First Person (Peripheral Narrator); First Person (Central Narrator); Third Person (Omniscient Narrator)
Nothing, but nothing, about Moby-Dick is straightforward. Not even—maybe especially not—the point of view. And you thought the whaling chapters would be the hardest part of this book!
For nearly the first forty chapters of the novel, Moby-Dick is narrated in the first person by Ishmael. For the rest of the book, Ishmael’s personality (and the first person pronouns) fades in and out. In terms of point of view, then, there are four general types of chapter in the novel:
- Chapters where we can be certain that Ishmael is our first person narrator, such as Chapter 41, which begins "I, Ishmael, was one of that crew";
- Chapters where we have a first-person narrator who is probably Ishmael, such as Chapter 45, where the narrator tells us details of whaling that, he says, "I have personally known" (45.3);
- Chapters told entirely in the third-person, such as Chapter 44—these chapters sometimes (but not always) contain information that Ishmael can’t logically know, and yet they still seem to use his voice or tone;
- Chapters that use a dramatic style, as though we were reading a play, like Chapter 40.
Obviously, this makes talking about point of view in Moby-Dick super-complicated. As a general rule, you can probably assume that the narrator is Ishmael unless there’s something in the chapter that he can’t possibly know.
Still, you should try to notice when the first person seems ambiguous, as though it could be Melville himself talking about his whaling experience instead of his character Ishmael.
Come On, Melville. You're Making Our Brains Itch.
This leaves us with a few questions. First, when Ishmael is the first person narrator, is he a central or a peripheral narrator? This is related to the question of who the protagonist of the novel is—Ishmael or Ahab. If you think of the novel as Ishmael’s own story, then clearly he’s the central narrator; if you think of him as simply an observer of the larger story of Ahab’s quest, then he’s a peripheral narrator.
We think of Ishmael as the First Person Central Narrator for the beginning of the book, while he tells his own story of deciding to go whaling and meeting Queequeg, and as the First Person Peripheral Narrator for most of the rest of the novel, when the narrative is more focused on Ahab.
The most important question to ask about all these variations in perspective is, of course, why they have to happen at all. Why can’t every chapter just be from Ishmael’s perspective? Well may you ask— but we do want to point out that there’s a clear progression from Ishmael as the first person narrator at the center of the story to a third-person description of the destruction of the Pequod at the end, which doesn’t even mention Ishmael by name. (We only learn where he was in the Epilogue, where his voice comes back.)
So something about this novel makes it necessary to push Ishmael offstage, or to silence him gradually.
But why? Shucks. Join the scholarly debate on that one, dear Shmooper.