Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Ishmael | Themes



When the narrator meets Ishmael, Ishmael says that the subject upon which he is most qualified to teach is captivity. This is because Ishmael has been in captivity for most of his life. He first tells the narrator his story. He was captured by hunters who killed his mother and other females in the herd and then took all the babies. He lived first in a zoo, then a menagerie before being taken in by Mr. Sokolow. But he still remains in some form of captivity.

Ishmael believes that the narrator is also in captivity. Humanity may not be in a cage in a zoo, but it is in another kind of captivity. Humans are held captive by their beliefs and habits. Ishmael tells the narrator, "You're captives of a civilizational system that ... compels you to ... [destroy] the world." This means that, because humans are not content to live within the rules of the other species on the planet, they are destined to destroy the planet and themselves.

Ishmael also sees some advantages to being in captivity. He has learned about people and how to communicate. When Mr. Sokolow moves Ishmael in with him, Ishmael misses the stimulation. Similarly, the narrator sees the advantage to human captivity. They can live in comfort as long as they can persuade themselves that they are doing the right thing or, if not, that they can't do anything about it.

At the point when the narrator meets Ishmael, Ishmael's captivity is self-imposed. He is living in the building where Rachel Sokolow has arranged for him to live. The narrator finds out that Ishmael has chosen to stay behind the window and talk to him from there. However, Ishmael also believes that humanity has chosen its captivity. When the narrator repeatedly says that humanity is destined to fail, Ishmael denies it. He sees that humans, or at least the ancestors of the modern Takers, have made a conscious decision to be held captive by their lifestyle. He also believes that they can change their lives and be released from captivity. However, it takes an effort they may not be willing to make. Ishmael provides the narrator with the tools to teach his fellow humans to avoid captivity. Whether the Takers will listen is uncertain.

In the end, Ishmael compares the Takers' lives to a prison. Wealth and power, he says, do not keep anyone out of this prison. However, he says, humanity should make it their business to try to break out.

Storytelling and Human Behavior

When the narrator first meets Ishmael, he tells him the story of a paper he wrote in college about an alternative reality in which the Nazis won World War II. In this future, they had obliterated every race other than the Aryan race. So thoroughly had these other races been eliminated that the textbooks no longer even mentioned their existence. One day, a student at a university in what was once the city of Tokyo says to a friend, "I can't shake the crazy feeling that there is [something] we're being lied to about." The narrator says that he used to worry about being lied to. He still does, but not as much. This serves as an introduction to the theme of storytelling and human behavior. Throughout the novel, Quinn explores the idea that people's beliefs are a result of the story they have been told. For example, the German nation was enthralled by the story Adolf Hitler told them in which the Aryan race—their race—would assume its rightful place as the master race. They believed the story because they wanted to believe it. Similarly, people want to believe that they are doing all they can to save the planet. If they fail, it is because it was impossible.

Ishmael asks the narrator about his "creation myth." At first, the narrator says that his society has no creation myth. Everything they believe is based on scientific fact. However, when Ishmael tells him a story in which the creation tale is being told by a jellyfish, the narrator realizes that the story he has heard is skewed. The story, as told by a jellyfish, ends with the creation of jellyfish. The story the narrator has heard ends with the creation of humanity. However, humans consider themselves to be the culmination of creation simply because nothing better has come along yet. People's time on this planet has been comparatively short, and something better could still be part of the planet's future. However, this cannot happen if humanity destroys the planet.

Later, Ishmael and the narrator question why the planet is being destroyed. The narrator says that humanity was bound to destroy the planet because it is inherently flawed. He also doesn't have certain knowledge as to what to do. Ishmael says that the narrator believes he is bound to make mistakes because that is the story he has been told. He says that if the narrator were told a story that "puts [people] in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world."

At the beginning of the book, the narrator notices a poster near Ishmael's enclosure that says, "WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?" At the end of the book, he realizes the back of the poster says, "WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?" In this way, the author illustrates the dual nature of the stories people tell and are told. There is no one side of the story. Rather, they are all interconnected, as are all the creatures of the earth.

Disruption of the Ecosystem

In his last conversation with Ishmael, the narrator tells him what he has learned. He says that the premise of the Taker story, the story of human culture, is that the world belongs to humanity. By this, he means that people believe the Takers can do with the planet what they please. He then says that the premise of the Leaver story is that humanity belongs to the world. These twin statements are the crux of the ecosystem theme in Ishmael. Humanity has cultivated the earth and believes that every square foot of it belongs to humans. Competitors have no chance.

The novel delves into the ways in which the environment and ecosystems work. At one level are organisms, such as grass, that create their own food. Next are creatures that eat the grass, and following them are predators. In nature, animals kill only what they need to eat. They don't take down all the grass to save for later, nor does a lion kill an extra gazelle. This law has allowed the planet to flourish and allowed a diverse number of species to survive. Ishmael uses an example of one creature, a hyena, deciding to opt out of the food chain by killing all the lions. This act would eventually destroy the environment. However, humanity has acted in a similar fashion.

Ishmael goes on to say that diversity is necessary for the planet's survival. If people eliminate species that compete with them for food (or compete with their food for food), there will be fewer species. "Diversity," he says, "is a survival factor for the community itself." However, humans don't plan ahead. Rather, they plan only for today. This is why the environment and the planet are in jeopardy.

The relationship between humanity and the environment is further portrayed in the poster in Ishmael's office. The side the narrator sees first says, "WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?" The narrator surmises that this can be taken two ways. Either there will be more hope for gorilla without people, or people need to be there in order for gorilla to have hope. Later, he sees the other side that reads, "WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?" By destroying the environment, humanity has made it difficult for other species to survive. However, humanity has the ability to save the world through education. This is the lesson Ishmael wants the narrator to learn.

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