Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Part One


The unnamed narrator is angry over an advertisement he has read in the personals section of his newspaper. The ad reads: "TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person" (4).

He explains that his indignation stems from his adolescent desire to find a teacher who could show him how to "save the world." During the social revolts of the 1960s and 1970s, he had believed that a new era was beginning, one in which people would become aware of the danger that the world faced. Even when the revolts dwindled by the years of his mid-teens, he refused to give up hope, and sought a teacher who might have a secret wisdom that could dispel his “disillusionment and bewilderment” (5). These hopes were eventually quashed as he learned that there was no secret knowledge. He never found such a teacher, and believes that something died within him when he “wised up” and stopped searching (6). So the potential of some huckster attempting to rekindle long-dead desires now angers him.

Nevertheless, the narrator decides to investigate the advertisement, to satisfy his belief that this is some sort of scam. He finds the building across town, and walks into the office to discover that it smells like a menagerie. The mostly-empty room holds a small bookcase, a chair and a large plate glass window that looks into an adjacent room. On the other side of that window sits a full-grown gorilla (this is Ishmael). On the wall behind the gorilla is a sign which reads, “WITH MAN GONE, WILL THERE BE HOPE FOR GORILLA?” (9).

Perplexed and agitated, the narrator falls into the chair to think. Strangely, when he makes eye-contact with the gorilla, he discovers that they can communicate telepathically. The gorilla explains that he is the teacher, and then launches into his own back-story.

Ishmael (though he does not provide his name yet) was born in West Africa and captured from his mother when he was young, by two famous animal collectors, who sold him to a zoo in the Northeast United States. He explains how, at the zoo, captive animals have a sense of living an unnatural life.

Unlike their cousins in the wild, they constantly ask themselves “why,” but don’t know “what” question they are looking for the answer to (11). Questions of rearing, feeding and freedom are all in the air, even if the animals cannot quite articulate them. Faced with such nagging but imprecise questions, Ishmael's "interior life" began (12).

Eventually, Ishmael was sold to a traveling menagerie. Unlike the zoo visitors, who talked amongst themselves while studying him, menagerie visitors spoke directly to him. He eventually intuited through their repetition that they were calling him “Goliath” (14). In realizing for the first time that he had a name, that he was not only part of a pack but also an individual, Ishmael was “born as a person” (14). By listening to families that visited the menagerie, Ishmael next learned human language, and discovered that everything has a name. One mystery he could not answer, however, is why humans were not considering animals like he was.

Life at the menagerie was more pleasant than it was at the zoo, and the possibility of feeling resentment never occurred to Ishmael. At the time, he believed that humans were as much captives of the menagerie as he was.

All was well until one day, after about three or four years, a mysterious old man approached his cage, studied him, announced that he was not Goliath, and then marched away.

Shocked and confused, Ishmael reasoned that if he was not Goliath, then he must be no one at all. Stripped of his selfhood, it did not occur to him in his depression that he might have a different identity altogether, and he retreated into a semi-catatonic state, neither aware nor conscious. A few days later, he was sedated unknowingly, and woke up in a strange gazebo that had been modified to accommodate him.

The mysterious man - Walter Sokolow - approached him in the gazebo, and gave him a new name: Ishmael. The new identity returned his sense of self. Over time, Ishmael learned his patron's name, and that Sokolow was a wealthy Jewish merchant whose family had recently been killed in the Holocaust. He had visited the gorilla because the name 'Goliath' suggested a personification of the Nazi regime that had crushed "the race of David,” but he saw no such identity in Ishmael during the visit, and decided instead to purchase the gorilla for himself (19).

Sokolow visited him regularly, talking to the gorilla of his sorrows. When Ishmael one day reached out to stroke his patron's hand, Sokolow began to suspect that the gorilla was intelligent. He began to teach Ishmael language, and though the gorilla lacked the vocal capacity for speech, he developed a means of telepathic communication.

Over the course of the next decade, Sokolow taught Ishmael everything that he knew of the world, the universe and human history. Ishmael’s interests eventually surpassed Sokolow’s, so the latter acted as a research assistant to satiate the gorilla's curiosity. As time and his new companionship eased his sorrow, Sokolow re-entered his old social circles, and remarried a woman who gave him a daughter.

The child, named Rachel Sokolow, spent as much time during her youth with Ishmael as she did with her mother. (Though Mrs. Sokolow remained profoundly jealous of Ishmael throughout her life, Walter never considered ridding the family of the gorilla.) Since Ishmael's telepathic communication was more direct for a toddler than human speech was, Rachel progressed quickly through school, earning a master’s degree in biology before she was twenty. When Walter Sokolow died in 1985, Rachel became Ishmael’s protector, and helped him devise a system by which he could teach others in an attempt to advance into the center of human culture.

Ishmael then explains that he has had four students before the narrator, and has failed with each. He explains that most humans are captives of a civilization system that is quickly destroying the world, and that the revolts that had previously inspired the narrator had failed because the participants were “unable to find the bars of the cage" and were hence unable to engender lasting change (26).

The narrator is dumbfounded by Ishmael’s tale, but intrigued. He confesses a sense that he is being lied to by society, but cannot articulate what the lie is. Further, he is depressed to think that even if he discovered the lie, it would be useless unless everyone else discovered it as well. Ishmael agrees with this assessment, but is not hopeless. He then dismisses the narrator for the day.

The next day, the narrator returns to the office the next day, and the two begin their dialogue.


Quinn gets right to the point in Ishmael. The world is in peril, and any chance of saving it relies on enough people recognizing that peril. Further, discovering this peril involves recognizing that we are captives in a system whose bars are typically invisible to us. The challenge for Ishmael seems quite intense, but his story of self-awareness implies that it will be possible to surmount the hurdle.

The importance of having a proper vocabulary in order to understand society is introduced in this section. Throughout his lifetime, the narrator senses that he is being lied to, but cannot articulate the nature of that lie or who the liar might be. Ishmael suggests that the counter-culture movements were unable to address these lies because they could not name them. They did not understand who or what they were rebelling against - in other words, they lacked a vocabulary to properly address the problem. Much as Ishmael had to first discover how the bars of his captivity worked, we must first identify the bars that have trapped us in a dangerous system if we are to then overcome them. In other words, the first goal is to become aware of what is actually happening; only then can we hope to change anything.

In an entirely unsubtle way, Quinn uses Ishmael’s back-story as a microcosm of the discussion that will follow. Ishmael is taken from the wild and placed into a zoo, much like Takers force Leavers to change their way of life (see future Summary sections for details). The gorilla is a prisoner, but cannot realize it because he believes the menagerie owners are as shackled to the institution as he is. In other words, he senses something is wrong, but cannot identify the parameters of his situation.

His sense of Takers and Leavers is largely inspired by his own background. He thinks back on the wild (which he knew only as a child) as a paradise, where food literally grew on trees. If he were hungry, he would eat. In the zoo, he is fed slop, and in finite amounts decided by others. Later in the novel, Ishmael will equate the Earth (before aggressive agriculture was introduced) to a paradise where food is plentiful and free, the way it was meant to be.

The issues of naming are quite significant in Part One. The importance of identity, given by a name, is central to Ishmael's tale of self-discovery. Consider the gorilla's terror when Sokolow strips him of his first name (Goliath). The broader implications are that society keeps everyone and everything neatly labeled - through jobs, titles, definitions - and hence maintains its control over individuals. The contrast is to societies that exist in the wild, who operate with less sense of individuality and a more harmonious pack mentality. Ishmael expands on these ideas as the novel progresses to suggest how mankind has taken the road to ruin.

And yet the joy of having an individual identity is not absent. This contradiction - a joy in human innovation set against the destructive potential of prizing such innovation as primary - continues to resonate through the work.

The narrator's first reaction to Ishmael is quite important. He recognizes the gorilla, and yet is strangely repulsed by him. This evokes the Freudian concept of the uncanny, which occurs when something is simultaneously familiar and foreign, and thus frightening. The uncanny creates a cognitive dissonance that sometimes leads us to outright reject it. This concept prefigures an important theme that continues to resonate throughout the novel. The narrator recognizes things that he is already familiar with (like the Big Bang theory), yet with Ishmael views them in a way that is unfamiliar to him. The narrator's enlightenment comes from first recognizing what he sees, then realizing that Mother Culture has discouraged him from approaching those things in a new way. The way the narrator approaches Ishmael here serves as a good model for the way he approaches almost of all of Ishmael's lesson to come.

Finally, the role that Walter Sokolow plays in this part of the novel is important. As a victim of the Holocaust, he has personally experienced some of humanity's worst and cruelest parts. His point of view is crucial in shaping Ishmael's. Had Ishmael been raised in privilege and comfort, it is possible he would never have discovered the lies that Mother Culture uses to keep mankind on the road to destruction. However, having been granted a glimpse into the most destructive aspects of this path, Ishmael is able to continue this investigation. The implication here, as it will be throughout the novel, is that awareness and honesty are the first and most important virtues towards enacting change.