Ishmael

Ishmael Character Analysis

The titular character, an old, experienced, and intelligent gorilla who teaches the narrator about civilization, the environment, and history. Ishmael is a mysterious presence in the novel, whose motive for spending time with human beings is never made explicitly clear. Kidnapped from his home in Africa as a baby, Ishmael grew up in captivity, and eventually learned how to read, think, and communicate with the help of his owner, Mr. Sokolow. Ishmael is deeply saddened by the devastation that the Takers—the dominant branch of the human race—have wrought on the Earth, and he is often pessimistic about the possibility of change. At times, his sadness is so immense that he takes out his feelings on the narrator. Nevertheless, he is a talented teacher who uses the Socratic method with his pupils, encouraging them to ask questions and teasing out their thoughts slowly and carefully. At the time when the novel begins, Ishmael has never has a successful pupil, since his lessons are so challenging. Quinn leaves it up to the reader to decide whether Ishmael has finally found a successful pupil in the narrator.

Ishmael Quotes in Ishmael

The Ishmael quotes below are all either spoken by Ishmael or refer to Ishmael. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Education, Teaching, and Prophets Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Bantam edition of Ishmael published in 1995.
Chapter 1 Quotes

TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

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WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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One of the most striking features of Taker culture is its passionate and unwavering dependence on prophets. The influence of people like Moses, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammed in Taker history is simply enormous.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker), Narrator
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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I had to face it: I didn’t just want a teacher—I wanted a teacher for life.

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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“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:

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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:

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Chapter 13 Quotes

WITH GORILLA GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR MAN?

Related Characters: Narrator (speaker), Ishmael
Page Number: 263
Explanation and Analysis:

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Ishmael Character Timeline in Ishmael

The timeline below shows where the character Ishmael appears in Ishmael. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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...man standing outside his cage. The old man said, “You are not Goliath. You are Ishmael,” and walked away. The gorilla—now calling himself Ishmael—considered the old man a god, even though... (full context)
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Ishmael later discovered that the old man’s name was Walter Sokolow. Sokolow was a wealthy Jewish... (full context)
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After only a few weeks, it became clear to Sokolow that Ishmael was highly intelligent. Sokolow was talking to himself, mourning the loss of his family, when... (full context)
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...to marry this woman, but he decided not to tell her about his communication with Ishmael. Thus, the woman couldn’t understand why Sokolow spent so much time visiting Ishmael. She frequently... (full context)
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After Rachel was born, Sokolow proposed that Ishmael be her mentor and tutor. Ishmael was delighted with this proposal, and began to spend... (full context)
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When Sokolow died in 1985, Rachel became Ishmael’s benefactor. She moved Ishmael to a “retreat,” where Ishmael was very comfortable, but not content.... (full context)
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The narrator, who has been listening all this time, asks Ishmael if he has taught many pupils. Ishmael replies that he has had four pupils, all... (full context)
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Ishmael next asks the narrator to explain what has brought him to Ishmael. The narrator thinks,... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator if he feels like the Aryan in his story—if he thinks he’s... (full context)
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The next day, the narrator wakes up and wonders if his visit to Ishmael’s cage has been a dream. He travels back to the building, and finds Ishmael waiting... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Ishmael proceeds with his first lesson for the narrator. He points out that the narrator, like... (full context)
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Ishmael brings up an important concept: Mother Culture. Mother Culture is the voice in the narrator’s... (full context)
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Ishmael goes through some terminology before he gets any further into his teaching. Ishmael will divide... (full context)
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Ishmael next tells the narrator that the journey of education will be more important than the... (full context)
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Ishmael next defines some of his terms. A “story” is a scenario about god, man, and... (full context)
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Ishmael outlines the basic story of the narrator’s culture. History begins with the Leavers, a highly... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that the lesson is essentially over for the day. He says that... (full context)
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Ishmael insists that the narrator’s culture has a story, and moreover, a story with a beginning,... (full context)
Chapter 3
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The next day, when the narrator arrives at Ishmael’s room, he sees an object sitting in his chair: a tape recorder. Ishmael instructs the... (full context)
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In response to the story the narrator has told, Ishmael looks amused. This story is clearly a fiction: to illustrate this, Ishmael tells the narrator... (full context)
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The narrator sees what Ishmael is getting at with his story: his culture sees the emergence of humanity as the... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that everyone in the world—whether religious or atheistic—believes in at least this... (full context)
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The lesson concludes with a discussion of blame. Ishmael points out that the notion that the world was made for humans is a way... (full context)
Chapter 4
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The next day, Ishmael and the narrator meet to discuss the rest of the story of culture. The narrator... (full context)
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Ishmael is impressed with the narrator’s work: he agrees that agriculture represented the beginning of the... (full context)
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To answer his own question, Ishmael asks the narrator to imagine life without man. The narrator does so, and finds that... (full context)
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Ishmael goes on with the lesson. Mankind didn’t immediately develop agriculture: on the contrary, there were... (full context)
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As the lesson draws to a close, Ishmael brings up the concept of a bargain or a contract. The myth that mankind was... (full context)
Chapter 5
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The next day, Ishmael begins the lesson with a summary of the narrator’s progress so far: he’s identified the... (full context)
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Ishmael is pleased with the narrator’s work: the narrator, he says, has identified the “end” of... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to identify the reason that mankind’s conquest of the Earth never results... (full context)
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Ishmael clarifies his point—there is nothing fundamentally good or evil about human beings. Humans have long... (full context)
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Ishmael points out a peculiar quality of the Takers: their dependence on prophets. All Taker culture... (full context)
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Ishmael suggests that the prominence of prophets in Taker culture points to an acknowledgment that the... (full context)
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Ishmael reviews what he and the narrator have discussed. Takers have created a depressing mythology for... (full context)
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Ishmael tells the narrator that tomorrow they’ll investigate if there are other models of how to... (full context)
Chapter 6
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The narrator arrives at Ishmael’s building the next day. Ishmael seems amused with the narrator, who is feeling nervous about... (full context)
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Ishmael begins by proposing that humans don’t need prophets to live, contrary to the beliefs of... (full context)
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Ishmael suggests that humans must look for the laws of how to live by studying life... (full context)
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Ishmael makes an analogy between the laws of gravity and the laws of how to live.... (full context)
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Ishmael details three “humiliations” that mankind has endured. The first humiliation was the discovery that the... (full context)
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Ishmael makes another analogy between Takers and pilots of the past. If a pilot were to... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Ishmael poses a thought experiment to the narrator: there is a society that appears perfect in... (full context)
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Ishmael reveals to the narrator that the thought experiment he outlined isn’t an experiment at all:... (full context)
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Ishmael finishes his point: for millions of years, all life on Earth obeyed the cyclical laws... (full context)
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Ishmael dismisses the narrator, telling him to return when he’s discovered the fundamental laws that govern... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...takes four days to find the law of the community of life. He walks into Ishmael’s building, rehearsing what he’s going to tell Ishmael. He also notes that it was important... (full context)
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In Ishmael’s room the narrator dives into explaining the law of life. As an outline, he proposes... (full context)
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...result being that animals no longer have access to the food they need to survive. Ishmael nods in agreement. (full context)
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...a second gazelle for tomorrow—humans, on the other hand, store up food for the future. Ishmael disagrees with this notion: he points out that animals ­do store food: they store it... (full context)
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Ishmael sums up the narrator’s observations into one remark: “You may compete, but you may not... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator what happens when one species breaks the law of life. The narrator... (full context)
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...of something else—agriculture breaks the laws of life by waging war on rival life forms. Ishmael objects, however, saying that this is only the narrow Taker definition of agriculture. It is... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up what they’ve discussed so far. The narrator realizes that... (full context)
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The narrator raises an objection to the laws of nature that he and Ishmael have been discussing—he says it’s possible to be a Taker and also limit expansion. Ishmael... (full context)
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...narrator suggests that birth control might be used to fight the problem of population growth. Ishmael points out that birth control has never resulted in successful population control—it’s always being discussed... (full context)
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Ishmael points to a book lying on a desk behind the narrator: The American Heritage Book... (full context)
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Ishmael returns to the subject of laws. A week ago, he reminds the narrator, the narrator... (full context)
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Ishmael goes on to describe the flaws in Taker culture. Takers believe that humans are special... (full context)
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There is nothing inherently better about the Leavers than the Takers, Ishmael concludes. African Bushmen, Native American Navajo, Brazilian Kreen-Akrore, and other Leaver cultures are happier and... (full context)
Chapter 9
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When the narrator returns the next day, he’s surprised to see Ishmael waiting for him on the other side of the glass window (the narrator’s side now),... (full context)
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Ishmael begins the lessons by drawing a simple diagram. The diagram shows the timeline of human... (full context)
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Ishmael moves on with the lesson. About 2,000 years ago, he says, the Takers began to... (full context)
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Ishmael explains that Takers believe that they have a special knowledge of how to rule the... (full context)
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Ishmael tells a story about man and the gods. The gods created a vast, complicated world,... (full context)
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Eventually, Ishmael continues, the gods found a way to rule their world. They found a Tree of... (full context)
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Ishmael continues with his story. One day, a creature named Adam was born in the gods’... (full context)
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The narrator has been listening to Ishmael’s story, fascinated. He notices a Bible sitting on a shelf behind him, and opens the... (full context)
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Ishmael makes an important clarification: the Takers don’t have a monopoly on agriculture. There were, and... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator where the story of the Fall comes from. While the authors of... (full context)
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Ishmael draws the narrator a map, showing the Arabian Peninsula at the dawn of the Agricultural... (full context)
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Ishmael makes his point: the Biblical story of Cain and Abel is a thinly veiled metaphor... (full context)
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...wander the Earth, so the Caucasians, since defeating the Semites, have spread across the globe. Ishmael seems strangely indifferent to this information. He concludes that the Semites’ story of Cain and... (full context)
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Ishmael goes on to explain how the Takers took up the Leavers’ version of history. In... (full context)
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The narrator asks Ishmael where Eve figures in to the story of the Fall. Ishmael replies that Eve’s name... (full context)
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Together, Ishmael and the narrator sum up what they’ve found. The Adam and Eve story, quite simply,... (full context)
Chapter 10
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...departs, the narrator finds that he has work to do, and so he doesn’t see Ishmael for another two days. As the narrator works, he feels a sense of dread that... (full context)
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...a result of his dentist appointment, the narrator misses another day of his lessons with Ishmael. (full context)
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The narrator returns to Ishmael’s building after nearly a week away, and is surprised to find workers clearing out the... (full context)
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Determined to find Ishmael, the narrator looks through the phone book for the last name “Sokolow.” He finds the... (full context)
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In order to find Ishmael, the narrator places an ad in the paper, appealing to “friends of Ishmael.” No one... (full context)
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The narrator approaches Ishmael, who merely looks at him in silence. The narrator asks Ishmael why he didn’t try... (full context)
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The narrator, relieved to be talking to Ishmael once again, asks Ishmael how they’ll communicate from now on. Even as he says this,... (full context)
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...a few hours. The “bribee” sneers, but accepts the bribe, and leads the narrator to Ishmael. (full context)
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The narrator asks Ishmael, point-blank, what the next lesson will be. In response, Ishmael asks the narrator to define... (full context)
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Ishmael points out a strange contradiction in Taker society. Takers want to look forward to the... (full context)
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Ishmael agrees with the distinction the narrator is trying to make. Leaver societies, he suggests, rely... (full context)
Chapter 11
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The next day, the narrator returns to the carnival to find Ishmael. It is raining, and the narrator has brought three warm blankets—one for himself, and two... (full context)
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Ishmael mentions the story of the Leavers—a story that Ishmael had promised to tell the narrator... (full context)
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Ishmael next asks the narrator how mankind became mankind. The narrator is unsure how to answer... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator about the plains Indians, the fiercest opponents of the American settlers in... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator if the Agricultural Revolution was “necessary.” The narrator responds that it was... (full context)
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...primitive man is running as fast as he can, frantically searching for food and shelter. Ishmael points out that this image—as the narrator well knows—is nonsense: Leavers are every bit as... (full context)
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Ishmael proposes an exercise: he will play the role of a Leaver, while the narrator will... (full context)
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Ishmael and “Bwana” (the narrator) continue with their exercise. Ishmael asks “Bwana” what the problem with... (full context)
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Ishmael ends the exercise, and tells the narrator that he’s made great progress. The goal of... (full context)
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Ishmael then quotes Jesus Christ: “Have no care for tomorrow.” But only a few people in... (full context)
Chapter 12
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After the latest lesson, the narrator leaves Ishmael to find Ishmael’s owner. He tells the owner, a man named Art Owens, that he’s... (full context)
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On Friday night, the narrator returns to the carnival. After bribing the bribee, he greets Ishmael, eager for another lesson. Ishmael asks the narrator to come back tomorrow, but the narrator... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator how the Leavers live. When the narrator is unsure how to respond,... (full context)
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Ishmael asks the narrator to sum up the story of the Leavers. After some thought, the... (full context)
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Ishmael and the narrator turn to the problem of how to live like a Leaver in... (full context)
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Ishmael suggests that aspiring Leavers like the narrator have a powerful source of inspiration: the collapse... (full context)
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The narrator is not satisfied with the example of the Soviet Union. He asks Ishmael for a “program” for how to be a Leaver. Ishmael tells the narrator that Leavers... (full context)
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Ishmael brings up a small point he’s been neglecting. One of his former pupils was an... (full context)
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Ishmael continues discussing prisons. The prison of Taker culture, he argues, cannot be escaped by anyone,... (full context)
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Ishmael sighs and stares at the narrator. He tells the narrator that he’s finished with him,... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...gets 2,400 dollars out of the bank—all of his money. He is planning to buy Ishmael and drive him away, but he has no idea where. (full context)
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...that the carnival has moved on. He notices the bribee, who tells the narrator that Ishmael died of pneumonia over the weekend. The narrator, shocked to hear this, realizes that Ishmael... (full context)
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...calls the Sokolow household. Partridge, the butler, answers the phone. The narrator informs him that Ishmael is dead, and that he and Partridge could have saved him. Partridge asks the narrator... (full context)
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The narrator looks over Ishmael’s books and papers, and notices the poster saying, “WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE... (full context)