Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Ishmael | Symbols



When the narrator first arrives at Ishmael's office, he doesn't see anyone. But eventually he realizes that someone is behind a window. It is Ishmael, a gorilla. In the initial days of their teacher-student relationship, Ishmael stares at the narrator through a window. This window symbolizes the distance between the narrator and Ishmael. Ishmael can tell the narrator something, but it is easy for the narrator to ignore it, to brush it off as the words of a gorilla.

One day, the narrator arrives to find Ishmael on the other side of the window. He thinks, "I hadn't realized how important that sheet of glass had become to our relationship." He feels alarmed at its absence because, symbolically, their positions have changed. By sitting with Ishmael with no glass between them, the narrator has accepted Ishmael as a teacher and as a friend.

The Name Ishmael

The name "Ishmael" is symbolic in the book. Ishmael refers to the biblical story of his namesake. In the Bible, Ishmael was the son of Abraham and his wife's maid, Hagar, whom he married because his wife, Sarah, could not have children. Sometime after this, however, Sarah bore Abraham a son whom they named Isaac. Abraham loved Isaac and believed him to be the fulfillment of God's prophecy that he would have a child whose seed would inherit the land. Although Abraham still loved Ishmael, Sarah told him to drive Hagar and Ishmael out. In the book, Mr. Sokolow, an older man who has lost his family, takes in Ishmael, a gorilla, whom he raises almost like a son. He believes he will never have another child. However, in his old age, he marries a younger woman who bears him a child, Rachel. Unlike Abraham, Mr. Sokolow doesn't drive Ishmael out. However, his wife encourages him to do so and, naturally, favors her own daughter. In Christianity and Judaism, Isaac is believed to be the fulfillment of God's prophecy. However, in the religion of Islam, Ishmael is believed to fill that role. Thus, Ishmael has an important part to play in populating the earth. In the book, Ishmael wishes to teach the narrator how the earth may sustain itself. Therefore, like the biblical Ishmael, his legacy will continue.

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