The novel begins with a description of a newspaper ad. The narrator, who is never named, is drinking coffee and eating breakfast one morning when he sees an advertisement in the paper: “TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Although the narrator is initially so offended by this ad that he throws it in the trash, he later removes it and looks at it again. Wanting to save the world, he thinks, is a childish impulse—no doubt there are hundreds of fools responding to the ad right now.
Ishmael is essentially a philosophical novel, meaning that the ideas presented are more important than the characters or plot—thus the narrator and protagonist aren’t even given a name. Quinn begins with an interesting tension between the narrator’s disdain for the ad and his secret fascination with it. The notion of “saving the world” seems childish to the narrator, but we also sense that he isn’t as cynical as he’d like to be.
The narrator remembers his own experiences searching for a teacher—experiences which contributed to his hatred of earnest people who want to save the world. As a “child revolutionary” during the 1960s and 70s, he was old enough to understand the hippies and revolutionaries, and young enough to believe that they might succeed. He saw hippies as marching to liberate the world from slavery and injustice, and when they inevitably failed, the narrator was deeply troubled. He wanted a guru, a teacher, or a wise man to tell him why this had happened.
Here Quinn situates his novel in recent history. The radicalism of the 60s and 70s accomplished a great deal (see Background Information), but it’s also often considered an overall failure. After all, within twenty years of the “revolution” of the 1960s, America turned to Ronald Reagan, a self-described representative of “traditional American values,” for leadership. We know very little about the narrator so far—his one defining trait seems to be that he desires a philosophical kind of education.
Because the narrator had wanted to change the world, he spent years trying to find the proper teacher, and yet he ultimately failed. This is precisely why he’s so irritated to see an ad in the paper asking for a student. After years of searching tirelessly for a teacher, the narrator is frustrated to see this teacher suddenly placing an ad in his local paper. The narrator admits that this teacher is probably a charlatan, though.
Before we know anything else about the narrator, we know that he’s desperate for a teacher. It’s not clear to us why this is, however—why, for instance, he couldn’t teach himself about how to change the world by reading books or going to school. This implies that there’s something unique about the experience of meeting with a teacher face-to-face, and it also sets up the plot of the book.
The narrator goes to visit the teacher, confident that he must be running a scam. When he arrives at the proper building, he is surprised to see an ordinary office building. Inside, he finds an empty room. There are no fools or hippies inside: it would seem that no one at all has responded to the ad.
Quinn had tricked us into expecting a long line of idealistic fools and aging hippies answering the ad. The lack of people speaks volumes about the state of radicalism and optimism in the world: there just aren’t that many people anymore who still have the hope or motivation to “save the world.”
Just as he is about to leave, the narrator notices a glass window at the far end of the room. Peering into the window, he is surprised to see an enormous, fully grown gorilla. The gorilla does nothing—it only stares back at the narrator. The narrator turns and sees a poster hanging on the wall opposite the glass window. The poster says, “WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?” The narrator is a writer himself, but he’s astounded by the poster—it seems to suggest that gorillas depend upon either the prosperity or the extinction of the human race. He realizes that it is a kind of Zen koan, designed to be an unsolvable puzzle.
Notably, we’re made aware of the window between Ishmael and the narrator before we’re made aware of Ishmael himself (or told his name). A Zen koan (like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”) has no single interpretation, but rather is intended to cause the listener/reader to meditate and ponder complex things. This is an early sign that the narrator won’t simply “receive” the truth from Ishmael—on the contrary, he’ll have to ponder what is true and what isn’t, using his own intuition and intelligence.
The narrator feels an inexplicable desire to sit in the room a little longer. Turning to look at the gorilla once again, he is amazed to find that the gorilla can communicate with him telepathically—simply by looking into the gorilla’s eyes, the narrator hears a message in his head. The gorilla tells the narrator that he should listen to his story. The narrator replies that he would be happy to do so, but first asks the gorilla to tell him his name. In response, the gorilla says that he was kidnapped from Africa during the 1930s—hunters killed his mother and took him to a circus. The narrator is instantly sympathetic to this tragedy.
Quinn’s story is a kind of fable—we’re not meant to probe the details of his communications with the gorilla too deeply. Rather, we’re supposed to accept that a man can speak to a gorilla, and move on from there. With this in mind, Quinn gets the fantastic elements of his novel “out of the way” as soon as possible. He’s following the advice of Aristotle, who said that “probable impossibilities” were acceptable in literature, as long as they were established early on.
The gorilla continues with his story. Animals living in captivity, he explains, are always more thoughtful than their counterparts in the wild, because they have to cope mentally with the obvious fact that something is very wrong with their lives. A tiger in a cage, for example, is constantly asking itself, “Why?” Long ago, the gorilla began to ask itself the same question. The gorilla realized what the problem was: it had been kidnapped from utopia and placed in prison. In Africa, the gorilla explains, life is good: there is food and shelter everywhere.
In this section, the gorilla gives us a glimpse of one potential “solution” to the discontents of human civilization: the wild jungle, which he describes like a utopia. This isn’t just a reminder of how flawed human society is, it’s also a reminder that the gorilla, the narrator’s potential teacher, is every bit as miserable and “trapped” as the narrator—right now in a literal way, as he is seemingly kept behind glass.
The gorilla explains to the narrator that as a young ape, he was sold to a traveling fair. Where before he had been displayed at a circus, alongside many other gorillas, he was now displayed on his own. To his surprise, the gorilla found that the humans who visited him were behaving differently. Where before they seemed to be talking to one another, they now seemed to be talking to him. This must have been because he was now on his own, he realized. Next, the gorilla realized that the humans kept using the same sound to talk to him—“Goliath.” From this, he deduced that Goliath must have been his name. From this point onward, the gorilla was “born as a person.”
In this section, Quinn gives a remarkably concise theory of how language determines growth and development. Two centuries of thinkers—from Hegel to Kojève to Lacan to Piaget—have believed that learning language is the crucial part of a child’s growth. In a way, language represents how a child becomes a human being. In much the same way, the gorilla only becomes self-conscious—in other words, aware that he exists and is distinct from the world around him—when he’s given a name.
Over the following years, the gorilla learned language, and the basic divisions of language. For instance, he came to understand the meaning of the word “animal,” as distinct from “human.” The gorilla also became conscious of his owners—humans who walked around the fair. The gorilla never hated his owners—indeed, he thought that they were as imprisoned by the format of the fair as he was. In other words, the gorilla never felt that he had been robbed of some natural right to be free.
The famous philosopher and philologist Ferdinand de Saussure believed that all language is structured as a series of opposites or “binaries.” Thus, when one learns a language, one learns sets of opposites—happy and sad, fat and thin, day and night, up and down, etc. The gorilla’s development seems to take a similar path. It’s also interesting that the gorilla doesn’t claim any “right” to be free—instead, it tries to understand why it isn’t free.
A major turning point in the gorilla’s life occurred a few years after he’d been given the name Goliath. At night, an old man came to visit his cage. The man looked into the gorilla’s eyes and said, “You are not Goliath,” and walked away. The gorilla was shocked by this exchange—but unlike a human being, he didn’t ask, “If I’m not Goliath, then who am I?” Instead he simply assumed that he was nobody at all.
In his book The Phenomenology of Spirit, the philosophy George Hegel described how self-consciousness arises from the interplay between an idea and its opposite, or synthesis and antithesis. At this stage, the gorilla has moved from synthesis—awareness of his name—to antithesis—the knowledge that he has no name, and thus is nobody. Out of the interplay between these two extremes, the gorilla will find an identity for himself.
Knowing that he was not Goliath, the gorilla fell into depression. He was tired every day, even when visitors yelled “Goliath.” One day, he was given a powerful sedative, and woke up in a new place—a strange, cylindrical cage. When he awoke, he saw the same old man standing outside his cage. The old man said, “You are not Goliath. You are Ishmael,” and walked away. The gorilla—now calling himself Ishmael—considered the old man a god, even though he had no information whatsoever about him. The old man had addressed him as a person and an individual.
As Ishmael struggles to find an identity for himself, he continues to depend on other people for knowledge. This old man, whose name he does not know, has the power to give Ishmael his name. Simply by saying a few words, he changes Ishmael’s world forever. While Ishmael is to be the narrator’s teacher, it’s interesting that Ishmael begins with the story of how he was taught. This sets the two on more equal ground, instead of one lecturing the other as a kind of “prophet.”
Ishmael later discovered that the old man’s name was Walter Sokolow. Sokolow was a wealthy Jewish man who had lost his entire family to the Holocaust in Europe. One day, he visited Ishmael’s fair after seeing a sign that depicted a gorilla called Goliath, holding an African native in its paw. Sokolow wanted to see Goliath, because he considered the gorilla a symbol for the Nazi regime—which, after all, was trying to wipe out the race of David (from the Biblical story of David and Goliath). Upon seeing Ishmael, however, Sokolow found that the sight of seeing “Goliath” imprisoned gave him no satisfaction. He decided to buy the gorilla from the fair—viewing him as a poignant substitute for the family he’d failed to save from Europe.
Sokolow’s situation is immensely poignant, but at the same time it seems strange and insubstantial for Sokolow to purchase a gorilla to “replace” his family. It’s also important to understand the real reason that Sokolow gave Ishmael his name—Sokolow isn’t a “god,” bestowing personhood and identity upon others (though he briefly takes on this role for Ishmael), but just a lonely old man looking for friendship and companionship.
After only a few weeks, it became clear to Sokolow that Ishmael was highly intelligent. Sokolow was talking to himself, mourning the loss of his family, when Ishmael showed his sympathy by running his paw against Sokolow’s hand. Sokolow quickly realized that Ishmael could communicate with him. Inspired by his discovery, Sokolow taught Ishmael everything he knew about the world, and eventually, he become Ishmael’s research assistant, bringing him books on every topic. By the 1960s, Ishmael had become a highly educated, intelligent gorilla.
It’s important that Sokolow first realizes that Ishmael is intelligent because Ishmael shows him sympathy. One necessary precondition for communication and true sentience, it would seem, is love and sympathy—a sign of Ishmael’s future as a teacher. All of Ishmael’s subsequent intellectual leaps are made possible because of this first, sincere gesture.
It was during the 1960s that Sokolow fell in love with a woman twenty years his junior. Eventually, Sokolow resolved to marry this woman, but he decided not to tell her about his communication with Ishmael. Thus, the woman couldn’t understand why Sokolow spent so much time visiting Ishmael. She frequently asked him to send Ishmael away—a request that Sokolow naturally ignored. With his new wife, Sokolow had a child—a girl named Rachel.
It’s made clear that Sokolow isn’t a saint or a genius by any means. His need for love and companionship may be the source of his friendship with Ishmael, but it also compels him to seek love from people like Mrs. Sokolow, who seems not to love him in return, or at the very least doesn’t share his interest in Ishmael.
After Rachel was born, Sokolow proposed that Ishmael be her mentor and tutor. Ishmael was delighted with this proposal, and began to spend long periods of time talking to Rachel. He was an excellent tutor, with the result that Rachel gained a master’s degree in Biology by the time she was twenty. Unfortunately, Sokolow’s wife continued to resent Ishmael for “stealing” Rachel from her.
Ishmael proves himself to be an excellent teacher, one who has rapidly outstripped Sokolow’s level of intelligence through careful study and contemplation. This section of the book is a kind of “C.V.” for Ishmael—an explanation of what qualifies him to teach the narrator about saving the world.
When Sokolow died in 1985, Rachel became Ishmael’s benefactor. She moved Ishmael to a “retreat,” where Ishmael was very comfortable, but not content. He wanted to be at the center of human civilization, teaching humans about their own culture. Ultimately, under pressure from Mrs. Sokolow, Ishmael moved to the city where he currently resides.
Although Ishmael has waxed nostalgic about the jungle, it’s made clear that he has no intention of returning there. From the beginning, his identity was based on his interactions with humans, and now he is understandably reluctant to turn his back on them altogether. This shows how he values the “life law” of interconnectedness over personal comforts or safety.
The narrator, who has been listening all this time, asks Ishmael if he has taught many pupils. Ishmael replies that he has had four pupils, all of whom have been failures. He adds that he teaches the subject he knows best: captivity. He asks the narrator if he feels like a captive, and the narrator replies that he does—he just hasn’t been able to identify where this feeling comes from. Ishmael nods and points out that in the 1960s, millions of people had the same feeling, but were unable to identify the source of their captivity—and as a result, their movement for “freedom” failed.
Ishmael now gives the narrator another version of the story he’s just told. We must begin by asking “why,” he argues—we must analyze the nature of the prison in which we find ourselves. If we don’t do so, then all our efforts to save the world won’t truly accomplish anything—like the radicals of the 1960s, we’ll try to cure the symptoms without ever getting to the root cause of the problem.
Ishmael next asks the narrator to explain what has brought him to Ishmael. The narrator thinks, and then brings up a short story he wrote years ago. In his short story, the Nazis win World War II and wipe out all non-Aryan races, obliterating non-Aryan history, culture, art, and philosophy. One day, two Aryan men are talking to one another. The first man tells his friend that he can’t shake the feeling that “there is some small thing that we’re being lied to about.”
From the beginning of the book, the narrator and Ishmael interact with one another through storytelling. Thus, the narrator can’t explain literally why he’s come to Ishmael—he has to use art and literature to explain himself in more metaphorical, oblique terms. This means that it’s harder to grasp what the narrator means, but it also trains both the narrator and Ishmael to use their critical faculties at all times. Enlightenment is a struggle, not a passive listening process, Quinn argues.
Ishmael asks the narrator if he feels like the Aryan in his story—if he thinks he’s being lied to. The narrator answers that he still feels this way, but not as frequently as he once did. This is because, practically speaking, it makes no difference whether humans are being lied to or not: it doesn’t affect their day-to-day lives at all. With this, Ishmael holds up a hand and tells the narrator to come back the next day.
In this section, Ishmael and the narrator spell out the basic problem that they’re going to confront: a problem that has no name, and which cannot be put into words easily. The implication here is that to define the problem is, by itself, already a partial solution to the problem.
The narrator leaves the building and thinks about everything he’s witnessed that day. Everyone in his life thinks that he’s sad and misanthropic—and they’re probably right, he concedes.
We’re given another side effect of the problem that the narrator has with the world—because he can’t wrap his mind around it, he becomes depressed and grows to hate humanity.
The next day, the narrator wakes up and wonders if his visit to Ishmael’s cage has been a dream. He travels back to the building, and finds Ishmael waiting for him. Ishmael begins his lesson without any preamble.
Even after the narrator comes to see Ishmael, there remains the distinct possibility that he won’t come back. This reminds us that the path to enlightenment is always a struggle, and requires personal motivation and effort.