Why Moby Dick Is a Book about College

Barry Lenson

Why Moby Dick Is a Book about College

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, which was written by Herman Melville in 1851, could be the greatest American novel of all time. Some people would vote for other novels like Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby, but no matter your preference, you have to admit that Moby-Dick is at the very top of the pile, one of the most immortal literary works ever produced by an American.

Captain Ahab, the lunatic sea captain who chases a white whale named Moby-Dick across the seas, is certainly the most famous character in the book. But today, let’s turn our attention to Ishmael. Who the heck was Ishmael?

He’s got to be important. After all, the first line of the book is, “Call me Ishmael.” Even though he is the narrator for most of the book, we never find out too much more about him. There are clues, however. In both the Bible and the Koran, Ishmael is named as one of Abraham’s sons. Over the years, literary scholars have tried to figure out who he was. Could he have been an African-American, a Muslim, or someone from a country other than America? What’s with the weird name?

And then there’s another question. Why didn’t he say, “My name is Ishmael” instead of, “Call me Ishmael”? It’s like he is only Ishmael because we think he is Ishmael, not because he really is. I don’t want to get too far into that line of inquiry, because it will only drive everybody nuts.

But I’m ready to shed some light on those questions. I am reasonably sure that Ishmael was a college student. And here are my reasons why . . .

  • Ishmael’s roommate Queequeg has a lot of tattoos. Queequeg, who is described as a native of the South Seas, is actually covered with them. He is also described as a man who is stuck between being a savage and a civilized man. If that doesn’t sound like a college roommate, I don’t know what does.
  • Ishmael’s shipmates come from many backgrounds and countries. Tashtego is a Native American. Daggoo is African. Fedallah is a Persian Zoroastrian. Pip is African-American. Starbuck is a  Quaker. Stubb comes from Cape Cod. I think they all lived on my dorm floor during my second year of college and boy, did we have some great parties.
  • Life at sea is all about learning. The book contains long descriptions of different kinds of whales (like a biology course), how they were cut up after being killed (biology again), and depictions of the craft of being at sea. A regular college curriculum, don’t you think?

Ishmael is a college student. That’s my theory, and I am sticking by it. In fact, Ishmael’s experience resembles my own college years in a lot of ways. Geez. Could it be that Ishmael is . . . ME?

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