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Glass Symbol Icon
At the beginning of Ishmael, the narrator and Ishmael speak to one another with a glass window in between them. It’s only much later, when Ishmael sits on the same side of the glass as the narrator, that the narrator realizes how profoundly this glass window has influenced his relationship with Ishmael. The glass window symbolizes distance: not only the distance between Ishmael and the narrator, but between the narrator’s desire to change the world and his pessimistic habits. During his first lessons with Ishmael, the narrator has a difficult time showing enthusiasm for the complicated conclusions and daring theories that Ishmael proposes. Thanks to the glass separating them, every word Ishmael speaks is accompanied by a kind of asterisk. Even if he can’t disagree with Ishmael, the narrator can’t muster the energy to take Ishmael seriously and agree with him whole-heartedly—in the back of his mind, he’s thinking, “True, but you’re just a gorilla.” As the narrator grows closer with Ishmael, he stops seeing Ishmael as a lurid spectacle and begins to accept him as a friend and a teacher. Thus, the glass window between them disappears.

Glass Quotes in Ishmael

The Ishmael quotes below all refer to the symbol of Glass. 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 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.


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Glass Symbol Timeline in Ishmael

The timeline below shows where the symbol Glass appears in Ishmael. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon
Humans, the Environment, and Extinction Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Chapter 9
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
Interconnectedness Theme Icon
Imprisonment Theme Icon, he’s surprised to see Ishmael waiting for him on the other side of the glass window (the narrator’s side now), sitting on some cushions. This sight makes the narrator realize how... (full context)