Because he was the first person narrator, much early criticism of Moby-Dick, either confused Ishmael with the author himself or overlooked him. From the mid-twentieth century onward, critics distinguished Ishmael from Melville. They established Ishmael's mystic and speculative consciousness as a central force in the book in contrast to Captain Ahab's monomaniacal force of will.
By contrast with his namesake Ishmael from Genesis, who is banished into the desert, Ishmael is wandering upon the sea. Each Ishmael, however, experiences a miraculous rescue; one from thirst, the other as the lone surviving crew-member.
Ishmael meditates on a wide range of topics. In addition to explicitly philosophical references, in Chapter 89, for instance, he expounds on the legal concept, Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, which he takes to mean that possession, rather than a moral claim, bestows the right of ownership.
Ishmael explains his need to go to sea and travels from Manhattan Island to New Bedford. The inn is crowded and he must share a bed with the tattooed Polynesian, Queequeg, a harpooneer who Ishmael assumes to be a cannibal. The next morning Ishmael and Queequeg head for Nantucket. Ishmael signs up for a voyage on the whaler Pequod, under Captain Ahab. Ahab is obsessed by the white whale, Moby Dick, who on a previous voyage has severed his leg. In his quest for revenge Ahab has lost all sense of responsibility, and when the whale sinks the ship, all crewmembers drown, with the exception of Ishmael: “And only I alone am escaped alone to tell thee” (Job) says the epigraph. Ishmael keeps himself afloat on a coffin until he is picked up by another whaling ship, the Rachel.
And Ishmael (Old Testament)
The name Ishmael is Biblical in origin: in Genesis 16:1-16; 17:18-25; 21:6-21; 25:9-17, Ishmael was the son of Abraham by the servant Hagar. In 16:11-12, the most significant verses for Melville's allegory, Hagar was cast off after the birth of Isaac, who inherited the covenant of the Lord instead of his older half-brother.
Melville shapes his allegory to the Biblical Ishmael as follows:
Biblical Ishmael is banished to "the wilderness of Beer-sheba," while the narrator of Moby-Dick wanders, in his own words in "the wilderness of waters." In the Bible the desert or wilderness is a common setting for a vision of one kind to another. By contrast, Melville's Ishmael takes to sea searching for insights.
In Genesis, Hagar was visited by an angel who instructed her to call her still unborn child Yishma'el, meaning "God shall hear." The prophecy in the name was fulfilled when Ishmael, perishing in the desert, was saved by a miracle: the sudden appearance of a well of water. In Moby-Dick, only Ishmael escapes the sinking of the Pequod, and "that by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous."
And so the name points to a Biblical analogy that marks Ishmael as the prototype of "wanderer and outcast," the man set at odds with his fellows. Wright says that all Melville's heroes—with the exception of Benito Cereno and Billy Budd—are manifestations of Ishmael, and four are actually identified with him: Redburn, Ishmael, Pierre, and Pitch from The Confidence-Man.
Roles in the novel
The reader is not told how long after the voyage Ishmael begins to tell his adventure, the second sentence's "some years ago" being the only clue. This Ishmael, is only the first of two Ishmaels, suggests Bezanson. He is the narrator, “the enfolding sensibility of the novel” and “the imagination through which all matters of the book pass.” He shapes his narrative with use of many different genres including sermons, stage plays, soliloquies, emblematical readings. The “second Ishmael," continues Bezanson, is the young man who, among others, is the subject of the story "narrator Ishmael" tells us. He is “simply one of the characters in the novel, though, to be sure, a major one whose significance is possibly next to Ahab’s.” This is “forecastle Ishmael,” or the “younger Ishmael of 'some years ago.'... Narrator Ishmael is merely young Ishmael grown older." From time to time shifts of tense indicate that "while forecastle Ishmael is busy hunting whales narrator Ishmael is sifting memory and imagination in search of the many meanings of the dark adventure he has experienced." In a later essay, Bezanson calls character-Ishmael an innocent "and not even particularly interesting except as the narrator, a mature and complex sensibility, examines his inner life from a distance, just as he examines the inner life of Ahab.... "
John Bryant points out that Ishmael's role changes as the novel goes on, with even a “flip-flopping from Ishmael to Ahab.” He observes that the beginning of the book is “comedy” in which anxious Ishmael and serene Queequeg “bed down, get ‘married,’ and take off on a whaling adventure come-what-may.” Then Ahab enters in Ch. 29, and Ishmael does not reappear until Ch. 41. When he returns, Ishmael is no longer the “central character” as in the earlier chapters, but becomes the novel’s “central consciousness and narrative voice.” As his role as a character erodes, says Bryant, “his life as a lyrical, poetic meditator upon whales and whaling transforms the novel once again....” In this section, Ishmael wrestles with the realization that he cannot follow Ahab to a fiery doom but must be content with “attainable felicity,” (Ch. 94) but Ahab then takes over once more. 
The narrator explicitly states that he has experienced but not yet fully understood his adventures: "'It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain myself here; and yet, in some dim, random way, explain myself I must, else all these chapters might be naught.'" Narrator-Ishmael demonstrates "an insatiable curiosity" and an "inexhaustible sense of wonder." This Ishmael must be equated with Melville himself, and Bezanson suggests "we resist any one-to-one equation of Melville and Ishmael." As the phrase "Ishmael's richly allusive text" indicates, Bezanson even attributes characteristic Melvillean features to the narrator, who in the Epilogue, likens himself to "another Ixion".
Of the book it is "frequently said" that Melville did not pay a great deal of attention to point of view, "and of course this is true" in the sophisticated Jamesian sense of the technique. Yet Bezanson insists that it would be a mistake "to think the narrator indifferent to how his tale is told," because the narrator's "struggle" with the shaping of his narrative, "under constant discussion, is itself one of the major themes of the book." Ishmael uses, among other genres and styles, a sermon, a dream, a comic set-piece, a midnight ballet, a meditation, an emblematic reading.
In 1948 Howard P. Vincent, in his study The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, had "warned against forgetting the narrator." Robert Zoellner says that "traditional criticism" argues that Ishmael's role as narrator "breaks down" either when Ahab and Stubb "have a conversation off by themselves" in chapter 29 or else when Ishmael reports "the soliloquy of Ahab sitting alone" in chapter 37.
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 film based on the comic book of the same name, as the first mate of Captain Nemo.
- 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.
- PJ Brennan, in Moby Dick as a young man in the BBC Radio 4 radio-play.
- Though the novel famously begins with the words "Call me Ishmael," only once in the whole book is the narrator called Ishmael, self-address aside: when he signs up for the Pequod voyage in chapter 16, Captain Peleg refers to him as Ishmael.
- In the early twenty-first century the Melville Society and Hofstra University supported a Melville email discussion list named ISHMAIL.
- 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
- Pirner, Susanne (2005). Call Me Ishmael – A Critical Analysis of the Narrator in Moby Dick. GRIN Verlag. p. 5.
- Sweeney (1975), 94
- Sweeney (1975), 93
- Sweeney (1975), 95
- Mansfield and Vincent (1952), 587
- Wright (1949), 48
- Wright (1949), 49
- Wright (1949), 50-51
- Wright (1949), 47
- Wright (1940), 187
- Bezanson (1953), 644
- Abrams (2011), p. 303
- Bezanson (1986), 185
- Bryant (1998), pp. 67-68
- Cited in Bezanson (1953), 645
- Bezanson (1953), 646 and 647
- Bezanson (1953), 647
- Herman Melville (1851) [U.S. edition November 14, 1851]. "Epilogue". Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers. Retrieved June 5, 2014.
Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve....
- Matthiessen (1941), xi-xii
- Bezanson (1986), 183
- Bezanson (1986), 184
- Quirk (1992), 636