Moby Dick

Pretty weird that any edition would remove “Call me Ishmael” or translate it differently, since that’s one of the most famous opening lines in all of English literature.

But it’s not the first line of the novel. It does indeed follow “a really long introduction made up entirely of quotes,” or almost entirely. Some of the text in that introduction is Melville’s own. And it’s some of my favorite stuff in the book! You’ve got the “Etymology” section, which is “Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School,” and the “Extracts” section, which is “Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian.” Readers will often skip these, but they establish the tone and structural philosophy of the whole novel.

The “Sub-Sub-Librarian” bit is especially great. Great enough to quote below in full! “Call me Ishmael” gets all the attention, and it’s certainly more succinct. But this introduction to the “Extracts” section also deserves some love.


EXTRACTS. (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian).

It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grub-worm of a poor devil of a Sub-Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane. Therefore you must not, in every case at least, take the higgledy-piggledy whale statements, however authentic, in these extracts, for veritable gospel cetology. Far from it. As touching the ancient authors generally, as well as the poets here appearing, these extracts are solely valuable or entertaining, as affording a glancing bird’s eye view of what has been promiscuously said, thought, fancied, and sung of Leviathan, by many nations and generations, including our own.

So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, and in not altogether unpleasant sadness—Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much the more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless! Would that I could clear out Hampton Court and the Tuileries for ye! But gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before are clearing out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of long-pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. Here ye strike but splintered hearts together—there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses!


To the defense of the translator: The book was much later popular than the release of the book. So the translator didn’t know that some kind of hype about this “Call me Ishmael” would come up. Either that or he was an idiot. By the way, there’s also missing the whole intro you mentioned! There’s no content before the first chapter. It’s a shame!


Wortableitung and Auszüge aus der Literatur, den Walfisch betreffend are at the end actually, they are not missing, like the British edition.

1 Like

Thanks for the info, but I think that sucks. Messing with a text should be left to the editor. I feel betrayed of the original feeling of the book.

The translator worked from the British edition most probably, and nobody knows why they put the etymology and extracts at the end. But even more shameful is that the epilogue was missing in the British first edition and many phrases were censored, possibly because of heresy laws at the time. Like this:

Chapter 28 Ahab(New Yok ed)

And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with a crucifixion in his face;

vs Chapter 27 Ahab(British ed)

And not only that, but moody stricken Ahab stood before them with an apparently eternal anguish in his face;

Tried to find the passage in the German translation, but apparently my German isn’t up to the task.


Oh yeah, it was a total bomb when it was first published. Massive commercial failure. Derailed Melville’s life, and to a certain extent he never recovered.

I know zilch about foreign-language editions, but this does seem to open up a curious little window into the book’s publication history. And into the nature of translators and their priorities. If we’re talking about an early translation, and if the translator intentionally omitted that line, there’s probably a story behind it.

Considering how meta Moby-Dick is, it also feels thematically appropriate. The book is subtitled “the whale” for a reason, and here we’ve got translation as butchery, with certain parts of the text being sliced out and tossed overboard. Just like the hyphen in the title! It’s a tiny piece of grammar with a gargantuan task – to hold this entire behemoth together – but it’s regularly omitted. Fascinating to think about stuff like this. For me personally, at least. This is the sort of book where it gets better the more you poke and dissect the pieces. It’s designed for that!


I learned alot, for example about possible heresy laws, international law (or the absence of them), and about the literature mechanisms.

I’ve read the start of the first chapter as a young man and found its complicated language awful. I now have reread it and I find it not totally effortless, but nearly. Also I know understand what he is talking about depressing and grey November. (Or was it October? Doesn’t matter.)

Also I find the meta content interesting. If I understand it correctly Ishmael gives in passively to the nature and things in general, while Ahab tries to dominate that.


I wonder how a book named Moby Dick would be received in our sometimes hysterical times! A book title with “Dick”, oh my god!


It was a huge slog when I first tried to read it as a teenager. Perfect example of being too young for a book. But when it finally clicked, it clicked. Now I’d consider Melville to be one of the friendliest and most generous authors I’ve ever read. Warm. Inviting. Funny. Insightful. I get a feeling like “this is home” from his writing.


For this thread, I’ve also gotten through two whale-themed IF games on my backlog. One of those is The Whale’s Keeper by @Sparkwatson, which was published during IF Comp 2023.

I played through the game three times. On the first playthrough, I tried to exit the whale, and in two others, I went deeper into it. I enjoyed the choices, which were vividly contrasted and rarely seemed arbitrary. My conclusion is that the game’s choices play on trust a lot, moreso than its explicit ‘sanity’ mechanism, which I never felt the need to closely monitor.

Playthrough recaps, with spoilers
  • On the first playthrough, I escaped the whale and had to choose whether to approach a pod of sharks. Those turned out to be dolphins that I shouldn’t have been afraid of.
  • On the second playthrough, I lost when I attempted to escape a hermit who suddenly used force after befriending me, but who was ultimately attempting to save my life. I kind of expected the subversion and thought that this death or ending was fair.
  • On the third playthrough I fully trusted the hermit and got a good ending … it may have been the game’s best ending, but I’m not sre.
  • My passage counter got reset when I refreshed the page, but I think I saw ~40 of 90 passages.

I also appreciated the delayed chat interface. Because it takes a bit of time for each passage to appear after entering a prompt, I felt the need to re-read each previous sentence and take it in fully. However, I think the delay might just be a limitation of the chat engine … it might not be deliberate.

The images were a nice touch too. However, they are larger than the main game frame, and I think the author could style them so that they shrink to the frame size. I expect that this is not a problem with Slack and Telegram versions, which would handle images in their own way.

Intertext commentary

Incidentally, The Whale’s Keeper makes a reference to Moby Dick. One passage of the game reads:

On closer inspection, you’re nearly positive the hook is what a man used to wear when he’d lost a hand. It reminds you of the peg-leg you saw earlier. It gives you a powerful sense of irreality, as if you were back stage in a Melville novel.

(For context, Captain Ahab has a peg leg made of whale bone as a reminder of his goal of vengeance on Moby Dick, which like most important topics has an entire chapter dedicated to it.)

However, the main reference in The Whale’s Keeper isn’t to Moby Dick. Instead, it’s to the Biblical story of Jonah. That is, the game’s secondary character, a hermit living inside the whale, is named Jonah by the player character.

It’s not just a superficial reference: the game edges up on the theme of religious conversion by mentioning “giving yourself over entirely” twice, seemingly in line with Jonah’s story of religious conversion in the Old Testament. In the case of the game, it is not really about religious belief, but more about accepting the loss of things and people in the main character’s past.

(At one point in the game you can discard your phone. Being able to do that in a game targeted at chat apps is very meta, but it’s also probably not going to make anyone actually do it. It’s not a cheap shot, but it is tongue-in-cheek in terms of seriousness, I think.)

In case you are wondering, Moby Dick also uses Jonah as a focal point of one its chapters, with a firebrand preacher delivering an overly strict sermon about obedience. The chapter is immediately followed by one with more universalist themes, in which Ishmael humors Queequeg’s idol on the grounds of “do unto others;” that is that he would want Queequeg to honor is own form of worship.

Although one commentary describes the preacher’s sermon in Moby Dick as a plain threat, the text of the novel itself describes the preacher — seemingly without sarcasm — as humbling himself.

As such the contrast between the two chapters is probably for balance, not refutation. Especially given that these themes are balanced throughout the novel, with no resolution in sight. (Unless there is a resolution…we’ll see.)


I read a ton of these literary books when I was young (I was just talking to my dad today and he said I sounded like a grumpy old man). I invariably interpreted them as pertaining to humanity’s search for meaning in a dreary pointless existence. Kafka’s trial was about searching for meaning which constantly eludes the protagonist, who gets dispatched unceremoniously in the end regardless. Moby Dick was about searching for meaning in the face of a hostile and inhuman universe. But maybe they really were just about a faceless bureaucracy and a whale.


Was just chuckling imagining a Stiffy Makane parody of Moby Dick. Whether Stiffy should be Ishmael, Starbuck, Ahab, or one of the hapless crew, I shall leave up to you.


I’ve thought about making a parser adaptation of Moby-Dick for years, purely so that the X ME description could read: “Call yourself Ishmael.” But that single (bad) joke isn’t enough to justify transforming the whole book into a game. If it’s a Stiffy Makane game, however…


>x me

Call yourself Stishmael. Or Stishy for short. Stishy Makane.

(On second thought, you can’t have Makane die canonically, so he’d have to take Ishmael’s place.)


He can’t die? I never realized that was a thing, if that’s really a thing.

I was personally imagining Makane in the title role: Moby Dick himself.


I just imagine it kills off the ability to run a sequel, thinking about Citizen Makane for example. Although, I’m sure you could just retcon whatever you want. If you’re picking Moby Dick, then I suppose it’s appropriately a sperm whale.

ETA: On reflection, although it’s left ambiguous in the novel, you could easily argue that Moby Dick survives too, so really, you could have your cake and eat it too.

1 Like

Stiffy at least suffers permanent injury in Nemesis Macana (in a sequence explicitly modeled on Moby-Dick, no less) and the “Stiffy” in Citizen Makane is explicitly someone else assuming the mantle, so I think killing him off would be decidedly fair game.

(I love Moby-Dick BTW, it and Tristram Shandy are way ahead of their times!)


Both solid points. I retract my plot armor for Stiffy. Or Stishmael, or whatever.


I would say it’s likely that the whale survives. Thematically fitting, even! Just hiding that since it’s technically spoilers. Although with a novel this old, spoilers probably don’t matter anymore.

I’ve never read Tristram Shandy, but in this context that’s a strong recommendation. I’ll have to add it to the list!


Fair enough. I just edited my post to spoiler the text as well.

Also, I had an idea for the whale. You could name him Stishwhael. Or maybe just Ishwhael?:grin:

> x me

Call yourself Ishwhael.

Okay, I’m done.