Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: Narrative Voice in “Moby-Dick”

Created June 4, 2015


The Lesson



Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick: Volume I, page 273, 1930. linecut on paper.

Credit: Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton to Plattsburgh State University.

Melville opens Moby-Dick with a firm command from narrator to reader, “Call me Ishmael.” He then goes on to weave a tale through Ishmael’s first-person narration as a seeming bystander telling the story of the white whale. Even as the whale ship the Pequod takes to the sea, the narrative is very firmly Ishmael’s. Ahab is literally nowhere to be found; the captain remains “invisibly enshrined within his cabin.”

Melville positions Ishmael as a character who believes in the “Fates,” three female figures from classical myth who control one’s destiny from birth to death. The tension between man’s free will and a pre-determined destiny is a major theme for Melville—one his characters must grapple with throughout the novel.

In this lesson, students perform a guided close reading of the opening chapter to analyze the voice of the first-person narrator. Students work to understand Melville’s characterization of Ishmael and then return to a short excerpt from chapter 1 to consider his attitude toward the Fates. Follow-up questions serve as a guide to the assessment, a synthesis of the material covered in the lesson.

This lesson is one part of a three lesson unit on Moby-Dick. This lesson may be taught in sequence, or it can stand on its own. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, College and Career Readiness standards and Background. Lesson 1 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy: RL.11-12.3.

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze Ishmael’s narrative voice and invocation of the Fates in the opening chapter of Moby-Dick.

Preparation and Resources

Project Gutenberg’s free online text of Moby-Dick is the edition referenced in this unit.

Lesson reading: “Loomings,” chapter 1

Teachers may want to describe and discuss the concept of the “Fates” (an English name for the three figures known as the Moirai in Greek mythology) along with the idea of a pre-determined destiny before diving into the following lesson activities with students.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Ishmael’s Narrative Voice

If necessary, introduce or review with students the basic points of view from which a story can be told.

Distribute Worksheet 1 and tell students to read “Loomings,” chapter 1, which introduces the first-person perspective of Ishmael.

Have students work in pairs or individually to complete Worksheet 1, which analyzes Melville’s initial characterization of Ishmael. Once students have completed the worksheet, review the answers as a class.

Following work they’ve completed on Worksheet 1, lead students in a discussion of Ishmael as he appears in this chapter.

Suggested answers:

  • Ishmael believes in the power of the sea and is drawn to it whenever his life on land depresses him.
  • He believes in the power of the common man and does not want to be in an authoritative role.
  • Melville creates a character with whom readers can more easily relate, a humble man who does not position himself above the reader or as better than any other man.
  • Melville likely uses references to Christianity and the Romans, the universal call to the sea, and a penchant for adventure to make Ishmael seem both educated and relatable to the reader.
  • Ishmael also shows an idealizing side of his character as he describes the sea as a panacea for his troubles.

Students should then complete Worksheet 2, which leads them through a close reading of one paragraph in chapter 1 and prepares them for the written assessment. (A teacher version of Worksheet 2 is available with suggested answers.)


Students should write a paragraph that answers the following prompt using their quotations from the close reading journal, along with any others from the chapter they find useful:

  • What is Ishmael’s most dominant character trait? Use specific evidence from “Loomings,” chapter 1 to support your assertion.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Critical thinking
  • Essay writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Marybeth Duckett (CT)