Ishmael Summary

The full name of the philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn is “Ishmael: An Adventure of Mind and Spirit” and it deserves its name to the full extent. It is highly metaphoric and touches the audience not with the storyline or the powerful characters, but rather with the overall impression it leaves after being read. The questions of saving the world and what can be considered saving stay in the heads of the readers long after they finish the book. The idea is naive and powerful at the same time, transmitted to us through the surrealistic image of talking gorilla. But… is it surrealistic? If we remember the statements the recently deceased talking gorilla Coco made about the nature, we will realize that the image of Ishmael can be much closer to reality than we can think. Ishmael (and Coco too, in real life) can be considered the voice of the very Nature, though Ishmael speaks much more eloquent while trying to persuade the narrator to help him and the rest of the world.

The story starts from the nameless narrator, who is finishing reading the newspaper. When he comes to the page of personal advertisements, one of them catches his eye. It is indeed very unusual, stating that the teacher searches for a student who is interested in saving the world and ready to work for it. The narrator is amused and intrigued simultaneously, but another feeling he has now is anger. From his early childhood the narrator was thinking that the world is in distress and needs saving immediately. During his adult age he started to forget about his world-saving dreams, but now he remembers that he was searching for such a teacher for years and is angry at him now, because the teacher he needed so desperately appears so late. Irrationally, the narrator takes it as a personal offence. He is torn apart by the hope that the teacher is looking for him exactly from the one side and the common sense that says to him that the advertisement is either a joke or a hoax from the other side. After the long hesitation he decides to investigate by himself and goes to the address that was stated in the advertisement.

But the place he comes isn’t like anything he expected to see. It isn’t a study or even a private apartment: it is an empty and seemingly abandoned office space and the lone living creature waiting there. This isn’t human, the teacher is a gorilla with the ability to telepathically speak to the narrator (and to the other people). He introduces himself to the shocked narrator as Ishmael and his way of speaking is very intelligent even for a human professor, not talking about the gorillas as a specie. Understanding that the situation is too unusual for the narrator to feel comfortable, Ishmael tells his story. When he was very young, in the human equivalent of early teens, he was caught in the African jungle and taken away from his family. Since that time Ishmael hasn’t seen any of his clan or other free gorillas, spending his life in captivity. At first, the hunters who took him from his family, sold him to the zoo, but as Ishmael grew older, he was sold several times more: once to the travelling caravan and then he ended in the laboratory of a curious and weird scientist named Walter Sokolow. Mr. Sokolow quickly noticed that the young gorilla is very intelligent and curious to the level of a human child and he started his experiments, learning Ishmael to communicate with him telepathically. Finally, he succeeded and from then on Ishmael started to develop drastically. When the gorilla learned the concept of the books, he asked his teacher to bring him more and more, so that Ishmael could educate himself too. At first, he tried to investigate the concept of captivity and the reasons the people took him away from his family. But when he read about zoos, hunt, then slavery and other human phenomena, Ishmael became more interested in human psychology in general. He started to explore the very humanity, trying to understand why humans exist and behave the way they are. Through the years Ishmael developed some theories that may help to improve humanity as a specie and lower its destructive impact to the world. Alas, Mr. Sokolow passed away recently, but due to the tricky papers he left after himself Ishmael, who is formally a part of his property, is an actual owner of his estate and money. But the gorilla isn’t interested in wealthy life: he takes only what he needs for living and places the advertisements in the local newspapers, hoping that there are people ready to learn from him and help him spread his teachings and theories.

The narrator agrees to become Ishmael’s student and they start learning. On the first meeting Ishmael starts from culturology, making the narrator to review all the origins of human culture and the principles that work in any society, disregarding of the time it exists in or geography it is situated. The theory of Ishmael is quite simple: there are two types of people, Leavers and Takers. Takers are the majority, moreover, they became the majority because the Takers are always the bearers of the mainstream, dominant culture that portrays their needs as the first priority and humanity itself (or just a part of humanity they belong to) the rulers of the world. As the rulers they try to rule, conquering land after land and forcefully spreading the Takers’ ideas. Their ultimate goal is to develop their technology up to infinity and multiply without any limits, taking the world for themselves, then taking the entire Solar system and the whole universe. In simple words, Takers act like the virus that is constantly mutating to take more and more living cells and not caring that its multiplication can kill the host. Leavers, from the other hand, are usually less developed tribal cultures (or, in rare cases, the Takers who consciously downshifted, zeroing their impact to the nature) that live the simple life, not taking from the nature more than they have to take to satisfy their basic needs. In general, they just obey the same laws of nature that are true for any other specie, not trying to cheat or outwit the nature. Ishmael continues, proving the point that the culture of Takers, though it seems developed enough to neglect or rewrite the nature law is almost dead and all the technical progress can either accelerate or slow down a bit its downfall, but no progress is capable to stop or revert it. The Takers are doomed to crash into dust with the rest of the modern species, when they strip the Earth of all its biological and environmental resources and pollute it with their waste.

To help the narrator understand his point better, Ishmael offers him to compare the mythology of different cultures all over the globe and find there the traces of Leavers and Takers cultures. The myths helped both cultures to crystallize and the cultures, in their turn, shaped the myths to their liking, solidifying the difference and going further and further from each other. Ishmael shows the contrast between Pagan mythology (the one of Leavers) where humans are the equal creations of the gods or nature itself and where they have the equal rights as any other living (or even inanimate) being; and the Christianity, where humans are proclaimed the rulers over anything and anyone else and the strict hierarchy is set by the God. The most prominent illustration to that point is the myth about Heaven and Adam and Eve. The Takers culture through the Christianity in general and this myth in particular tries to justify its efforts to enslave all the other species and the Nature itself. But to start with, the myth didn’t belong to the Takers. Being rulers of the world was not about doing what humans please, it was about responsibility that every ruler should feel. The sin of Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit and traded their blissful harmony for knowledge were the first Takers turned from Leavers. As Takers they exiled themselves from the natural harmony of Heaven and started expanding, controlling more and more of the land and giving birth to more and more new Takers. The Leavers’ version of the myth was created to give them understanding why Takers turned to agriculture (as the most advanced technology of that time) and why they want everyone to follow them, considering the people who doesn’t want to savages. Leavers used the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as a metaphor, the tree that is meant for gods, who need to have the power over life and death - the gods decide who should live and who should die. Tasting the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve started to behave and act like gods, but still they were mere humans and their consciences couldn’t embrace the omniscience that was meant for the gods, not for any mortal specie on Earth.

After the several meetings the narrator is fully convinced that the Takers culture is the dead end for the humanity and saving the world means spreading Leavers ideals throughout the society, converting Takers back to Leavers, metaphorically returning them to the Garden of Eden. The narrator starts to discuss with his teacher the ways of doing so, but once he is distracted with his personal matters for several days and misses some lessons. When the narrator comes to the abandoned office, Ishmael is not here and it seems that he wasn’t here for some time. Worried, the narrator starts to search for Ishmael, investigating the possible selling of the deceased Mr. Sokolow’s property. Finally, after long and futile search, he finds the trace of a pet gorilla sold to the travelling caravan. Ishmael ended up right where he started. The narrator chases the travelling caravan, but it’s a difficult task, because its owner doesn’t have any stable route. Finally he finds the circus’ camp, waits for the night and crawls to Ishmael’s cage. His teacher looks sick and exhausted, but he still has a clear mind. Ishmael insists that they have to finish the study and this is more important than his life, but the narrator, though he listens attentively to Ishmael’s last lesson, still thinks about the plan of rescue. He can’t steal Ishmael outright, so he negotiates with the circus owner intending to buy the gorilla from him. The sum the man wants isn’t unbearable, but Ishmael feels worse and worse and the narrator has to hurry while gathering the money. While the narrator finally has the whole sum, he returns to the circus owner just to learn that that night the gorilla has died from pneumonia he fought with all that time. No one wanted to tell the narrator about it, just not to lower the price.

Grieving, the narrator comes to Ishmael’s cell and then returns to the office to keep the scarce belongings his teacher had. He remembers the last lesson: the lesson about how to become a teacher himself and spread Ishmael’s theories further. This was the last command of the dying gorilla to him. Ishmael knew that he wouldn’t make it, so he tried hard to prepare his apprentice for teaching as good as it was possible. The story ends with the narrator thinking about the way to establish himself as a teacher and to explain the other people what he learned from Ishmael: the problems and dangers of the Takers culture, the deadly route it leads the humanity and the necessity to save the world and find the new balance between the technology and preserving the nature, though achieving the harmony between Leavers and Takers and saving the life on the planet.