Ishmael Book Essay Format

This article is about the novel by Daniel Quinn. For the Star Trek novel by Barbara Hambly, see Ishmael (Star Trek). For the novel by Klas Östergren, see Ismael (novel).

Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines the mythical thinking driving modern civilization, and the relationship of this world-view to ethics, sustainability, and global catastrophe. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that anthropocentrism and several other widely accepted modern ideas are actually cultural myths and that global civilization is enacting these myths with catastrophic consequences. The novel was awarded the $500,000 Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991, a year before its formal publication.[1]

Ishmael ultimately comprises a loose trilogy, including a 1996 spiritual sequel, The Story of B, and a 1997 "sidequel," My Ishmael. Quinn also details how he arrived at the ideas behind Ishmael in his autobiography, Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest. Yet another related follow-up book to Ishmael is Quinn's 1999 short treatise, Beyond Civilization.

Plot summary[edit]

Ishmael begins with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The nameless narrator and protagonist begins his story, telling how he first reacted to this ad with scorn because of the absurdity of "wanting to save the world," a notion he feels that once he foolishly embraced himself as an adolescent during the counterculture movement of the 1960s. However, he responds to the ad anyway and, upon arriving at the address, finds himself in a room with a gorilla. He notices a polysemous sign that reads "With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?"

To the narrator's surprise, he finds that the gorilla, calling himself Ishmael, can communicate telepathically. At first baffled by this, the man learns the story of how the gorilla came to be here and soon accepts Ishmael as his teacher, regularly returning to Ishmael's office throughout the plot. The novel continues from this point mainly as a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael and his new student as they hash out what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind.

Ishmael's life, which began in the African wilderness, was spent mostly in a zoo and a menagerie, and since had been spent in the gazebo of a man that extricated him from physical captivity. He tells his student that it was at the menagerie that he learned about human language and culture and began to think about things that he never would have pondered in the wild. Subsequently, Ishmael tells his student that the subject for this learning experience will be captivity, primarily the captivity of man under a distorted civilizational system. The narrator claims to Ishmael that he has a vague notion of living in some sort of cultural captivity and being lied to in some way but he can not explain his feelings.

Before proceeding Ishmael lays some ground definitions for his student. He defines:

  • Takers as people often referred to as "civilized". Particularly, the culture that first emerged in an Agricultural Revolution that began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East that has developed into today's globalized society; this is the culture of Ishmael's pupil and, presumably, the reader.
  • Leavers as people of all other cultures; often derogatorily referred to by Takers as "primitive".
  • A story as an interrelation between the gods, man, and the earth, with a beginning, middle, and end.
  • To enact as to strive to make a story come true.
  • A culture as a people who are enacting a story.

Ishmael proceeds to tease from his pupil the premises of the story (i.e. myth) being enacted by the Takers: that they are the pinnacle of evolution, that the world was made for man, and that man is here to conquer and rule the world. This rule is meant to bring about a paradise, as man increases his mastery of the world, however, he is always failing because he is flawed. Man doesn't know how to live and never will because that knowledge is unobtainable. So, however hard he labors to save the world, he is just going to go on defiling and spoiling it.

Ishmael points out to his student that when the Takers decided there is something fundamentally wrong with humans, they took as evidence only their own culture's history- "They were looking at a half of one-percent of the evidence taken from a single culture-- Not a reasonable sample on which to base such a sweeping conclusion."

Ishmael says:

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.

Ishmael goes on to help his student discover that, contrary to what the Takers think, there are immutable laws that life is subject to and it is possible to discern them by studying the biological community. Together, Ishmael and his student identify one set of survival strategies which appear to be evolutionarily stable for all species (later dubbed the "Law of Limited Competition"): In short, "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war." All species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct. The Takers believe themselves to be exempt from this Law and flout it at every point.

Fall of Man[edit]

He talks of how the Takers rendered themselves above the laws governing life, using the story of The Fall of Man as an example. Ishmael's version of why the fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is: eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provides the gods with the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die—knowledge which they need to rule the world. The fruit nourishes only the gods, though. If Adam ("man") were to eat from this tree, he might think that he gained the gods' wisdom (without this actually happening) and consequently destroy the world and himself through his arrogance. "And so they said to him, you may eat of every tree in the garden, save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree, you will certainly die."

Ishmael makes the point that this story of the Fall of Man, which the Takers have adopted as their own, was in fact developed by Leavers to explain the origin of the Takers. If it were of Taker origin, the story would be of liberating ascent instead of a sinful fall.

Ishmael and his student go on to discuss how, for the ancient herders among whom the tale originated, the story of Cain killing Abel symbolizes the Leaver being killed off and their lands taken so that it could be put under cultivation. These ancient herders realized that the Takers were acting as if they were gods themselves, with all the wisdom of what is good and evil and how to rule the world. And as a result the gods banished these people from the Garden and they were brought from a life of bounty in the hands of the gods to one of being the accursed tillers of the soil.

To begin discerning the Leavers' story, Ishmael proposes to his student a hypothesis: the Takers' Agricultural Revolution was a revolution against the Leavers' story.

The Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone. Living in this manner ("in the hands of the gods"), Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity. The Takers however, practicing their uniquely envisioned form of agriculture (dubbed by Quinn "totalitarian agriculture" in a later book) produce enormous food surpluses, which allows them to thwart the gods when they decide it's the Takers' time to go hungry. "When you have more food than you need, then the gods have no power over you." Thus, Ishmael points out that the Takers revolution was not just a technological change, but also serves a mythological function.

So we have a new pair of names for you: The Takers are 'those who know good and evil' and the Leavers are 'those who live in the hands of the gods'.

Ishmael goes on to point out that by living in the hands of the gods, man is subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place. Australopithecus became Homo by living in the hands of the gods—Man became man by living in the hands of the gods-- "by living the way the bushmen of Africa live; by living the way the Krenakarore of Brazil live... Not the way the Chicagoans live, not the way Londoners live." "In the hands of the gods is where evolution happens." According to the Takers' story, creation came to an end with man. "In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself-- and they're doing a damn good job of it!"

Ishmael brings together his synopsis on human culture by examining the story enacted by Leaver cultures, which provides a model of how to live—an alternative story for the Takers to enact.

The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'

For three million years, man belonged to the world and because he belonged to the world, he grew and developed and became brighter and more dexterous until one day, he was so bright and so dexterous that we had to call him Homo sapiens sapiens-- which means he was us.

The Leavers' story is 'the gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrows for the world. This seems to have worked well so far so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods'.

Ishmael emphasizes that "not in any sense is the Takers story 'chapter two' of the story which was being enacted here during the first three million years of human life. The Leavers' story has its own 'chapter two'." In evolution, observes Ishmael's student, there seems to be a tendency toward complexity, and towards self-awareness and intelligence. Perhaps the gods intend the world to be filled with intelligent, self-aware creatures and man's destiny following the Leavers' story is "to be the first- without being the last"; to learn and then to be a role-model and teacher for all those capable of becoming what he's become.

Ishmael finishes with a summary of what his student can do if he earnestly desires to save the world:

The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you're to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world - not because they're humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is more than one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.

Teach a hundred what I've taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred.

The student loses track of Ishmael's whereabouts and in his search for the gorilla ultimately discovers that he was secretly falling ill and has since died of pneumonia. The student collects Ishmael's belongings and among them he finds the sign that he saw before ("With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?") has a backside with another message: "With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?"

Major themes[edit]

Ishmael proposes that the story of Genesis was written by the Semites and later adapted to work within Hebrew and Christian belief structures. He proposes that Abel's extinction metaphorically represents the nomadic Semites' losing in their conflict with agriculturalists. As they were driven further into the Arabian peninsula, the Semites became isolated from other herding cultures and, according to Ishmael, illustrated their plight through oral history, which was later adopted into the Hebrew book of Genesis.

Ishmael denies that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden to humans simply to test humans' self-control. Instead, he proposes that eating of the Tree would not actually give humans divine knowledge but would only make humans believe they had been given it, and that the Tree represents the choice to bear the responsibility of deciding which species live and which die. This is a decision agricultural peoples (i.e. Takers) make when deciding which organisms to cultivate, which to displace, and which to kill in protection of the first.

Ishmael explains that the Fall of Adam represents the belief that, once mankind usurps this responsibility - historically decided through natural ecology (i.e. food chains) - that mankind will perish. He cites as fulfillment of this prophecy contemporary environmental crises such as endangered or extinct species, global warming, and modern mental illnesses.


Main characters[edit]


A gorilla who was captured from the West African wild when young and sent to an American zoo. After the zoo sold him to a menagerie, Walter Sokolow bought him and discovered he could communicate with him through his mind. Ishmael, learning he can talk telepathically with humans, begins teaching humans a subject he calls "captivity."


A middle-aged white American man who sought a teacher to show him how to save the world when he was younger, during the turbulent and idealistic 1960s. Now an adult, he finds an ad looking for a pupil who wants to save the world. Intrigued because his childhood question may be answered, but skeptical because he has never found answers in the past, he goes and finds Ishmael, who teaches him, as promised, about how to save the world. The narrator never reveals his name in Ishmael, though it is revealed in My Ishmael to be Alan Lomax.

Unseen characters[edit]

Walter Sokolow

A wealthy Jewish merchant who is mentioned only in Ishmael's back story but has died by the time of the main story. His family was killed in the Holocaust, during which he migrated to the United States. While visiting a menagerie, he comes across a gorilla called Goliath (Ishmael's given alias at the menagerie). Sokolow buys Ishmael from the zoo and after he figures out that he and Ishmael can mentally speak to each other, the two study a vast array of subjects together. He is the one who gives the gorilla the new name of "Ishmael".

Rachel Sokolow

Daughter of Walter Sokolow. She becomes Ishmael's benefactor after her father dies. She supports Ishmael for a span of time, but her death ends Ishmael's financial support.

Film adaptation[edit]

The end credits for the film Instinct indicate that it is inspired by Ishmael.[2] In Instinct, Anthony Hopkins plays an imprisoned anthropologist who is interviewed by a psychologist (Cuba Gooding Jr.).

Daniel Quinn did not approve of the script or movie before transferring the rights, which were transferred as part of the Turner Award. The movie and book share no common story elements, and the philosophical connection to the book is reduced to some pictorial format and a few seconds of on-screen dialogue.[3]

Quinn had some input on the script, but states: "It was not an independent production, it was a studio production, which means the producers had to deliver the goods that presumably work at the box office. The studio (Touchstone) wanted action, violence, and conflict---not philosophy---and that's what they got. Those are the realities of Hollywood."[4]

The movie received mostly poor or mixed reviews, MetaCritic giving an average rating of only 43.[5] It was a financial failure as well.[6] The film won a Genesis Award,[7] an award that honors films that explore animal issues.

References in popular culture[edit]

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has cited the book as an influence on their album, Yield.[8] Quinn responds to the album's significance in relation to the book on his website.[9]

In Rise Against's album The Sufferer and The Witness, Ishmael is on the recommended reading list.

In an interview Animals as Leaders guitarist Tosin Abasi referenced the book as the inspiration for the band name.

The song "The Taker Story" on Chicano Batman's 2017 album Freedom is Free describes the global colonization of the "Taker" societies.

New tribalism[edit]

Main articles: New tribalism and New Tribal Revolution

Chronology of events in the Ishmael trilogy[edit]

The following is a list of events in the time frame of Ishmael (published in 1992), The Story of B (1996), and My Ishmael (1997). Much of the chronology remains ambiguous in the former two, though is specified in much more detail in My Ishmael.[10]

  • 1930s: Ishmael is born in equatorial West Africa, captured, and sent to live in a U.S. zoo for "several years"
  • Late 1930s: Ishmael begins to live in a traveling menagerie for "3 or 4 years"
  • 1939 or 1940: Ishmael is sold to Walter Sokolow
  • 1955: Art Owens is born Makiadi Owona in the Belgian Congo
  • 1960: The Belgian Congo becomes Zaire
  • c. 1950s: Charles Atterley is born in the U.S
  • 1960s: Walter Sokolow marries Grace, who bears a single child, Rachel
  • 25 February 1979: Julie Gerchak is born in the U.S.
  • Early 1980s: Art Owens studies in Belgium, becomes a dual citizen of Zaire and Belgium, travels to the U.S., and attends Cornell University, where he meets Rachel Sokolow, who is completing her master's degree in biology
  • c. 1980s: Charles Atterley becomes Ishmael's pupil
  • 1985: Walter Sokolow dies and Ishmael begins living in a variety of new locations
  • 1987: Art Owens returns to Zaire, leaving his U.S. investments with Rachel Sokolow
  • 1989: Ishmael sets up his "office" in Room 105 of the Fairfield Building
  • 2 March 1989: Art Owens participates in the new Republic of Mabili's secession from Zaire; he becomes Mabili's minister of the interior
  • November to December 1989: Art Owens flees Mabili and returns to the U.S., beginning work with the Darryl Hicks Carnival and eventually buying off the Carnival's animal menagerie
  • 1990: Art Owens becomes acquainted with Ishmael through Rachel Sokolow
  • c. 1991: Charles Atterley begins lecturing in Europe
  • January 1991: Rachel tests positive for HIV and dies that same year
  • 1991–2: Events of Ishmael and most of My Ishmael:
    • 1991: Alan Lomax and then Julie Gerchak become Ishmael's pupils
    • 29 October to 2 November 1991: Julie Gerchak, with the secret help of Art Owens, visits the Republic of Mabili and successfully persuades its president, Mokonzi Nkemi, to authorize Ishmael's entry into his country and subsequent release back into the African jungle
    • Late 1991–1992: Ishmael begins living in the Darryl Hicks Carnival menagerie and becomes ill with pneumonia
    • 1992: Alan Lomax believes Ishmael to have died from pneumonia and publishes Ishmael
    • March 1992: Ishmael recuperates and by this date has returned to Africa
    • Summer 1995: Julie Gerchak begins writing My Ishmael
  • 10 May to 8 June 1996: Events of The Story of B:
    • 19 or 20 May: Jared Osborne becomes Charles Atterley's pupil
    • 22 May: Charles Atterley is assassinated in Germany
  • 28 November 1996: Julie Gerchak completes all but the final chapter of My Ishmael
  • 1997: Julie Gerchak adds a final chapter, "The Waiting Ends," to My Ishmael and finally publishes the book with permission from Art Owens


See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ishmael

A Reflection on  Ishmael  by Daniel Quinn PART I: Focus Questions Who are the Takers and Leavers? In his novel, Daniel Quinn describes two categories of humans: the Takers and the Leavers.  These can be equated to groups of people who are both developed and civilized or primitive and  “living in the stone-age.” The Takers include people living in what we call modern civilization,  who are a product of the discovery of agriculture. Leavers, on the other hand, have continued  along the path that animals and all other beings are on—the one that obeys and agrees with the  laws of nature.  The birth of the Takers came about with the discovery of the Fertile Crescent in the east. There  was something of an agricultural revolution upon the discovery that humans could hunt and  gather and  save  that food for later. The Takers, as described by Quinn, were not content simply  living within the bounds of nature—they needed and wanted more. In the beginning, before  civilization, humans would build and plow only for nature to dismantle their efforts. They began  to feel that they were above the laws of nature and that the animals and things that followed  those laws were primitive, and wanted to advance ahead of these lowly beings. So began the  story of the Takers, who believed that humans were created to rule the world, and “in order to  make himself the ruler of the world, man first had to conquer it.” (Quinn 73) However, Ishmael  describes that because of this warring with the world and the laws of nature, the Takers will soon exhaust the earth of its resources and bring civilization to an end. In contrast to the Takers there are the Leavers, who live the same way man first lived before the  aforementioned agricultural revolution. These humans are still found today in the forgotten  corners of the world, such as the Yanamamo tribes of the Amazon and even some tribes of  Native Americans in the United States. These primitive tribes live in harmony with the laws of  nature, in that they only hunt and gather out of necessity, and they only kill when they need to.  They do not try to destroy their agricultural competitors because they have none, and they use  the resources of the world strictly out of necessity. They are hunter-gathers and according to  Quinn, will continue living this way because they live in submission to the laws of nature. 

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