At the beginning of Moby-Dick, we feel pretty confident in saying that Ishmael is our protagonist: he’s clearly telling the story and it’s him whom we follow through New Bedford and Nantucket as he searches for a whaling ship to join. In different parts of the novel, he’ll reassert himself as the lens through which we see the novel unfold. But as events progress, it becomes more and more obvious that Ishmael has turned into a bystander, and the real protagonist is someone else…
Captain Ahab seems like a reluctant protagonist at first, since he spends the beginning of the voyage holed up in his cabin alone. (Later we find out that he was recovering from a groin injury caused by his whalebone leg.) But, when he finally emerges, he steals the show. Ishmael fades into the background, a mere seaman, as we get just as obsessed with Ahab’s revenge quest as any of the sailors on board the Pequod.
It’s only fair to Moby Dick to take a moment to think about whether or not he could actually be the protagonist of the novel that uses his name for its title; unfortunately, it’s pretty tough to fit him into the role. Although there’s a lot of talking about Moby Dick and speculating about Moby Dick and worrying about Moby Dick and looking for Moby Dick that goes on, the White Whale is only in three of the 135 chapters here. So he’s probably not the protagonist. He’ll have to be satisfied with being the focus or center of the novel.