Ishmael's Impossible History: Survivor's Narration of a Trauma in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851)

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2022
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Haverford College. Department of English
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eng
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Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) is more than a tale of the chase for a white whale: it is a story about how stories are told. Its speaker, Ishmael, curiously arranges his narrative in both incessant digressions from the events of the hunt and a seemingly inexplicable shift to third-person omniscience during them. Though his approach may vex the reader who anticipates a more directly focused history, it is also integral to achieving an understanding of the narrator as somebody who has experienced such events as a trauma. This essay draws from Cathy Caruth's theoretical framework of trauma as it fundamentally resides within an impossible history in order to consider the underlying meaning of Ishmael's own behavior. Just as Caruth poses that a traumatic experience – in its continued reappearance to the survivor – never necessarily concludes, we may begin to analyze the narrator's own struggle to recount his experience on similar terms. In Ishmael's whimsical expositions on cetology, he exhibits an interest in merely talking about something else because, as his disappearance from the scenes of destruction suggests, he cannot talk about the wreck of the Pequod. Exploring the traumatized voice in Ishmael's narration ultimately entails a critical inquiry into Melville's own motivation to necessarily engage the concept of a trauma – something most medical fields will not even attempt for another century. Drawing from several scholars with varying interests in both the narrator and author's respective relationships to traumatic histories, this essay strives to achieve an equally crucial reading of Melville's perspective.
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