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Ishmael Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Daniel Quinn
 Daniel Quinn was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and was raised Catholic. He later studied at a variety of universities, including Saint Louis University, where he earned a B.A. in English. Afterwards, he studied at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, in the hopes of becoming a monk. Quinn fell out with his mentors at the abbey—a falling out that contributed to his abandonment of Catholicism altogether in the mid-1960s. Following his departure from Kentucky, Quinn moved to New York and worked in publishing for many years. He didn’t write a novel of his own until 1988—this novel, Dreamer, was a work of science fiction, and while it earned fairly positive reviews, it didn’t sell well. Quinn’s breakthrough came in 1991, when he wrote his best-known novel, the philosophical dialogue Ishmael. Ishmael won Quinn the prestigious Turner Award, organized by the media billionaire Ted Turner. Following the success of Ishmael, Quinn wrote two other philosophical novels about anthropology and the environment: The Story of B (1996), and My Ishmael (1997). Since 2000, he’s been involved in a great number of rallies, conferences, and forums regarding issues of anarchism, environmentalism, and pacifism.
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Historical Context of Ishmael
The most important historical era to which Ishmael reacts is the radical movement of the 1960s. During this decade, millions of people throughout the world used their education and the free press to organize populist movements that fought for human rights. These movements were especially common in the United States, in part because, following World War II, the country had a large, well-educated middle class that cared deeply about social and political issues. Notable achievements of the 1960s include the Civil Rights Movement, led by figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Civil Rights Act, which protected and reinforced the rights of African-Americans to vote under fair circumstances; protests against the Vietnam War; and the feminist movement, which fought for equality for women in business, politics, and the public sphere. In many ways, Ishmael is a reaction to (and a critique of) the 1960s. To Quinn, the radicalism of this era was highly admirable, but it didn’t go far enough in attacking the root cause of injustice in the world: the myths of “Taker” culture. Ishmael can also be situated in the “Malthusian renaissance” of the 1970s—a time when many of the world’s prominent economists and statisticians began to argue, with renewed conviction, that the world faced an inevitable hunger crisis. Many of their arguments—arguments that show up in Ishmael—originated with the 19th century English thinker Thomas Malthus. Malthus argued that the world’s population grows geometrically—in other words, it grows by a set factor in a given amount of time (for example, it doubles every ten years). The world’s food supply, by contrast, grows arithmetically—by a set amount in a given period of time (for example, it increases to 10,000 bushels every ten years). Because this is the case, Malthus (and later, Quinn) argued that the average amount of food per person is always decreasing, meaning that in the end, the world’s population will go hungry. Malthus’s ideas, and their later interpretations in the works of thinkers of the 1970s, play a major role in shaping Quinn’s view of the world.
Other Books Related to Ishmael
 The structure and content of Ishmael alludes to many different literary modes and tropes. One of the most important is that of the philosophical dialogue. The philosophical dialogue is one of the oldest literary genres in Western history, stretching all the way back to the dialogues of Plato. In these works, such as The Republic and Phaedrus, the author, Plato, appears as a character in his own text, discussing matters of morality, science, and ethics with his teacher, Socrates. Like Ishmael, Socrates does not merely tell Plato what to believe—on the contrary, he asks Plato questions (albeit leading questions), thus allowing him to make up his own mind through the answers. It’s important to note that Socrates ultimately dies in Plato’s dialogues—much like Ishmael, Socrates becomes a martyr for philosophy and wisdom, whose memory must be passed on through literature and education. Another important story that Ishmael alludes to is the Adam/Eve story. In this Biblical story—one of the most famous in the world—Adam and Eve are punished for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and condemned by God to live a life of pain and uncertainty. All of humanity—their descendants—then shares in their curse as well.
Key Facts about Ishmael
  • Full Title: Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
  • Where Written: St. Louis, Vienna, New York City
  • When Published: February 1992
  • Literary Period: Environmentalist fiction, New Age philosophy
  • Genre: Moral dialogue, Philosophical novel, Bildungsroman
  •  Setting: Unnamed American city, late 20th century
  • Climax: The narrator discovers why the Takers abandoned the Leavers
  • Antagonist: Taker civilization
  • Point of View: First person
Extra Credit for Ishmael

Thanks, Ted. Daniel Quinn’s Turner Award enabled him to focus on his writing full-time—and looking at the size of the prize, it’s no wonder. The Turner Award, which has only been given out once, consists of 500,000 dollars, and was, at the time, the single largest award ever given for a single book.

Imagine a world without Morgan Freeman’s voice… Ishmael has been hugely popular with millions of readers, inspiring albums, environmentalist movements, and dozens of other books. One of the most surprising legacies of the novel is its influence on the career of the actor Morgan Freeman. Freeman is a longtime fan of Quinn’s novels, and has said that his interest in Ishmael inspired him to get involved in nature documentaries like March of the Penguins and Born to Be Wild. That’s right—if it weren’t for Daniel Quinn, we all would have missed out on Morgan Freeman’s trademark narration.