following phrase: “First let us expound upon the plot of this particular chapter.”

    — Noelle Thompson
  6. First, let us expound upon the plot of this particular chapter. Immediately, the reader is introduced to the narrator of Herman Melville’s novel. His name, of course, is Ishmael. Ishmael talks, within the confines of the first paragraphs here, of how he feels about the sea. Whenever he feels down in any way, whenever he feels sick, whenever he feels sad, whenever he lacks peace within his own life, he goes to the ocean. Some people, say Ishmael, are content to simply visit the sea, but not Ishmael. He longs for long amounts of time on the ocean. As a result of these feelings, Ishmael distinguishes himself (already) as different from the very famous villain in this book, because Ishmael doesn’t seek a name for himself in order to gain rank upon his shipmates. He longs to be the most simple of sailors imaginable. Ishmael is already fairly wise in that he knows every single person on earth is already a “slave” to someone or something; therefore, he believes, what is the harm in being ordered around by a sea captain? He is thrilled that he actually gets paid for his time on the ocean. There could be no better job for our dear Ishmael. However, this time, his curiosity is what draws him to the sea. Ishmael has heard about a great white whale, quite famous actually, that Ishmael would like to set his eyes upon. For further explanation, please see my note at the end of this book beginning with the following phrase: "Now for some words of interpretation." 

    — Noelle Thompson
  7. Every reader should note that these first three words of Melville’s novel are very famous. Please know that these most definitely make up the entirety of the most quoted opening line in all of the literature of the Americas. Eventually, and as you become more aware of Melville’s epic tale, these three simple words will make you think about the ocean. It can call to mind how that very sea is full of life. It can call to mind the representation of that life as meaning anything from evil to brute instinct. On the other hand, such a proclamation of a character in shouting his name can conjure up ideas of force and self-reliance and confidence and gumption. Heck, it’s not just “Hi, my name is Ishmael.” But instead, “Call me Ishmael.”

    — Noelle Thompson
  8. An important part of Ishmael’s character is revealed here. Ishmael never desires a grand name or a grand rank or a grand result from his adventures on the sea. He only desires to be a “simple sailor.” However, Ishmael is far from a simple person. His narration reveals that he actually remains deep in thought, constantly examining events in his cerebral, exuberant manner.

    — Noelle Thompson