Ishmael

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Narrator Character Analysis

The narrator of Ishmael is a middle-aged, deeply cynical man. Though he came of age during the 1960s, a time when millions of people fought to change the world, he’s largely given up on the possibility than any genuine change is possible—and as a result, he goes through life with a vague yet profound sense of dissatisfaction and loneliness. Nevertheless, the narrator still feels a desire to change the world, and this motivates his decision to find Ishmael and participate in his lessons on humanity and the environment. At times, Quinn shows the narrator to be stubborn and selfish, but it’s implied that these qualities are the result of his uneasiness with Taker society—an uneasiness that sometimes inspires him to drink heavily. In all, the narrator is a stand-in for the reader: an intelligent, open-minded person who wants to change the world and yet feels deeply cynical about the possibility of any real change. Just as it’s unclear whether the narrator has truly absorbed Ishmael’s lessons about change or not, it’s left up to us to decide whether or not to embrace Ishmael the novel.

Narrator Quotes in Ishmael

The Ishmael quotes below are all either spoken by Narrator or refer to Narrator . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Bantam edition of Ishmael published in 1995.
Chapter 1 Quotes

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator of Ishmael reads these words in the newspaper, he's at first dismissive, then thoughtful, then a little inspired. The narrator finds the notion of "saving the world" ridiculous—surely only children and crazy hippies would ever commit to something as silly as saving the world. And yet the narrator begins to see that his own contemptuousness is what's shallow and silly; rather, it's the people who try to save the world who are most earnest and admirable in their earnestness.

It's also important to notice that the teacher (later revealed to be Ishmael) is requesting a student—not the other way around. The reversal in student-teacher roles (i.e., the fact that for once, a student is asking to be taught) tells us a lot about the way that the narrator will go about learning from Ishmael. The hypothetical student mentioned in the newspaper ad could never ask a teacher for his services, because he could never know what he's supposed to be learning. By the same token, the narrator, as we'll see, cannot simply be told the information Ishmael has acquired over a lifetime; instead, the narrator must grasp the information step-by-step, lesson-by-lesson.

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Then one day when I was in my mid-teens I woke up and realized that the new era was never going to begin. The revolt hadn’t been put down, it had just dwindled away into a fashion statement. Can I have been the only person in the world who was disillusioned by this?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator explains his history and how he sees the world. In the 1960s, he was young and idealistic, and like many people of the time he felt that the sincere, earnest people could heal the world of its fundamental problems, such as poverty, war, and racism. Over the next few decades, however, this idealism waned and the "revolution" just never happened. Now, the narrator argues, the desire to make the world a better place is a mere affectation; in other words, the people who claim this desire for themselves aren't really concerned with helping others—they just want to seem "hip."

This quotation outlines a basic problem (the decline of radicalism and earnestness in society) to which Ishmael reacts. As Ishmael will argue, the radicalism and politicization of the 1960s failed because it didn't address the root cause of society's problems. Every measure the hippies of the 1960s proposed was just another form of "lipstick on a pig"—i.e., a superficial change that ignored the real problem with the world. (What this "real problem" is won't be made clear for hundreds of pages.)

WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

When the narrator goes to visit Ishmael for the first time, he sees a sign bearing this rhetorical question. The narrator interprets the question as a kind of Zen koan—a cryptic sentence designed to provoke thought and meditation, rather than any clear-cut answer. In the spirit of a Zen koan, here are some possible interpretations of the question:

1) The question is designed to satirize mankind's arrogance. According to the way human beings see the world, man is the dominant species, and all other animals (not just gorillas) are humans' servants, enemies, or pets. The question takes an overbearing, paternalistic tone, as if mankind were an elder brother or father, and gorillas were the younger sibling or child.

2) By the same token, the question is meant to provoke our thoughts of the end of the human species. The notion of man being "gone" was inconceivable even 100 years before the book was written; only in recent years have the rise of nuclear war, environmental awareness, etc. challenged the notion that human beings will always walk the Earth.

3) The question is meant to suggest that gorillas are humans' natural successors on the evolutionary tree. According to one (incorrect) interpretation of the theory of evolution, gorillas and other primates are early "descendants" of human beings, from whom our species evolved. The question seems to assume that humans will go extinct, like the majority of all animals on Earth, and gorillas will evolve to become the new "rulers" of the planet. The question further asks if gorillas will learn from humans' mistakes, or if they, too, will pollute, wage war, etc. The question might also be asking if humans themselves can learn from their own mistakes.

“On the basis of my history, what subject would you say I was best qualified to teach?”

I blinked and told him I didn’t know.

“Of course you do. My subject is captivity.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael, the enormous ape who acts as a teacher to the Narrator, claims to be teaching his pupil about captivity. At first, it appears that Ishmael is making a very literal point: he's spent most of his life imprisoned behind glass or in cages, and therefore, he's qualified to talk about these experiences. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that Ishmael is making a deeper, more abstract point. As the Narrator comes to realize, almost all human beings are "captives" of a system of belief. This system of belief, that of the Taker culture, imprisons people by feeding them lies, such as the lie that humans are "made" to inherit the Earth; that their resources will never run out, etc. The greatest strength of the Takers' form of imprisonment is its invisibility: the Takers don't even realize that they're slaves.

Ironically, Ishmael's literal captivity allows him to see through the abstract captivity of Taker mythology. Because he surrounded by glass and metal, he can never forget that the human race is imprisoned by invisible but equally powerful forces.

Chapter 2 Quotes

And when we’re finished, you’ll have an entirely new perception of the world and of all that’s happened here. And it won’t matter in the least whether you remember how that perception was assembled. The journey itself is going to change you, so you don’t have to worry about memorizing the route we took to accomplish that change.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

There's an old cliche that "the journey is more important than the destination." As far as Ishmael is concerned, this idea is the guiding law of education. Ishmael has summoned the Narrator to his cage because he wants the Narrator to understand some basic truths about the world. The Narrator has no idea what these truths might be—he's motivated by a desire to learn and to "save the world" but nothing more specific. In short, Ishmael is going to teach the Narrator about a subject so strange and new that there's no name for it.The passage also reminds us that the Narrator isn't a character so much as a stand-in for readers. While it's true that the Narrator has some recognizable qualities (his love for drinking, for example), his purpose in the novel is to model the process of education that Ishmael describes in this quotation. In other words, the Narrator is meant to be an ideal reader; someone who carefully moves through each chapter of the book, until he's arrived at the truth the author/teacher is trying to express.

Chapter 4 Quotes

You didn’t believe me when I said that this is ambient in your culture. Now you see what I mean. The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it. Of course man is conquering space and the atom and the deserts and the ocean and the elements. According to your mythology, this is what he was born to do.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Ishmael tries to explain the guiding “myths” of human culture. For Ishmael, one feature of a myth is its invisibility, or ambience. The great myth of human civilization—so pervasive that it's undetectable, just as water is undetectable to a fish—is that humans were "made" to rule the planet. From the time they're children, humans are conditioned to believe that the world is their property: they can do whatever they choose with whatever parts of it they have access to. The first step in freeing the Narrator from the myths of his culture, then, is to identify these myths. By discussing the mythology of his civilization with Ishmael, the Narrator continuously reminds himself of these myths, until they slowly cease to influence him. As George Orwell wrote, "It is a constant act of strength to see what is right in front of your nose."

Chapter 5 Quotes

“It’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with humans. Something that definitely works against paradise. Something that makes people stupid and destructive and greedy and shortsighted.”

“Of course. Everyone in your culture knows this. Man was born to turn the world into a paradise, but tragically he was born flawed.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Ishmael and the Narrator clarify the mythology of human civilization. While it's true that humans are indoctrinated to believe that they will "inherit the Earth"—i.e., that the world is their property—this isn't the whole story. Humans are told that they were meant to bring paradise to the world. But when they look around, they see misery instead: pollution, war, crime, etc. So almost by definition, the myth of human civilization has two parts: first, that man was created to rule the world; second, that man was born deeply flawed, and can't help destroying the world because of his flaws. (Oswald Spengler called this the "Faustian archetype.") Paradoxically, then, Ishmael is offering the Narrator a much more modest and yet much more ambitious view of humanity. On one hand, Ishmael rejects the bombastic idea that humans rule the world; but on the other, he insists that there's nothing fundamentally wrong with us at all—or at least nothing that we can't change.

One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammed in Taker history is simply enormous.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael points out some of the basic qualities of the Takers: i.e., the human beings who believe in the myth that they were created to own and dominate the planet. One of the most basic qualities of the Takers is that they like being told what to do: they choose to worship figures like Jesus who promise them enlightenment in return for worship or belief. As Ishmael sees it, the reason for Takers' unabashed worship of prophets is their fervent belief in their own imperfection. Takers believe—have no choice but to believe—that they've squandered their inheritance as rulers of the Earth. As a result, they turn to religious figures who can forgive them for their sins and restore them to glory. One important question this passage raises then, is what's the difference between Ishmael and the prophets he just named? A partial answer would be that Ishmael isn't offering anything to the Narrator for free. Where Jesus or Buddha offered their followers clear, proverbial versions of the truth, Ishmael wants the Narrator to work to discover his own truth. Ishmael's job isn't to tell the Narrator what to think; it's to guide him on a more personal, individual path to enlightenment. Because he refuses to actually lead the Narrator, Ishmael is very different from a prophet.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Though the Takers don’t know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubs and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and deer and lions and jellyfish. They did not exempt him from this law any more than they exempted him from the law of gravity.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Although human civilization claims to be governed by a myth—the myth of human dominance—Ishmael claims that human civilization is governed by the laws of nature. Naturally, humans reject the idea that they're the same as other animals—it's inconceivable that they'd have to obey the same laws as other life forms.

Arguably the most important word in this entire quotation is "yet." The basic law of nature that Ishmael is referring to here is that, in the end, human beings will go extinct because of their abuses of the environment—no species can survive while consuming its own resources exponentially. So it's inevitable that, at some point in the future, the human race will have to face the consequences of its behavior: it just hasn't done so "yet."

But your craft isn’t going to save you. Quite the contrary, it’s your craft that’s carrying to toward the catastrophe. Five billion of people pedaling away—or ten billion or twenty billions—can’t make it fly. It’s been in free fall from the beginning and that fall is about to end.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael explains the future of human civilization to the Narrator by making an analogy: civilization is like a failed flying machine. As billions of human beings try to operate the flying machine, they have the exhilarating feeling that they're defying the laws of gravity. The crux of Ishmael's analogy is that falling and flying feel exactly the same: in other words, civilization has been declining for thousands of years, even while human beings think that civilization is solving all their problems.

The passage is a good example of the way that Ishmael teaches the Narrator. Again and again, he relies on analogies and elaborate metaphors (at various points, he compares civilization to a flying machine, a waterfall, a concert, etc.). Because the concepts Ishmael teaches are so complicated, he must clarify them by comparing them to objects and situations with which the Narrator is already familiar. The passage also shows Ishmael at his most prophetic—for all the differences between Ishmael and Buddha or Jesus, he's making a grim prediction of mankind's future, and this is the very definition of a prophet.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The gazelle and the lion are enemies only in the minds of the Takers. The lion that comes across a herd of gazelles doesn’t massacre them, as an enemy would. It kills one, not to satisfy its hatred of gazelles but to satisfy its hunger, and once it has made its kill the gazelles are perfectly content to go on grazing with the lion right in their midst.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael tries to teach the Narrator about the interconnectedness of the natural world. In order to do so, Ishmael must free the Narrator from the constraints of "right" and "wrong," or at least as humans understand these concepts. For animals, as distinct from humans, there is no "wrong" in killing to survive—as Ishmael points out, gazelles will continue grazing even after a lion kills and eats one of them. On the contrary, the animals of the natural world have evolved to coexist with one another. Whether or not they're consciously aware of it, the creatures of the natural world fully accept that they're going to have to play by nature's rules; in short, that other animals are going to eat them. The quotation thus points out an irony in the way humans view the world. Humans seem to have no problem destroying entire species, and yet they can also find it "savage" for one lion to kill and eat one gazelle. It's as if a mass murderer got offended by a petty crime.

There was more to it than this, however, because I still felt depressed. A second bourbon helped me to it: I was making progress. That’s right. This was the source of my feeling of depression.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Alcohol and Painkillers
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation shows the Narrator grappling with anxiety and depression. He's deeply conflicted about the lessons he's been learning from Ishmael—he believes that they're true, and yet he also struggles to live by them. In other words, the Narrator finds it easy to recognize that Taker culture is based on lies, but he hesitates to abandon Taker culture, with all its luxuries and conveniences, altogether. In his depression, the Narrator turns to alcohol and painkillers to feel better—but of course, these substances only make him feel worse in the long run. Interestingly, the Narrator's behavior in this scene is also meant to suggest the broader failure of his society's idealism since the 1960s. The Narrator recognizes that in the 60s there were millions of people struggling to solve the world's problems and reform society. But most of these people's efforts were in vain, because they could never get to the root cause of society's problems. In their frustration, the hippies and reformers of the 60s turned to alcohol, drugs, and other substances, just as the Narrator does in this quotation.

I had to face it: I didn’t just want a teacher—I wanted a teacher for life.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

At the midway point of the book, the Narrator faces some difficult truths about his relationship with Ishmael. Ishmael has taught the Narrator a lot of important information about human civilization, and the Narrator, for his part, has been receptive to this information. He's done his homework when Ishmael gives him a deep problem to contemplate, and he's done his best to see Ishmael as much as possible. But in spite of the Narrator's abilities as a student, he struggles with Ishmael's most basic lesson of all: independence. Ishmael doesn't just want to give the Narrator knowledge of Takers and Leavers; he also wants the Narrator to discover this knowledge for himself, and incorporate it into his everyday life. At this point in the novel, the Narrator isn't ready to do this; he continues to depend on Ishmael to tell him what to believe—basically he wants Ishmael to act like a prophet for him. In short, the Narrator still has a long way to go before he's truly mastered what Ishmael is trying to teach him.

Chapter 8 Quotes

The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ishmael shows the Narrator how the one basic premise of human civilization—the premise that man controls the world and can do with it whatever he wishes—determines how people view the world's plants and animals. The job of a farmer, for example, is to supply the maximum amount of food to the maximum amount of people—as Ishmael says, this is "holy work." But in order to maximize production, farmers must exterminate creatures that compete with humans for food—carnivores, pests, etc. Because humans believes that the only true "good" is humanity itself, then they must also conclude that any life that challenges humans' supply of food is "evil." Ishmael wants the Narrator—and us, the readers—to notice the narrow-mindedness of human civilizations' assumptions. Common sense dictates that animals aren't our enemies simply because they need to eat to survive; and yet human civilization pressures human beings to believe that animals absolutely are our "enemies to be exterminated." We're so conditioned to think in civilization's terms that we don't see how bizarre and brutal civilization can be in the larger scheme of things.

If you go among the various peoples of your culture—if you go to China and Japan and Russia and England and India—each people will give you a completely different account of themselves, but they are nonetheless enacting a single basic story, which is the story of the Takers. The same is true of the Leavers. The Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Navajo of the United States would each give you a different account of themselves but they too are all enacting one basic story, which is the story of the Leavers.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation is an important qualifier for Ishmael's lesson to the Narrator. Ishmael wants to analyze humanity by dividing humans into two groups, Takers (those who subscribe to the premise that the Earth belongs to humanity) and Leavers (those who subscribe to the premise that humans are just one of the millions of lifeforms on the Earth). Admittedly, Ishmael's division is a little simplistic—on the surface, it seems strange to say that (for example) the Chinese, the Russians, and the English are all members of the same "culture." But the point isn't that Russian and Chinese people are exactly the same. Instead, Ishmael is trying to convince the Narrator that the vast differences between their two cultures are less important than the one, big similarity between them; namely, that both cultures believe that the planet exists "for" humanity.

Ishmael's division between Takers and Leavers reminds us that Ishmael is a storyteller: he creates a convenient, easily digestible lesson by simplifying human history into its most basic, important points. Ishmael could give a more complicated version of history, but by reducing everything to two characters, Takers and Leavers, he tells a better, more memorable story, and therefore does a better job of educating the Narrator.

Chapter 9 Quotes

When I arrived the next day, I found that a new plan was in effect: Ishmael was no longer on the other side of the glass, he was on my side of it, sprawled on some cushions a few feet from my chair. I hadn’t realized how important that sheet of glass had become to our relationship: to be honest, I felt a flutter of alarm in my stomach.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Related Symbols: Glass
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important quotation, the Narrator takes an important step forward with his education by meeting Ishmael face-to-face. The most important element of this scene is the glass that once separated the Narrator from his teacher. It's only now that the glass is gone that the Narrator realizes just how much this barrier had affected his relationship with Ishmael all along.

To begin with, the glass that separated the Narrator from Ishmael allowed the Narrator to distance himself from Ishmael. Even though the Narrator agreed with most of Ishmael's points and found himself looking forward to their lessons, he still couldn't help thinking of Ishmael as somehow a stranger and an alien. In other words, even when the Narrator agreed with Ishmael, he couldn't quite take Ishmael seriously—Ishmael was still just a weird, talking gorilla. The "flutter of alarm" in the Narrator's stomach signals that the Narrator is about to take Ishmael more seriously—he's going to agree with Ishmael and change his life.

The glass that distances Ishmael and the Narrator is a good example of an "ambient myth," of the kind Ishmael described previously. In much the same way that the myths of Taker culture influence human behavior while remaining invisible, the glass prevented the Narrator from really embracing Ishmael's teachings, in spite of the fact that the Narrator hadn't noticed this fact until now, when the glass is taken away.

“But it makes sense this way,” I insisted. “The mark was given to Cain as a warning to others: ‘Leave this man alone. This is a dangerous man, one who exacts sevenfold vengeance.’ Certainly a lot of people over the world have learned that it doesn’t pay to mess with people with white faces.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Quinn ventures into racial politics for one of the few times in his novel. Ishmael and the Narrator are trying to interpret the Biblical story of Cain, the first murderer in the world. Cain, in Ishmael's historical interpretation of the Bible, is meant to be a symbol of the Caucasian societies of the Middle East. The Caucasians were some of the first people on the planet to practice Taker culture; in other words, to hoard food and resources instead of living in harmony with nature. Interpreted in this way, the Cain and Abel story is an allegory of the dangers of Caucasian culture, and of the Takers in general. As the Narrator sees it, the Cain and Abel story is also a warning about the danger of white people. Historically, people who identify as white—mostly in Europe and the Americas—have definitely been responsible for some serious bloodshed and misery: imperialism, two World Wars, slavery, the Holocaust, etc.

It's important to note that the Narrator, not Ishmael, offers a racial interpretation of the Bible. As he makes clear later on, Ishmael doesn't believe that it's useful to blame specific racial groups for the world's problems (in fact, he implies, blaming specific racial groups was one of the reasons that the radicals of the 1960s failed to achieve their goals). Instead, Ishmael wants all races and peoples of the world to unite against Taker culture. Even so, the fact that the Narrator brings up a racial interpretation of Taker culture means that Quinn thinks the interpretation is at least worth considering, even if he doesn't wholeheartedly endorse it.

Chapter 10 Quotes

FRIENDS OF ISHMAEL: another friend has lost contact. Please call and tell me where he is.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael , Rachel Sokolow
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

The Narrator is surprised and shocked to learn that Ishmael has been moved out of the warehouse where he was being kept—he may have been sold to another owner. In order to track down Ishmael, continue his lessons, and potentially free him, the Narrator now places an ad in the newspaper, asking anyone who's met Ishmael to help the Narrator find him.

The Narrator's newspaper ad suggests a couple things. First, the fact that the Narrator is placing an ad in the newspaper at all means that he's finally beginning to live Ishmael's lessons instead of merely nodding his head at them; in other words, he's freeing himself from apathy, making a concerted effort to help his friend and continue learning about Leavers and Takers. Second, the newspaper ad is meant to remind us of the ad that the Narrator came across at the beginning of the book. The ad reminds us that the Narrator began as just another ignorant Taker, but is now a "friend of Ishmael"—someone who sees through his own society's hypocrisy.

Incredible as it may seem to you, I would rather live this way than on anyone’s largess, even yours.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Narrator spends more time with Ishmael, their relationship becomes more complicated. After the Narrator tries to track down Ishmael, he's shaken to find that Ishmael is living at a carnival. Even more strangely, Ishmael claims that he doesn't want the Narrator to buy him and free him—he prefers living in a cage to living on someone else's dime.

Ishmael's quotation could be interpreted as irritable and stubborn, and it is. Ishmael is annoyed with the Narrator for neglecting his lessons for multiple weeks, especially because it was during this time that Ishmael was sold and moved. Ishmael's claim is inconsistent with everything he's taught—as Ishmael has already shown, everyone lives on everyone else's "largess," as all life forms are dependent on one another for food and shelter. Even so, it's worth taking Ishmael's remarks seriously, because they remind us why he chooses to live in a cage in the first place. Ishmael could probably escape from captivity; he's smart and strong enough to do so. Instead, Ishmael chooses to live behind glass and metal so that he can study the world more clearly. Unlike the Narrator, who's been blinded to the realities of his life by technology, alcohol, and TV, Ishmael has no trouble breaking down human civilization into its most basic myths and stories. Ishmael is like a monk, who chooses to live in an isolated, frugal way so that he can understand life's basic truths more clearly.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“All the same, Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don’t need it?”

“You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it’s your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, ‘Not me, goddamn it I’m not going hungry, and there’s nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my own hands now!’”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In the dramatic (and intellectual) climax of the novel, the Narrator realizes why the Takers choose to live their lives the way they do. As Ishmael goads him, the Narrator begins to see that the Takers' goal is to "thwart the gods," which are understood as nature, nature's laws, natural disasters, etc. In order to prove that they're strong and self-sufficient, the Takers choose to hoard food, water, and supplies, so that they can survive any disaster nature throws their way. In doing so, the Takers distinguish themselves from all other forms of life. As we've already seen, other animals don't hoard resources; instead, they live and die with the elements, never taking more than they need in the short term.

The quotation is a good example of Ishmael's novel teaching strategy. Instead of telling the Narrator the truth about the Takers, Ishmael pushes, pressures, and even teases "Bwana" (the Narrator) into realizing the truth himself. In this section, the Narrator doesn't say anything that he and Ishmael hadn't already discussed earlier in the novel: the Narrator already knew that Takers tried to evade nature's laws by accumulating goods (the very name "Takers" assumes this behavior). But even if he's not learning new information, the Narrator's epiphany shows that Ishmael's teaching methods have paid off. The Narrator is genuinely excited about the lesson he's just learned: because he arrived at the conclusion on his own, he'll remember it for the rest of his life.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“The premise of the Taker story is that the world belongs to man.” I thought for a couple of minutes, then I laughed. “It’s almost too neat. The premise of the Leaver story is man belongs to the world.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 239
Explanation and Analysis:

In this interesting quotation, the Narrator reduces everything he's learned about human civilization in the last 200 pages to a single, symmetrical sentence ("The premise of the Taker story ..."). As simple as it seems, a huge amount of knowledge and wisdom is crammed into this sentence. As Ishmael has shown, the Takers—really, most human civilization—accumulate the planet's resources in the delusion that these resources are limitless. Leavers, on the other hand, try to live in harmony with nature, knowing that this is the only way to survive.

The fact that the Narrator can sum up his knowledge so clearly and concisely proves how far he's come during the course of the book. In the first chapter, the Narrator was puzzling over a cryptic sentence (With man gone ..."). Now, he's writing sentences with similarly cryptic elegance, a sign that he's become wiser and more perceptive. The Narrator has become more like Ishmael himself—someone who can see, with total clarity, the flaws and contradictions of human culture.

“All along, I’ve been saying to myself, ‘Yes, this is all very interesting, but what good is it? This isn’t going to change anything!”
“And now?”
This is what we need. Not just stopping things, Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for. They need a vision of something that ... I don’t know. Something that…”
“I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 243-244
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ishmael and the Narrator lay out their vision for the future of the human race. At the same time, they're basically summarizing the structure of Ishmael itself. The novel began with, one could say, Ishmael scolding humanity for its problems—its greed, its cynicism, its reliance on drugs and other substances. Over the course of the book, however, the Narrator has learned how to study mankind's fundamental problems. But much more importantly, he's learned a true alternative to civilization: the way of the Leavers. Instead of selfishly claiming that mankind will dominate the planet, the Leavers accept that they're only one of millions of animals on Earth, and try to live in harmony with their surroundings.

The way of the Leavers, as described by Ishmael and the Narrator, reminds us that the Narrator (like human beings in general) needs a story to live his life to the fullest. The book Ishmael, which is now almost at its end, is precisely the "vision" of the future that Ishmael and the Narrator are discussing. By writing his novel, Quinn hopes to inspire millions of people to leave Taker society behind and live honestly and simply, without any delusions of superiority.

I shook my head. “I’m afraid it’s a cause to which almost all of humanity will subscribe. White or colored, male or female, what the people of this culture want is to have as much wealth and power in the Taker prison as they can get. They don’t give a damn that it’s a prison and they don’t give a damn that it’s destroying the world.”
Ishmael shrugged. “As always, you’re a pessimist. Perhaps you’re right. I hope you’re wrong.”
”I hope so too, believe me.”

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael and the Narrator discuss the future of radicalism in human civilization. The Narrator's conclusions are heavily pessimistic. He believes that there will always be people who want to make the world a better place—and yet these people, in spite of their good intentions, aren't really getting to the "root cause" of society's problems. The Narrator's remarks tie in with his thoughts about the failures of radicalism in the 1960s.

As the Narrator sees it, political revolutionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harvey Milk, Gloria Steinem, etc., wanted to give a certain group of people (African Americans, homosexuals, women) the same rights and luxuries as everyone else, without ever questioning whether these rights and luxuries were good in themselves. The rights to own property, to have enough food to last a lifetime, etc., might seem like good things, but as Ishmael has shown, they also reflect the Takers' arrogance and hypocrisy. In short, the Narrator believes that so-called radicals demand a fair "piece of the pie" but don't question whether pie is really worth eating.

Chapter 13 Quotes

WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ishmael's tragic death, The Narrator sorts through Ishmael's possessions and posters, and comes across a poster featuring yet another cryptic question: "with gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?" In order to understand this question fully, it's important to compare it with the question posed earlier in the novel: "with man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?" As with that earlier question, it's best to interpret the quote in multiple ways, recognizing that no one interpretation is the whole story:

1) By itself, the question is incomplete: we should combine it with the previous question ("With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?"). Combining the two questions reminds us that neither man nor gorilla is the "whole story" in such an interconnected world—only by working together (just as Ishmael and the Narrator worked together) can both survive.

2) Literally, the quote reminds us of the novel's plot. The gorilla, Ishmael, is gone. The question then becomes, what will the Narrator do with the wisdom Ishmael has passed on to him? It's strongly suggested that the Narrator intends to share his new wisdom with other people. Indeed, it's implied that the Narrator converts Ishmael's wisdom into a best-selling book: the book we've just finished reading. In this way, the Narrator aims to achieve Ishmael's goal, convincing the Takers to abandon their destructive culture and live a healthier, more honest life.

3) On a more historical level, the question wonders what will happen to the human race when all other animals, gorillas included, go extinct. Throughout the novel, Ishmael has shown how Takers eliminate all rivals to their food supply—in other words, wipe out entire species—because they think that doing so will ensure them permanent control of the planet. The tragedy, Ishmael argues, is that by eliminating other forms of life, humans are also ensuring their own destruction. Human beings should be living in harmony with nature—in other words, they should be living like gorillas. When gorillas inevitably go extinct, humans will have no "model" for how else they might survive. With no Leavers left to emulate, the Takers' victory—and ultimate collapse—will be inevitable.

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Narrator Character Timeline in Ishmael

The timeline below shows where the character Narrator appears in Ishmael. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Because the narrator had wanted to change the world, he spent years trying to find the proper teacher,... (full context)
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Just as he is about to leave, the narrator notices a glass window at the far end of the room. Peering into the window,... (full context)
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The gorilla explains to the narrator that as a young ape, he was sold to a traveling fair. Where before he... (full context)
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Ishmael next asks the narrator to explain what has brought him to Ishmael. The narrator thinks, and then brings up... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator if he feels like the Aryan in his story—if he thinks he’s being lied to.... (full context)
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The next day, the narrator wakes up and wonders if his visit to Ishmael’s cage has been a dream. He... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Ishmael proceeds with his first lesson for the narrator . He points out that the narrator, like Ishmael himself, is obsessed with the history... (full context)
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Ishmael brings up an important concept: Mother Culture. Mother Culture is the voice in the narrator ’s head, telling the narrator that all is well, and that the status quo is... (full context)
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Ishmael next tells the narrator that the journey of education will be more important than the destination. In other words,... (full context)
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Ishmael outlines the basic story of the narrator ’s culture. History begins with the Leavers, a highly unsuccessful group of people who died... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that the lesson is essentially over for the day. He says that the narrator should... (full context)
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Ishmael insists that the narrator ’s culture has a story, and moreover, a story with a beginning, a middle, and... (full context)
Chapter 3
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The next day, when the narrator arrives at Ishmael’s room, he sees an object sitting in his chair: a tape recorder.... (full context)
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In response to the story the narrator has told, Ishmael looks amused. This story is clearly a fiction: to illustrate this, Ishmael... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that everyone in the world—whether religious or atheistic—believes in at least this shared premise: the... (full context)
Chapter 4
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The next day, Ishmael and the narrator meet to discuss the rest of the story of culture. The narrator is confident that... (full context)
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Ishmael is impressed with the narrator ’s work: he agrees that agriculture represented the beginning of the narrator’s culture. The premise... (full context)
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To answer his own question, Ishmael asks the narrator to imagine life without man. The narrator does so, and finds that he’s visualizing a... (full context)
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...world aren’t caused by human nature: they’re the result of enacting the specific story that the narrator ’s culture believes. (full context)
Chapter 5
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The next day, Ishmael begins the lesson with a summary of the narrator ’s progress so far: he’s identified the beginning and the middle of the story. It’s... (full context)
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Ishmael is pleased with the narrator ’s work: the narrator, he says, has identified the “end” of the story of culture.... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to identify the reason that mankind’s conquest of the Earth never results in utopia. This... (full context)
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Ishmael reviews what he and the narrator have discussed. Takers have created a depressing mythology for themselves: mankind is flawed, and there... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that tomorrow they’ll investigate if there are other models of how to live, besides the... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...always are, not merely how they are in one particular situation. Ishmael promises to give the narrator some universal, unbreakable laws about how to live. (full context)
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...these rules held everywhere in the universe. Similarly, nothing Ishmael says will be surprising to the narrator —the value of the lesson will be in illustrating that there are laws of how... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Ishmael poses a thought experiment to the narrator : there is a society that appears perfect in every way. The people are happy... (full context)
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Ishmael reveals to the narrator that the thought experiment he outlined isn’t an experiment at all: it’s the structure of... (full context)
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Ishmael dismisses the narrator , telling him to return when he’s discovered the fundamental laws that govern the community... (full context)
Chapter 8
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In Ishmael’s room the narrator dives into explaining the law of life. As an outline, he proposes that Takers do... (full context)
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...“wild,” animals only ever take what they need for themselves. The third thing Takers do, the narrator continues, is deny their competitors access to food. Takers claim the entire world as their... (full context)
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The fourth thing Takers do, the narrator concludes, is to store food. For example, if a lion kills a gazelle today, it... (full context)
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Ishmael sums up the narrator ’s observations into one remark: “You may compete, but you may not wage war.” He... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator what happens when one species breaks the law of life. The narrator realizes what would... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up what they’ve discussed so far. The narrator realizes that any species that... (full context)
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Ishmael points to a book lying on a desk behind the narrator : The American Heritage Book of Indians. The narrator opens the book and reads it... (full context)
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Ishmael returns to the subject of laws. A week ago, he reminds the narrator , the narrator believed that there were no laws governing how people must live. The... (full context)
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...Takers have their own cultural story, the Leavers have one, too. Ishmael promises to tell the narrator this story during their next lesson. (full context)
Chapter 9
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When the narrator returns the next day, he’s surprised to see Ishmael waiting for him on the other... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator where the story of the Fall comes from. While the authors of the story might... (full context)
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Ishmael draws the narrator a map, showing the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution. In the... (full context)
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Together, Ishmael and the narrator sum up what they’ve found. The Adam and Eve story, quite simply, does not make... (full context)
Chapter 10
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After this lesson, the narrator gets an unexpected visitor. His uncle is in town, and he ends up staying with... (full context)
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In the middle of his work, the narrator realizes that he has a sore tooth. He goes to a dentist, and ends up... (full context)
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Determined to find Ishmael, the narrator looks through the phone book for the last name “Sokolow.” He finds the address for... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Ishmael agrees with the distinction the narrator is trying to make. Leaver societies, he suggests, rely on millions of years of trial... (full context)
Chapter 11
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The next day, the narrator returns to the carnival to find Ishmael. It is raining, and the narrator has brought... (full context)
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Ishmael mentions the story of the Leavers—a story that Ishmael had promised to tell the narrator some time ago. Ishmael asks the narrator why he’s interested in learning this story. The... (full context)
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Ishmael next asks the narrator how mankind became mankind. The narrator is unsure how to answer this question. To begin... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator about the plains Indians, the fiercest opponents of the American settlers in the 17th, 18th,... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator if the Agricultural Revolution was “necessary.” The narrator responds that it was necessary to give... (full context)
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Ishmael proposes an exercise: he will play the role of a Leaver, while the narrator will play the role of a Taker, named Bwana. Ishmael begins by asking “Bwana” why... (full context)
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Ishmael and “Bwana” ( the narrator ) continue with their exercise. Ishmael asks “Bwana” what the problem with the Leaver is,... (full context)
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Ishmael ends the exercise, and tells the narrator that he’s made great progress. The goal of the Takers, he explains, is to take... (full context)
Chapter 12
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After the latest lesson, the narrator leaves Ishmael to find Ishmael’s owner. He tells the owner, a man named Art Owens,... (full context)
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On Friday night, the narrator returns to the carnival. After bribing the bribee, he greets Ishmael, eager for another lesson.... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator how the Leavers live. When the narrator is unsure how to respond, Ishmael asks him,... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up the story of the Leavers. After some thought, the narrator says that... (full context)
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Ishmael and the narrator turn to the problem of how to live like a Leaver in the 20th century.... (full context)
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Ishmael suggests that aspiring Leavers like the narrator have a powerful source of inspiration: the collapse of the Soviet Union. This event proves... (full context)
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...prison industry, whose job is to keep the prisoners occupied. The nature of this industry, the narrator correctly guesses, is to consume the world. (full context)
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Ishmael sighs and stares at the narrator . He tells the narrator that he’s finished with him, and the lessons are over.... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Having waited over the weekend for his car repairs, the narrator drives back to the carnival. There, he is surprised to find that the carnival has... (full context)