Ishmael

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Ishmael Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After the latest lesson, the narrator leaves Ishmael to find Ishmael’s owner. He tells the owner, a man named Art Owens, that he’s interested in buying Ishmael. Owens says that he’ll sell Ishmael for three thousand dollars. Together, they haggle the price down to two thousand. The narrator says he’ll think about it.
It’s worth remembering how passive and cynical the narrator was at the beginning of the novel. Now, he’s going out of his way to free Ishmael from his cage—even though he doesn’t follow through with the final step right away. Perhaps the narrator is still hesitant to “put his money where his mouth is”—to live according to Ishmael’s teachings instead of simply agreeing with them.
Themes
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
On Friday night, the narrator returns to the carnival. After bribing the bribee, he greets Ishmael, eager for another lesson. Ishmael asks the narrator to come back tomorrow, but the narrator says that tomorrow is Saturday—the carnival will surely be too crowded. With this in mind, Ishmael reluctantly agrees to proceed.
In spite of his (understandable) reluctance to live out the difficult reality of Ishmael’s teachings, the narrator still goes out of his way to learn more from Ishmael, gradually taking more and more motivated action.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Ishmael asks the narrator how the Leavers live. When the narrator is unsure how to respond, Ishmael asks him, for the second time, how man became man. The narrator responds, a little too quickly, that man become man the same way that birds became birds and horses became horses. Ishmael agrees with this enthusiastically, and then asks the narrator to tease out what he’s just said. The narrator suggests that man became man by evolving from older life forms: Homo erectus, homo habilis, etc. Because they live in the hands of the gods, Leavers are subject to the effects of evolution, like natural selection and competition for finite resources. Takers, by contrast, have tried to halt the processes of natural selection. There is no competition for finite resources, they believe, because there are enough resources for everyone. Thus, there is no “survival of the fittest”—instead, everyone survives together.
Throughout the novel, Ishmael has told the narrator that he already knows more than he thinks he does. Here, we’re given a neat illustration of this principle: the narrator already knew the answer to his own question—he’s just been so conditioned to ignore the truth that it’s often hard for him to think straight. One of Quinn’s boldest observations arrives at the end of this section as well. He believes that Taker society (essentially, industrial society) arrests the processes of natural selection. This totally contradicts the usual view that the processes of natural selection are alive and well in “civilization”—what is the free market, for instance, if not a constant competition for limited resources, in which only the fittest survive?
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up the story of the Leavers. After some thought, the narrator says that the Takers believe that the world belongs to man, and the Leavers believe that man belongs to the world. Only when species “belong to the world” do they change and evolve. Ishmael asks the narrator which alternative he prefers: no more creation, or an endless pattern of creation. The narrator says that the latter, the way of the Leavers, “has my vote.”
In the end, the narrator comes to support the Leaver view of the world. It’s notable that Ishmael’s explanation of Leaver culture is far simpler than his explanation of Taker culture. Perhaps this is because Ishmael himself has never had full access to Leaver culture (except in the jungle). Like the narrator, he’s spent his entire life surrounded by Takers.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
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Ishmael and the narrator turn to the problem of how to live like a Leaver in the 20th century. The narrator suggests that the problem is how to be a Leaver and also be “civilized.” As soon as the narrator brings up this word, however, Ishmael becomes angry. He says that humans wrongly believe that to be civilized is to be a Taker, and vice versa. This is false. It’s perfectly possible to be intelligent, enlightened, and civilized without believing that man needs to conquer the world and defy the gods.
Even after “voting” for the Leavers, the narrator continues to think in Taker terms. For instance, he thinks that Taker culture has a monopoly on being “civilized.” This is clearly false, however—there’s nothing particularly “civilized: about Hitler’s Germany, which is a perfectly representative Taker society.
Themes
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael suggests that aspiring Leavers like the narrator have a powerful source of inspiration: the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event proves that sometimes, people do relinquish their power voluntarily.
The Soviet Union collapsed in the same year that Ishmael was first published. As Quinn sees it, this event signals the possibility of enormous, rapid progress, and the ability of intelligent, well-organized people to change the world.
Themes
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
The narrator is not satisfied with the example of the Soviet Union. He asks Ishmael for a “program” for how to be a Leaver. Ishmael tells the narrator that Leavers must try to ensure that Cain stops killing Abel. They must also reject the idea that man’s purpose is to dominate the planet. This project, Ishmael acknowledges, is incredibly difficult. And yet modern-day Leavers have some advantages that their predecessors did not: for example, they have access to mass media. Indeed, the narrator himself is a writer, who can potentially reach millions with his work. The narrator asks Ishmael what he should say when people ask him if the Leavers want to return to being hunter-gatherers. Ishmael stresses that he doesn’t support being a hunter-gatherer unconditionally. On the contrary, it’s perfectly possible to be an agriculturalist without destroying the planet or making more food than one needs. Most of all, the Leavers have a responsibility to experiment with new strategies for living well—they must “invent.”
Of all the sections in the novel, this is the one where Ishmael comes closest to acting as a “prophet”—telling the narrator what to do, where to go, and what to think. Yet it’s crucial to realize that even here, Ishmael isn’t dogmatic in the least. He has his own opinions about how to live life as a Leaver, but he’s clear about the fact that they are only opinions. Indeed, the overarching message of his speech is that the narrator (and millions like him) have to use their own ingenuity and inventiveness to solve the problems of the world—they can’t rely on gorillas to do so for them. Here Quinn basically admits that Ishmael is meant to be a teaching tool, designed to spread Leaver ideas around the world.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
Ishmael brings up a small point he’s been neglecting. One of his former pupils was an ex-convict. From this pupil, Ishmael learned that the world of prison, like the human world itself, is stratified: there are wealthy prisoners, poor prisoners, strong prisoners, and weak prisoners. In a sense, the entire Taker world is a prison. Like a prison, this world has a prison industry, whose job is to keep the prisoners occupied. The nature of this industry, the narrator correctly guesses, is to consume the world.
Here we’re reminded of why Ishmael stays in his cage—there’s no point in freeing himself when the world itself is a prison. Indeed, there are some advantages to staying in the cage, because it reminds him of the metaphorical prison of Taker culture. In this way, Ishmael can reach a kind of enlightenment, seeing the world as it truly is.
Themes
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Ishmael continues discussing prisons. The prison of Taker culture, he argues, cannot be escaped by anyone, even the rich and powerful. Within the prison, some people have more power—for example, men have more power than women, and whites have more power than blacks. The most important task for Leavers, he says, is not to make sure that blacks are as powerful as whites within the prison—rather, it’s to destroy the prison itself. The narrator agrees, but thinks that this will never happen. Women don’t want to destroy the prison of Taker culture itself, he believes—they only want to gain some of the same rights and powers as men. Ishmael points out that, as always, the narrator is being pessimistic.
There are many different radical groups who take different approaches to saving the world, but Ishmael argues that these groups fail to go far enough in their aims. Feminist groups, for instance, don’t want to change the structures of Taker society at all—they only want to give women the same advantages as men within this society. This was a common criticism of the feminist and Civil Rights movements during the 60s and 70s, and it’s still made today.
Themes
Cynicism, Misanthropy, and the Failure of the 1960s Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Ishmael sighs and stares at the narrator. He tells the narrator that he’s finished with him, and the lessons are over. He tells the narrator that he’s proud of his progress, and would be glad to count him a friend. The narrator is crushed by the news that his lessons are over, but promises Ishmael that he’ll return the next day. Ishmael nods.
Perhaps the narrator hasn’t entirely grasped the lesson Ishmael has been trying to teach him yet. The narrator can’t rely on other people to teach him what to do—instead he has to work and struggle to develop his own theories of how to be a Leaver.
Themes
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon