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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.
Interconnectedness Theme Icon

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is a self-described misanthrope. He seems to have no close friends, and the only family member he mentions (very briefly) is an uncle, for whom he seems to have no affection whatsoever. He lives his life “cut off” from other people. The narrator’s education under Ishmael changes his outlook. At the same time that the narrator learns about man, the gods, and nature from Ishmael, he comes also to learn the importance of interconnectedness—the reliance on, loyalty to, and love for human beings and other forms of life. The narrator’s gradual acceptance of the interconnectedness of all life constitutes a crucial part of his intellectual and spiritual education.

From the beginning it’s made clear to us that Ishmael lives based on the principle that the best and most meaningful life is a life based on interconnectedness. From the time that he was a young ape in the jungle, Ishmael’s life has been structured around other beings—mostly human beings. Humans are his friends, his teachers, and his providers of shelter and food. Ishmael spends his entire adult life looking for pupils—in the simplest terms, looking for people with whom to connect. When Rachel, his first pupil, moves him to a building “outside human society,” Ishmael becomes discontent almost immediately—his passion for interconnectedness—conversation, education, and respect for others—is so great that he demands to be moved back to a human city. Ironically, this results in Ishmael agreeing to be held in a glass cage, with the understanding that students will visit him and talk to him. Ishmael would rather be in prison and have one student to talk to than be “free” and have no one to talk to.

As Ishmael goes on, it becomes clear that interconnectedness is more than just the rule by which Ishmael lives his life: it is the fundamental law of all life. All beings, Ishmael and the narrator agree, depend on one another. Humans—or, more properly speaking, the Takers (which is the vast majority of all “civilized” humans)—are the only creatures who deny nature’s laws of interconnectedness. Takers recklessly purge their planet of all beings with whom they compete for resources, destroying entire ecosystems in the process. Taker communities grow bigger and bigger, confident that they’ll have enough food and shelter to survive, when in actuality (Ishmael argues), Taker communities will inevitably grow so large that there won’t be enough food to go around, and the entire human race will starve to death.

As he learns about the value of interconnectedness from Ishmael, the narrator gradually begins to live his own life according to this principle. After Ishmael is moved to a traveling carnival, the narrator spends days trying to track him down. Later, when he notices that Ishmael is cold, the narrator brings him blankets. Despite the fact that Ishmael is an ape, the narrator has begun to respect Ishmael and consider him a friend: he’s living his life according to the laws of interconnectedness.

At the end of the novel, Ishmael dies, very suddenly, of pneumonia. The narrator, ashamed, realizes that he has been so focused on achieving enlightenment with Ishmael’s help that he didn’t notice that his friend was cold and wet. By showing us the narrator’s obliviousness and Ishmael’s subsequent death, Ishmael reminds us that it isn’t enough to recognize the laws of interconnectedness: one must incorporate these laws into one’s everyday life through love and concern for others.

Ishmael ends by suggesting that the narrator will reject his old misanthropic ways and throw himself into the task of connecting with other people, whether as a teacher or as a friend. Indeed, Ishmael itself—the book we’ve been reading, supposedly written by the narrator—is a testament to the narrator’s embrace of interconnectedness as the fundamental rule of life. In a sense, the narrator has become Ishmael, devoting his life to interconnectedness by passing on his wisdom to as many people as possible.

Interconnectedness ThemeTracker

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

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


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.


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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."

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.

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 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 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.

Chapter 13 Quotes


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.