Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Ishmael | Part 11 | Summary



The narrator arrives the next day with blankets for Ishmael. Ishmael reminds the narrator that he had asked about the Leavers' story. He wonders why the narrator wanted to hear it since "Abel is all but dead." The narrator surmises that Ishmael is in a bad mood. Again, he asks the narrator why he wants to hear the story. Finally, the narrator says they needed to learn the Takers' story so they could stop enacting it. However, they can't stop enacting a story if they don't have another story to go to. That's what he and other people tried to do in the 1960s. Therefore, they learn a different story.

Ishmael seems resigned to telling the story now. He tells the narrator to think about the question of how humans became human while he is telling it. Ishmael and the narrator discuss the fact that before the agricultural revolution, life wasn't worth living. People lived short, miserable lives, and feared the Leaver life. That's why Takers feel they "must carry the revolution forward even if it destroys ... the entire world."

Ishmael asks why the agricultural revolution was necessary. The narrator says it was necessary for humanity to "get somewhere," which Ishmael then defines as having "central heating and universities and opera houses and spaceships." He notes that even people who can't afford those things, even homeless people, wouldn't want to be hunter-gatherers. Ishmael asks why. The narrator says he imagines hunter-gatherers struggled to stay alive.

Ishmael points out the example of the Plains Indians. They were agriculturalists before Columbus arrived. However, they went back to being hunter-gatherers afterward. But humans are just as capable of getting food as any animal. As omnivores, humans have many dietary options. Also, they are not the first choice on any predator's menu. This is merely what Mother Culture has told him. Nonetheless, the narrator says he wouldn't choose that life even if he were homeless. Ishmael says the narrator is trained to want the life of a Taker.

Ishmael invites the narrator to act out a conversation in which Ishmael plays a hunter-gatherer and the narrator plays a man called "Bwana" who explains why his life is unacceptable. The narrator says it is unacceptable to live like animals. Ishmael says the existence of animals isn't shameful. The narrator says hunter-gatherers have no control over their lives. Ishmael says they do because they can always find food. Maybe they can't always have the exact food they want, but food is abundant. The narrator asks what would happen if food wasn't abundant because of a natural disaster like a drought. Ishmael says they would die. This isn't shameful either. The narrator says they live at the mercy of the gods but would rather grow their own food so they can store it to prevent starvation. Ishmael says this is good thinking. However, they wouldn't be able to survive total agricultural collapse. He asks when they'd finally be safe. The narrator replies that they'd be safe once they've taken everything out of the gods' hands.

The narrator quotes Jesus Christ, who said, "Have no care for tomorrow ... Look at the birds ... God takes perfect care of them." He claims even fundamentalists don't really believe this. The narrator imagines that hunter-gatherers must live in constant anxiety, but Ishmael says they're less anxious. They don't have jobs to lose and don't need money. The narrator says his culture tells him differently, however. Ishmael says that Takers are those who know good and evil and asks who Leavers are. The narrator replies, "Leavers are those who live in the hands of the gods."


Ishmael seems to sense that his time with the narrator is coming to a close. For this reason, he makes a last-ditch attempt to startle him out of his complacency and browbeat him into thinking differently. The reader feels the narrator's discomfort at being so challenged. However, it is necessary for Ishmael to do so, lest his teaching be for naught.

The Bible quote the narrator mentions is from the book of Matthew. It reads, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things." Also, "The birds of the air ... neither sow nor reap ... yet your heavenly Father feeds them." In this quote, the narrator points out that Christ encourages people to be Leavers, to leave themselves at the mercy of God and trust in God. Humans, however, don't want to do this.

The themes of captivity and human behavior intertwine here. Humans are held captive by the story they have been told about Taker and Leaver culture. They have been taught to want things like "central heating and universities." Even if they were completely failing at living the life of Takers, as in the example of a homeless person, humans would rather live in that world than exist as Leavers. Ishmael says this is because they have been brainwashed by the story they have heard. This story shows the life of a hunter-gatherer as undignified and shameful, not to mention perilous.

Ishmael points out the example of the Plains Indians who had a Taker existence but went back to a Leaver existence. He asks the narrator to contemplate why they would do this. Perhaps they felt more at one with God and nature by doing so. However, it shows that the Leavers didn't become hunter-gatherers simply because their ancestors did.

Ishmael is correct that the life of a Taker is not without worry. If a Taker is a farmer, there could be a drought or a hurricane or some other condition that prevents his crops from growing. If he works a job, he could lose that job. He is still one twist of fate away from not having food.

The narrator is startled when Ishmael says that if he can't have food, he will die, and that this isn't shameful. Leaver culture, it seems, does not view individual life as being more important than ecological balance. Taker culture does. In the Leaver perspective, if one person dies, the balance of ecological systems will survive.

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