Ishmael Summary

Daniel Quinn

Ishmael

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Ishmael Summary

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The novel opens with a unique newspaper ad: “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” The narrator, who remains nameless throughout the book, is angered by the ad. His experience in 1960s counterculture taught him there is no easy way to save the world. Still, intrigued, he answers the ad.

He finds that the teacher and placer of the ad is a gorilla named Ishmael. Behind the gorilla is a sign that reads “With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?” Ishmael communicates with the man telepathically. Through this method, the narrator learns that Ishmael was once part of a menagerie but was rescued by a Holocaust survivor who taught him his name and how to learn. This interaction impresses the narrator enough that he continues to visit Ishmael.

Ishmael explains that together, they will try to discover how the world came to be and that much of his teachings will be about captivity. Since he has spent most of his life in captivity and learned English within this captivity, he is a particular expert.

Ishmael takes time to define some of the terms of his discussion. “Takers” are the civilized people who developed agriculture during the Neolithic revolution. “Leavers,” Ishmael explains, are everyone else, and they are considered primitive. A “story” is an interrelation between the gods, man, and the earth, and it has a beginning, middle, and an end. To “enact” is to strive to make a story come true, and a “culture” is a collection of people enacting a story.

“Mother Culture” is the personification of the Takers’ belief in their superiority over all other living things.

Through their dialogue, Ishmael teases out his beliefs regarding how the world has survived for so long. Every living thing, Ishmael and the narrator decide, is in competition, but mankind is exempt from that law. Other living things promote a balance that ensures their survival without completely destroying their competition.

Eventually, Ishmael is forced into a traveling circus upon the death of his patron. The narrator tracks him down, and though the gorilla is ill, Ishmael continues his teachings.

Leavers, Ishmael explains, live their lives in the hands of God. When times are good, they thrive, but their numbers fall in the tough times. Leavers are subject to the natural effects of evolution. Takers aren’t, since they’ve removed themselves from the natural order.

Human culture consists of the stories of the Leavers and the Takers. The numbers among the Leavers are growing, as nature continues to create intelligent and self-aware creatures. The ranks of the Takers are dwindling.

Ishmael’s final lesson to the narrator is to implore him to share what he has learned with others. It’s not too late. If the Takers can change their ways, the world can still be saved. Man needs to be humble and accept responsibility for their actions and negative effects on the world.

The narrator leaves Ishmael for some time and returns to the city. He works to gather the money necessary to buy Ishmael from the carnival. He loses track of Ishmael, and when he finally finds the carnival, he learns that Ishmael has died of pneumonia. Ishmael had been sick for a long time and had hidden his condition from the narrator. The narrator gathers his friend’s belongings, including the poster from their first meeting. The narrator discovers that there is writing on the back of the poster that reads, “With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?”

The novel is primarily a Socratic dialogue between the nameless narrator and the gorilla Ishmael. In a Socratic dialogue, the text consists of a series of questions and answers as one voice tries to understand moral and ethical concepts. Socratic dialogues lack many of the elements of a normal novel, including scene description and plot.

Socratic dialogues have their roots in the ancient writings of Plato, which featured Socrates as one of the voices in the dialogues.

Much of Ishmael’s teachings center around Old Testament Bible stories. In particular, he focuses on stories told in “Genesis” about creation, the Tree of Knowledge, and the fall of man. In all cases, Ishmael circles back to matters of environment, ecology, and animal rights. Man, he explains, has been given a measure of responsibility for the world and all living things, and when mankind relinquishes that responsibility, the world is doomed.

Ishmael is the first in a trilogy that also includes The Story of B and My Ishmael.

Ishmael was loosely adapted into a film, Instinct, starring Anthony Hopkins as an imprisoned anthropologist who is interviewed by a psychologist played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. The movie was not successful critically or financially.

Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder has stated that Ishmael was influential in the development of the band’s album Yield, and it can be directly traced to the song “Do the Evolution.”