Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Ishmael | Part 7 | Summary



Ishmael has a puzzle for the narrator to solve. He has the narrator imagine himself in a strange place where the people are all very friendly. He stays overnight with one family, and they make him dinner. The dinner is delicious. However, when he asks what it is, they tell him, "It's B meat." He eventually finds out that Bs are the people who live in the next house. Bs, in turn, eat As, who live across the way. As eat Cs. The family he is visiting are Cs. They all get along and are friendly. They merely follow the law.

Ishmael instructs the narrator to devise a system to discover the law he thinks people should follow. When the narrator repeats that Cs eat Bs and Bs eat As, Ishmael says this isn't the law, but merely a food preference. Again, he asks the narrator to devise a way to discover what the law is. He says the narrator is given some clues upon which to base his findings.

  1. They have a law.
  2. They follow it invariably.
  3. Because they follow the law, they are part of a highly successful society.

The narrator eventually says he'd learn by careful observation, which he would approach in two ways. He would notice what they didn't do. He'd also be trying to figure out what makes the society work.

Ishmael instructs the narrator to assume that someone has broken the law and that there will be an execution. However, no one will explain why the law was broken. Ishmael asks how the narrator would use this information to figure out the law. The narrator says that, in addition to the other things he was observing, he would observe what this person did that other people never do.

Ishmael says that even though the Takers are horrified, their society works well. The green plants are food for the predators, and some of those predators are food for still other predators. What's left is food for the scavengers. This system has worked well for billions of years. In nature, the gazelle and the lion aren't enemies. The lion doesn't massacre the gazelles. Rather, he only kills one so that he can eat. Ishmael says that the law protects the community as a whole and all the species in it. Humanity owes its existence to this law.

The narrator says he still doesn't know what the law is. Ishmael says it's a peace-keeping law. Every species, including Homo sapiens, followed this law. Then, about 10,000 years ago, one branch of the family of Homo sapiens said that humanity was exempt from the law. This brought the planet to the point of death. What, Ishmael asks, is their explanation for this?

Ishmael says something is fundamentally wrong with people. Ishmael asks the narrator what he thinks of this explanation. The narrator says he's beginning to have his doubts about it.

Ishmael sends the narrator on his way to figure out a law that Takers have disobeyed, one that put the world at peril. He tells him to use the same three guidelines he used in the problem with the As, the Bs, and the Cs. He should bear in mind that it is only the Takers that do this. Now, they are about to pay the penalty for breaking the law. The narrator goes home to think about this problem but feels depressed about it. He realizes that part of the reason for his depression is that every step he took forward brought him closer to being out of Ishmael's life.


The theme of the ecosystems is at the forefront of this part. Ishmael doesn't mention the environment directly. However, it is implied in the concept of ecosystems, which he talks about later in the lessons. For example, he mentions lions eat gazelles. However, they aren't enemies. Moreover, the lion doesn't want to eviscerate the gazelles. Rather, he only kills gazelles he intends to eat. This is what keeps an ecosystem going. There is enough food for all creatures because no creature takes more than his share.

The story with the As, Bs, and Cs is confusing because Ishmael uses people in his example. An example that uses the animal kingdom might be easier to understand. Birds eat insects, and people eat birds. Finally, when people die, insects eat them. The law is clear in this case. If the people killed all the insects, there would be nothing for the birds to eat. Therefore, the birds would die and, eventually, so would the people. Therefore, the law the person broke was, presumably, not to kill more than one intends to eat. However, Ishmael purposefully doesn't use examples from the animal kingdom, to highlight the fact that humans are of the animal kingdom, not separate. Lions don't eat other lions either.

For the second time, the narrator suggests that humans are simply deeply flawed. Again, Ishmael discourages him from using his culture's mythology to explain human behavior. He is discouraging the narrator from simply taking the easy way out. As long as the narrator believes the stories of his prophets, he will continue to act in ways that endanger himself and all of the planet.

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