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Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Ishmael, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Theme Icon

Ishmael uses a fictional plot and characters to put forth philosophical ideas more commonly found in a work of nonfiction. This brings up an important question: why does the author of the novel, Daniel Quinn, use fiction to communicate his message? (Why didn’t he write a philosophy book instead?) What’s the relationship between fiction, storytelling, and truth?

In an early chapter of Ishmael, Ishmael argues that human beings feel an irrepressible need to tell stories that explain and justify their place in the universe. A story, as Ishmael defines it, is a relationship between the gods, the world, and mankind. Ishmael believes that there is a story at the “center” of every culture. This story is repeated so often that the members of that culture lose sight of it. In Taker culture, for instance, Takers are no more conscious of the “story” of their society—according to which, the world was made for mankind to dominate—than a fish is conscious of water. Put another way: the Takers’ story of humanity’s power is so pervasive that they don’t even realize how they are influenced by it. And yet no one story is completely “true” or “false”—even the story that Ishmael tells, about the Takers and the Leavers, isn’t, literally speaking, the truth. Like Ishmael itself, it’s a necessary fiction, a deliberate simplification of human history that helps the narrator wrap his head around Ishmael’s complicated lessons.

It’s worth asking why Ishmael doesn’t simply tell the narrator the truth about Taker society on the first day—if Ishmael knows what’s wrong with the Takers’ story, why couldn’t he spell this out for the narrator and save them both a lot of time? The answer is that it’s not enough to explain why a story is wrong. The stories of Taker society are so powerful that one can’t simply “disprove them”— it’s impossible to replace a story with the truth. Rather, one can only replace a story with a different story. Thus, as the novel draws to a close, Ishmael leaves the narrator with a difficult assignment: tell a new story about the Leavers to replace the flawed, harmful story that’s told by the Takers. What this story will be—or whether it gets told at all—is largely left up to the reader to decide.

Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth appears in each chapter of Ishmael. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth Quotes in Ishmael

Below you will find the important quotes in Ishmael related to the theme of Fiction, Storytelling, and Truth.
Chapter 2 Quotes

As I say, there were many in Germany who recognized this story as rank mythology. They were nevertheless held captive by it simply because the vast majority around them thought it sounded wonderful and were willing to give up their lives to make it a reality.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Ishmael and the Narrator discuss an old problem of philosophy: can people be made to believe anything, simply because their peers believe the same? For the Narrator, the ultimate example of this principle is Fascist Germany. Millions of educated people were convinced that Jews and other minorities are the enemy of a "pure" human race.

The history of Germany under the Nazis illustrates the idea that humans are constantly being influenced by stories and myths. These myths are so powerful and pervasive that people often don't notice that they exist at all. And there are even some human beings who recognize the myths as fictions, but continue to go through the motions of believing the myths anyway.

The fact that it's possible for people to know that something is a myth and yet continue to act like it's the truth reminds us of why Ishmael's lessons for the Narrator take such a strange form. It is not enough for Ishmael to tell the Narrator the truth about humanity, the environment, and economics—the information itself probably wouldn't sway the Narrator at all. Instead, Ishmael wants the Narrator to piece through history and economics slowly and carefully, so that he understands and even embodies the ideas that Ishmael is trying to pass on.


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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.

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."

Chapter 8 Quotes

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

“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 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.