Ishmael

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Ishmael Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After this lesson, the narrator gets an unexpected visitor. His uncle is in town, and he ends up staying with him for two days, though the entire time the narrator wants him to leave. After the uncle departs, the narrator finds that he has work to do, and so he doesn’t see Ishmael for another two days. As the narrator works, he feels a sense of dread that he can’t put into words.
One of the major disadvantages of Taker life as Ishmael portrays it is that it’s always busy. Thus, the narrator gets distracted in the middle of his enlightenment, delayed by the most banal of things—an obligation to entertain a family member who is in town.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
In the middle of his work, the narrator realizes that he has a sore tooth. He goes to a dentist, and ends up having one his molars removed. The dentist prescribes painkillers, which the narrator consumes along with bourbon. As a result of his dentist appointment, the narrator misses another day of his lessons with Ishmael.
When the narrator is away from Ishmael’s lessons, he ends up right back in the self-destructive cycle of Taker culture—drinking and taking painkillers.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
The narrator returns to Ishmael’s building after nearly a week away, and is surprised to find workers clearing out the room. He asks one of these workers what happened to the old tenant. The worker guesses that “the old lady” wasn’t paying rent.
We’re reminded that even Ishmael isn’t above Taker society—he still has to play by its rules, and this means paying rent.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Determined to find Ishmael, the narrator looks through the phone book for the last name “Sokolow.” He finds the address for a Grace Sokolow, which he traces to a magnificent mansion outside of the city. There, the narrator speaks to a butler, who informs him that Grace Sokolow died three months ago. The narrator presses the butler, whose name is Partridge, for details about Ishmael, but Partridge is reluctant to tell the narrator anything. In the end, he tells the narrator that it’s none of his business how Mrs. Sokolow died, where Rachel lives, or what happened to Ishmael.
Even as the narrator learns more, his path to enlightenment doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. This reinforces the idea that the narrator isn’t a passive receptacle for Ishmael’s theories—he constantly has to be deciding whether or not it’s worth it to continue listening (or in this case, to go about finding his teacher). We’re also reminded that Ishmael, for his part, isn’t some divine voice of reason, but is a physical being who is essentially powerless in human society.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
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In order to find Ishmael, the narrator places an ad in the paper, appealing to “friends of Ishmael.” No one answers this ad, so the narrator decides to search circuses and fairs for new gorillas. Eventually, he finds a carnival, the Darryl Hicks Carnival, which has acquired a new gorilla named “Gargantua.” With this in mind, the narrator drives two hours to the carnival, where he finds Ishmael displayed in a cage. As he approaches the cage, he overhears two men talking. The first man says that the gorilla could easily rip away the bars of his cage. The second man agrees, but notes, laughing, that the gorilla doesn’t know this. The narrator is infuriated by this conversation.
The narrator’s anger at the men’s conversation suggests that he’s become loyal to Ishmael after only a few lessons with him. We’re also reminded that imprisonment is an important theme of the text. We might ask why Ishmael doesn’t free himself from his prison, but it would seem that Ishmael recognizes that there’s more than one kind of prison. Even if he were to break away from the circus, he’d still be trapped by Taker society. His only option is to teach others, reminding himself that he’s not truly free at all.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
The narrator approaches Ishmael, who merely looks at him in silence. The narrator asks Ishmael why he didn’t try to avoid his eviction notice—Ishmael must have been forewarned of Mrs. Sokolow’s death. Ishmael says nothing. The narrator asks Ishmael if Ishmael is angry. Ishmael tells the narrator not to patronize him. He adds that he and the narrator can go on with their lessons—there’s no need for the narrator to become “failure number five.”
It’s not immediately clear why Ishmael is angry with the narrator, but it seems to be because the narrator has abandoned Ishmael for nearly a week. Ishmael wishes that the narrator would step away from his petty obligations to Taker society and focus exclusively on his lessons. This is an unrealistic expectation, of course, and shows that Ishmael, too, is subject to emotion and error.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
The narrator, relieved to be talking to Ishmael once again, asks Ishmael how they’ll communicate from now on. Even as he says this, a family approaches the gorilla, and sees the narrator seemingly talking to a mute animal. Ishmael tells the narrator to stop talking and leave him alone. The narrator insists that there must be some way to free Ishmael from his cage, but Ishmael says that he’d rather live in captivity than depend on other people for food and shelter. He tells the narrator to go away, and the narrator reluctantly does so.
Ishmael reveals that he’s willing to endure captivity just so he won’t have to depend on other people. This seems unusual, as Ishmael has depended on other people for as long as he’s been self-aware. He depended on Sokolow for education and friendship, on Rachel for financial support, and on his students for satisfaction and happiness. This change in Ishmael’s mood suggests that he too struggles with apathy and cynicism, and it hints at physical troubles to come.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
The narrator has dinner and a drink at a nearby restaurant. He returns to the carnival around 9 pm. He bribes a carnival worker to let him talk to the gorilla for a few hours. The “bribee” sneers, but accepts the bribe, and leads the narrator to Ishmael.
The narrator continues to turn to alcohol and other substances when he’s in pain confused.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
The narrator asks Ishmael, point-blank, what the next lesson will be. In response, Ishmael asks the narrator to define “culture.” The narrator defines culture as the sum of all recorded knowledge among a people. Ishmael agrees, and points out that Leavers have a culture, just as Takers do. Leaver culture stretches back millions of years. Taker culture, by contrast, begins only 10,000 years ago, with the founding of agriculture. In general, the Taker attitude is to reject as much of the past as possible. Until very recently, in fact, Takers believed that human life and human culture began at the same time.
The flaw in Taker society, Ishmael now argues, is that it thinks culture began only a few thousand years ago. In reality, culture stretches back many millions of years, to the time of the first humans. It’s the height of arrogance for Takers to disregard these millions of years, simply because the Leavers didn’t use agriculture.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Ishmael points out a strange contradiction in Taker society. Takers want to look forward to the future and reject history as “bunk”—for instance, politicians and other prophets are always encouraging their followers to be optimistic and think only of things to come. At the same time, Takers also place tremendous value in tradition, the past, and history. The British monarchy, for instance is founded on a sense of tradition that stretches back many centuries. The Leavers, by contrast, don’t accept this contradiction. They are the carriers of a vast tradition, based on obeying the laws of life, which stretches back millions of years to the beginning of the human species.
The life of the Taker is full of contradiction. For instance, the Taker simultaneously believes that he is the center of the universe and that he is the source of all the universe’s problems. Similarly, the Taker must believe that history is of the utmost importance, and also that it’s “bunk” (a quote often attributed to the legendary industrialist Henry Ford—arguably the archetypal Taker of modern times.) It’s no wonder that Takers turn to drugs and drink—there’s no other way to accept such contradictions.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
The narrator has a thought that he finds difficult to put into words. The Leavers, he now sees, have based their behavior on three million years of trial and error. The Takers, on the other hand, reject almost all of those three million years—everything before conquest and agriculture is nonsense. The Takers thus have to deal with a conspicuous absence of “evidence” for how to live—at best, they only have a few thousand years of practice. One result of this that the Takers feel the need to turn to prophets and lawmakers—Draco, Solon, Moses, Jesus, Hitler—for new, entirely arbitrary theories of how to live. The arrogant message behind each one of these theories is that each proclaims that it, and it alone, is the right way to live.
The narrator seems to be catching on to Ishmael’s arguments. Leavers’ lives may seem dogmatic and rigid to Takers, but this is only an illusion. In reality, Leavers aren’t dogmatic at all: they only believe that things are “right” because they’ve worked in the past, while it’s Takers who characterize their lifestyles in terms of “good” and “evil.” Dogma itself is a Taker invention—this is why Takers place so much emphasis on immutable truth, as expressed by prophets. The idea of immutability itself is designed to disguise the fragility of the Taker way of life.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael agrees with the distinction the narrator is trying to make. Leaver societies, he suggests, rely on millions of years of trial and error for a model of how to behave. Takers, on the other hand, ignore the Leaver societies and their years of evidence for how to live well. With this, Ishmael dismisses the narrator, saying that he is too cold and tired to think about the matter any further.
Ishmael seems to be getting sicker—he’s cold and tired, and he’s a very old gorilla. Nevertheless, we’re only dimly aware of all these things, since his physical presence seems secondary to the ideas he’s been presenting.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon