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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.
Imprisonment Theme Icon

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 ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Ishmael related to the theme of Imprisonment.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“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.


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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.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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 12 Quotes

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.