Reading Like a Writer: Narrative Authority and Moby Dick

Posted on Fri, Dec 20 2013 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Editor's Note: One of the new features on our blog is the monthly Reading like a Writer column. The column features craft-focused book reviews by Allison Wyss.

I don't like that I'm about to write about one of the most famous sentences there is. I'd rather choose something more obscure. And more contemporary. But I do love the sentence: Call me Ishmael.

Of course, it's from Herman Melville's Moby Dick—that long book about the whale. And it's been analyzed to death.

But the sentence came up, in passing, in the class I was teaching. Several students expressed interest, but we moved on quickly. Then a student emailed me about it and I decided to devote about ten minutes of the next class to the famous three words. Discussion of the three words lasted 40 minutes. And then there were follow-up emails. Many emails.

So it appears that contemporary writers are still interested in "Call me Ishmael." And, yeah, there's good reason.

In the most basic sense, the sentence informs of important things, things that are crucial to the start of the narrative. It establishes that the POV of the novel is first person (call me) and it names the narrator (Ishmael).

It also introduces us to the voice of that narrator. We can tell immediately that we have someone who is direct, informal, conversational, yet commanding. It's not "Please address me as Ishmael," which would be both more formal and less confident. We start to get a sense of the speaker.

But despite providing all of that information, it's not a declarative sentence. It's an imperative one, and that gives it power. It's not "My name is Ishmael," or "People call me Ishmael." Neither is it an invitation: "You may call me Ishmael," or "Why don't you call me Ishmael?" This voice is issuing an order: "Call me Ishmael." It establishes authorial control. It says, "Hey, you! Let's get this straight—I am the speaker and you are the listener. I'm in charge here."

And that implied "you" of the imperative sentence (Who should call me Ishmael? You should.)—it's so important. With it, Melville puts not just a speaker in the room, but a listener. It sets a frame for the novel, and by naming the listener, it draws the reader into that frame.

But it's not just the fact that it's a command that establishes the power of the speaker—it's also the mystery of the sentence. When he says, "Call me Ishmael," but doesn't confirm that Ishmael is actually his name, the narrator tells us exactly as much as he wants to tell, rather than all that we want to know. He has a secret and that gives him power. It also intrigues the reader, who wants to know more. Keeping the secret establishes, yet again, who is in charge.

It's important to note that Melville is careful with the balance of this mystery. A bit of mystery entices; too much can be frustrating. I believe that these words strike the correct balance by embracing ambiguity, but avoiding vagueness. The speaker might be named Ishmael, or the speaker might be a person who has chosen to be called Ishmael. While different, both options are quite specific. Had the speaker given no name at all—well, that would be vague.

Many scholars have discussed the symbolic properties of the name "Ishmael." They're right to do so—the sentence does pick up meaning through allusion—but I'm not going to talk about that. I'd rather gush about of the music of "Ishmael."

The music of the sentence derives from the rhythm and the repeated sounds. The sentence only has five syllables but four of those are stressed—that makes the words seem forceful. Like they're being barked. CALL! ME! ISH!maEL! The single unstressed syllable, the "ma" is the only place the line wavers. But it also brings a softness into it. "Call" and "me" are short words, brusque. And that "c" is a rough, abrasive sound, suitable to a harsh command. But Ishmael is long, drawn out, with soft sounds. It feels sort of mushy in your mouth—like eating an overripe banana. It's soft and fluid. So the barking command is turning into something lyrical. That's enticing. We have a command followed by a lure. There's a sharp contrast from the beginning to the end of the sentence. But the two are united, brought into one song, because so many of the actual sounds are repeated. Call me Ishmael. The "l" and the "m" sound occur in both halves of the sentence. It's as if the command has transformed into a siren song. 

And then I can't help comparing the sound of the sentence to the meaning of it. They're the same! In meaning, the sentence derives its power from being part command and part mystery, which aligns perfectly with it being part bark and part music. I'm always a sucker for when the sound of a sentence mimics its meaning.

This sentence, this voice—it commands while it seduces. It's a great example of establishing narrative authority with the very first words of a story.

What do you think makes for a great opening sentence? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss earned her MFA from the University of Maryland. She has also studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, and Grub Street Independent Writing Center. Her stories have appeared or will appear in [Pank] Magazine, Metazen, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Golden Key, and The Southeast Review.