Ishmael is depressed, perhaps even suicidal -- "a damp, drizzly November in my soul" -- so he leaves the island of Manhattan (New York) on foot, headed for Nantucket by way of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is almost broke -- "little or no money in my purse" -- but very philosophical. This is because Herman Melville was a very learned, but very tormented man who wrote this novel to express some of his gloomy, erudite meditations about life. These he incubated slowly -- ashore, when as a boy he grew up in a wealthy family, only to become poor when his father went insane and died; -- at sea, having seen the seamy side of life as a merchant seaman, as a common sailor on a whaleship, and as a deserter who lived among cannibals in the South Pacific; -- and back on shore as a struggling writer of fiction.
Melville ascribes a magical, mystical, god-like quality to the sea: "If they but knew it, almost all men, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. There is magic in it. Yes. As everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever. Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other, crazy to go to sea? Why did the old Persians [Parsees] hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity? [Poseidon]. The tormenting image of Narcissus that we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans: it is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all." [Melville changes his tune drastically later on, calling the ocean man's enemy. "But not only is the sea such a foe to man, who is an alien to it . . ." Chapter 58]
Thus begins an autobiographical voyage of the soul with Ishmael's dream of going whaling as "a simple sailor, right before the mast, plumb down into the forecastle, aloft there to the royal masthead" on a Nantucket whaleship. Melville tells us that Ishmael's whaling adventure was decreed by The Fates: "And, doubtless, my going on this whaling voyage, formed part of the grand programme of Providence that was drawn up a long time ago."
Like that compulsive raconteur, The Ancient Mariner in the poem by Coleridge, Ishmael tells his story looking back on it -- and he admits that at the time he was deluded by The Fates into thinking that he had chosen to go whaling by his own freewill. This is Melville grappling with the question of fate versus freewill, as he will do again and again in this tale, not so much of a monster whale, as it is a story of The Voyage of a Soul.