From the moment that the narrator sees Ishmael in his room, he becomes aware that Ishmael is in prison. It’s only later that he realizes that this prison is self-imposed. Ishmael is sitting behind a glass window because he chooses to do so—his friend and former pupil, Rachel, is paying for the building where he’s being “kept.” Even later, when Ishmael is moved to a more literal prison—a cage at a carnival—the narrator recognizes that Ishmael could break from this cage at any time, but chooses not to.
It’s also clear from early on in Ishmael that Ishmael is by no means the only character who’s imprisoned—indeed, every character in the novel is in a kind of prison. The narrator, as a member of Taker society, is caught up in an endless web of obligations to his family and his employers, and often can depend only on alcohol and other substances for escape and happiness.
As the novel goes on, Quinn makes it clear that Taker life itself is a prison. By living in a society that breaks the fundamental laws of life, Takers are caught in an unresolvable contradiction, according to which they must continuously expand and increase their productivity. Some Takers are wealthier and more powerful than other Takers, but they’re equally enslaved to the doctrines of wealth, conquest, and domination. As Ishmael puts it, the guards of the Taker prison are no freer than the prisoners.
One of the reasons that the Taker prison is so dangerous is that it’s invisible. A wealthy industrialist, for example, might think that he’s “free” because he has material wealth, but he only believes this because he can’t see how thoroughly he bases his life around conquest, or how heavily he depends on drugs or material pleasures. Ishmael thus confines himself to literal prisons in order to remind himself of the less obvious, more metaphorical prison in which he—and the narrator—is trapped. And because he never loses sight of the contradictions and fallacies of Taker society, Ishmael manages to gain some measure of freedom from them—for instance, he seems utterly indifferent to money, drugs, or ambition. This implies a more general point: while the most dangerous “prisons” are psychological and abstract in nature, these prisons are also usually self-imposed—so it’s possible to escape them simply by changing one’s thinking. In this sense, Quinn tries to “free” his readers from Taker dogma through the book Ishmael itself.
Imprisonment Quotes in Ishmael
“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.”
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.
Incredible as it may seem to you, I would rather live this way than on anyone’s largess, even yours.
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.”