Don’t Call Me Ishmael

by

Michael Gerard Bauer

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Don’t Call Me Ishmael: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Barry’s cronies hoot with laughter and Barry accuses James of lying. But Ishmael notices that it seems like James is telling the truth: he doesn’t look afraid. He didn’t even look appropriately afraid when Miss Tarango introduced him to the class—he looked like the other boys were the new kids. Disdainfully, Barry asks if James has a superpower or will use magic to turn him into a toad. When James says that wouldn’t take much magic, Ishmael realizes this is a boxing match, not a shootout.
As Ishmael thinks through James’s apparent lack of fear, he starts to get an inkling that perhaps his fear is what’s holding him back. Referring to James and Barry’s fight as a boxing match suggests that unlike a shootout (which will end quickly with one person injured or dead), this fight is going to be prolonged. The “punches” (words) might not be able to kill, but they can still hurt.
Themes
Bullying and Courage Theme Icon
The Power of Language Theme Icon
Barry’s patience is wearing thin. He taps James’s chest and reminds James that he could snap him in half. Calmly, James says Barry must be brave—he has to look at himself in the mirror. And if it’s true that a little knowledge is dangerous, Barry must be deadly. But James says he’s not afraid and it has nothing to do with Barry. At this, he brushes his hair away from his left ear to reveal a big scar. He had a brain tumor removed. James and Barry exchange more insults, but Danny asks what happened.
James’s insults are rude, and they might be mean in a different context. But in this one, where Barry always has the power to say whatever cruel thing he likes to people, it’s instead humorous and feels cathartic that Barry is being insulted like this. Part of what makes James so powerful in this exchange is that he’s outright refusing to play into the usual power structure.
Themes
Bullying and Courage Theme Icon
The Power of Language Theme Icon
James says that soon after the tumor was removed, he realized he couldn’t feel fear. The neighbor’s dog tried to attack him, but it didn’t make him feel anything. He decided to test it by surrounding himself with bugs, since he used to have a bug phobia. He felt nothing when he let spiders run all over him. Barry suggests that James leap out a window if he isn’t afraid. James notes that he's not going to purposefully put himself in danger. Barry says James is in danger anyway. He’s going to count to five and if James hasn’t moved, Barry will beat him up.
While the visible scar makes it clear that something happened to James, it is impossible to verify at this point if what he’s saying is true—but at the very least, it seems pretty clear that he’s genuinely not afraid of Barry. And keep in mind that Ishmael and his classmates are watching all of this happen, and it’s all new for them. His reasons or backstory aside, James is still showing them that it is possible to stand up to Barry.
Themes
Identity and Coming of Age Theme Icon
Bullying and Courage Theme Icon
The Power of Language Theme Icon
As Barry counts, James praises him for being able to count to five without help. Mr. Barker walks in at that moment and asks what’s going on. James tells Mr. Barker that Barry was explaining the bullying policy to him. Mr. Barker glares at Barry and notes that the school doesn’t tolerate bullying. Any student who is a victim or witnesses bullying should report it immediately. James says he understands, and he feels he must compliment St. Daniel’s quality of education—Barry counted to five without using his fingers. The bell rings and James rejoins Ishmael. He smiles and introduces himself as Scobie.
Getting the formal bullying policy from Mr. Barker raises some questions about Ishmael’s previous behavior. Recall that Ishmael insisted that kids’ only options were to avoid Barry or join him—he never mentioned going to adults as a valid option to deal with the bullying. So though Mr. Barker might make a good show of not standing for bullying, it doesn’t seem like the students believe in his policy or in his power.
Themes
Bullying and Courage Theme Icon
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