Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Course Hero. "Ishmael Study Guide." Course Hero. 6 Dec. 2019. Web. 27 Jan. 2022. <>.

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Course Hero. "Ishmael Study Guide." December 6, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2022.


Course Hero, "Ishmael Study Guide," December 6, 2019, accessed January 27, 2022,

Ishmael | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


An Ad in the Paper

The narrator sees an advertisement in the Personals section of a newspaper that reads "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world." The narrator decides to answer the ad and goes to the address specified the next day. When he arrives, he is surprised to find no one there but a gorilla. On the wall beside the gorilla is a poster that reads, "WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?" The gorilla, whose name is Ishmael, lives behind a window and is able to communicate with the narrator through thought. Ishmael tells the narrator that his previous owner, Mr. Sokolow, taught him to do so. He also learned about the world through his captivity. He was in a zoo and a menagerie (a place where animals are kept or trained for exhibition), where he heard people speaking to one another.

The Narrator's Education

Ishmael says that, since he has been captive, he is qualified to teach about the subject of captivity. He doesn't just mean literal captivity, however. Rather, he says that people are held captive by the lifestyle in which they engage. Using Socratic questioning, Ishmael engages the narrator in a dialogue. He first elicits answers to questions about what he refers to as the narrator's "creation myth." This is the narrator's understanding of the scientific way in which the universe was formed, ending in the creation of humanity. The narrator is surprised to find that Ishmael sees this as a myth, but later he realizes that Ishmael is correct.

Over the next few days and weeks, Ishmael engages the narrator in more Socratic dialogue about humanity's place in the world. Using the phrase "Take it or leave it," Ishmael calls the narrator's culture "Takers" and other cultures—mostly hunter-gatherer cultures—"Leavers." Ishmael concludes that the Takers have lived as if the world belongs to humanity and the earth was created solely for humans.

Ishmael's Demise

One day, the narrator goes to see Ishmael but the gorilla is gone. The narrator searches for him and finds that he has been taken to a menagerie. The narrator visits Ishmael at the menagerie and continues to talk to him. Eventually he buys Ishmael's way out of the menagerie and devises a way to move him. However, before he can, Ishmael dies. Among the gorilla's possessions, the narrator finds the poster that was by the window the day they met and notices text on the other side of the poster. It reads, "WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?"

Ishmael Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 The narrator sees an ad for a teacher seeking a student.

Rising Action

2 The narrator meets the teacher, a gorilla named Ishmael.

3 They discuss the world and the narrator's role in it.

4 One day, Ishmael is gone.

5 The narrator finds Ishmael at a menagerie.

6 Ishmael says the narrator has learned all he can teach him.


7 The narrator returns to the menagerie but learns Ishmael died.

Falling Action

8 The narrator tells Partridge they could have saved Ishmael.



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