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 Quotes in Ishmael
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FRIENDS OF ISHMAEL: another friend has lost contact. Please call and tell me where he is.
“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.”