Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Parts Ten and Eleven


Part Ten

The narrator is distracted by some personal problems - an unwanted visitor, car trouble, deadlines for his impending book - for a few days, during which time he does not visit Ishmael. When he finally returns, he discovers a janitor cleaning the now-empty office.

Confused, he searches for the Sokolow family in the phone book, and finds Rachel's Sokolow's address. When he arrives there to investigate, the Sokolow butler, Mr. Partridge, informs him that Rachel died three months earlier, and that he knows nothing of what happened to Ishmael. The narrator deduces that Mrs. Sokolow chose not to continue paying the rent for the office.

After several weeks of a fruitless search, which mostly involves placing classified ads, the narrator learns that the Darryl Hicks Carnival has arrived in town boasting a sideshow gorilla named “Gargantua” (194). At the carnival, the narrator discovers Ishmael trapped in a cage in a dark corner, and in a terrible mood.

Ishmael acts resentfully towards the narrator, and demands he leave. Though the narrator complies, he checks into a nearby motel, and decides he will bribe the caretaker to leave him alone with Ishmael.

The plan works, and Ishmael soon continues their discussion. They resume by distinguishing between Leavers, who continue to pass down their accumulation of culture in respect of tradition, and the Takers, who act as though understanding the past is not necessary towards their success. Instead, Takers act as though culture was born at the same time as man; farming and agriculture are assumed to be instinctive, rather than a deviation from centuries of previous activity. Despite ignoring their long history, however, Takers use ancientness to validate themselves, as long as it is restricted to that function. They praise the values and traditions of ancient ancestors, even though they would never adopt those values for everyday life.

Through their discussion, the narrator realizes that the only historical aspect Mother Culture values is that relating to production. In other words, Taker culture is only interested in how to make things. The Leavers save and pass along information about what works well for their own cultures - not information presumed to be good for everyone. Takers, on the other hand, operate in such a way that every generation develops a new idea of what works well for everyone, an idea often useless to the subsequent generation.

Following this point, Ishmael emphasizes that Leaver culture is an accumulation of knowledge dating back back to the beginning of human life, tested and refined over thousands of generations. The narrator distinguishes between such an accumulation and "certain knowledge," which professes to be definitive and universal (204). Because Takers are interested only in this second type, they rely on laws and prophets to guide them, rather than upon the natural laws that have been tested for thousands of years. Ishmael notes that the narrator is exploring a "deep complex of ideas," and yet is straying from an important point Ishmael wishes him to recognize (206).

The point Ishmael makes is that Takers accumulate knowledge about what works well for things, while the Leavers accumulate knowledge about what works well for people. Even though Leavers only worry about knowledge that works well for their particular cultures, their form of knowledge is what is known as "wisdom" (206). What this means is that every time the Takers destroy a Leaver culture, a certain age-old wisdom is lost.

Ishmael then confesses he has grown cold, and the narrator leaves for the night.

Part Eleven

The narrator arrives the next day to find the grounds mostly deserted because of rain. He brings Ishmael some blankets, which the gorilla begrudgingly accepts before continuing their discussion.

First, Ishmael challenges the narrator to explain why he cares about the story that the Leavers enact. The narrators offer only his curiosity as explanation, but Ishmael refuses to proceed until he can hears a more important reason. Ishmael is not satisfied until the narrator proposes that Takers will need an alternative if they are to ever stop enacting the story they currently enact - in other words, they will not quit their ways unless a better alternative is presented.

Ishmael repeats that the agricultural revolution was more than just a technological event - it was also a philosophical one. Mother Culture teaches that human life was meaningless and ugly before the revolution, and the narrator agrees that most people still feel that way about the Leaver lifestyle.

Ishmael continues. Mother Culture also teaches that Leavers were ignorant of the benefits of agriculture. However, he provides the counter-example of the Plains Indians, who practiced agriculture for centuries before reverting back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle when the Spanish introduced horses to North America. What the example suggests is that the Taker revolution was not waged for something (agriculture), but against something. The narrator will need to discover what that thing was if he is to articulate the story the Leavers are enacting.

To guide the discovery, Ishmael asks the narrator why the agricultural revolution was necessary. He notes that even people who do not benefit from the Taker lifestyle - such as the homeless or indigent - believe absolutely that the it is superior to what came before.

To answer, the narrator posits that life before the revolution was a constant struggle for survival. Man was at best one step behind his prey, and one step ahead of his enemies, never moving forward. Ishmael counters that man was extremely well adapted to life, and hunter-gatherers were amongst the most leisured people on Earth, working only a couple of hours per day and yet staying well-fed. Further, man has never been a wild animal's first choice for prey.

Because the narrator is stumped, they perform an exercise in which the narrator plays the part of a cultural missionary who is trying to convince a Leaver people to adapt the Taker way of life. Ishmael plays the Leaver. The narrator’s argument circles around the fact that the Leavers live at the mercy of the gods, and are no more important to them than any other animal is. On the other hand, a Taker lifestyle allows man to control his environment.

Finally, the narrator understands Ishmael's point - while Leavers will never amass more food than they need and are hence at the mercy of their environment, Takers can thwart the gods by collecting food that lets them survive difficult periods. Their lives are in their own hands. By extension, the narrator says, Takers will never feel entirely safe until they have taken control of the entire world from the gods.

Ishmael continues the argument, to suggest that the Takers have always perceived themselves as alienated from the gods. To appease them, the Takers once engaged in sacrifice, which they believed necessary because they had stolen dominion over life itself from the gods. But as time passed, and man gained more control over food production, he felt less inclined to honor the gods through sacrifice or anything else.

The narrator then articulates the source of Taker anxiety towards the pre-revolution way of life. Even if the facts suggest that Leavers live without the anxiety that plagues Taker civilization, Takers believe that living in the hands of the gods, as Leavers do, must be an unending nightmare. The revolution puts the Takers beyond the reach of the gods.

Ishmael and the narrator then conclude that the Takers are those who believe they know good and evil, and the Leavers are "those who live in the hands of the gods" (229).


Rachel Sokolow's death works as foreshadowing in this portion of the novel, since Ishmael will suffer her fate soon enough. Although she has been absent for most of the novel, it is clear that she was a major part of Ishmael's life, enabling his survival. This point reminds us that most of us rely on the goodwill of others to survive. By stressing the interconnectedness of people, Quinn implicitly reminds us that significant change requires us to help one another, rather than to work alone.

And yet, though he does not yet realize it, the narrator is too self-involved to realize what is happening to Ishmael. Though Quinn never explicitly states it, it seems clear that Rachel's death and Ishmael's ill-health are related. Because he is only focused on his own education, the narrator does not recognize what is happening. By the end of the novel, he realizes that this type of sensitivity is also important if we are to enact positive change.

Ishmael's new name at the carnival - Gargantua - is significant. This is the same name as the famous Ringling Brother's lowland gorilla, who was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Similarly to Ishmael, the original Gargantua died of pneumonia. Quinn enlists this device to accentuate a theme that runs throughout the book: humans keep making the same mistakes. Though Ishmael clearly represents a step forward in evolution, humans see in him nothing more than a sideshow entertainment. Even when the truth is right in front of our faces, we tend to choose destruction.

Through the discussion in this section, Quinn makes a fairly bold accusation. He essentially claims that evolution has stalled, if not stopped completely, due to the actions of the Takers. He blames this both on the reduction of diversity that we have engendered and on our ceded attempts to understand the best way to live. Instead, we have developed a calcified means of power and production that instruct us on everything.

This theory has a significant Marxist under-pinning. Though explicit political commentary is mostly absent from the novel, it is notable that Ishmael focuses on the work 'production' in explaining how the Takers live. Implicit in this depiction is a criticism of capitalist thought, which values production and commodity above all else. What is particularly bold about Quinn's formulation, however, is that these values are attacked not as a creation of post-Renaissance Europe, but as a shift that occurred with the agricultural revolution.

Wisdom is another big theme that Quinn tackles in this portion of the book. Early on, the narrator claims that there is no knowledge that cannot be found on the shelves of the library, and that he was foolish for once thinking it was otherwise. Here, though, Ishmael insists that the Leavers operate under a wisdom dating back to the birth of mankind. In a way, Ishmael proves the narrator's initial skepticism correct. As with many of Ishmael's lessons, this information is not anything the narrator is ignorant to. The lesson - that we live at the mercy of the gods (environment), and should determine how to make peace with that - is something we all instinctively know; we must simply change the way we look at the world in order to recognize it.

Ultimately, Ishmael's formulation of 'wisdom' involves a certain personal benefit for he who holds it. To understand this, it is useful to first recognize that what Ishmael calls "the gods" is basically the environment, the world that operates according to natural laws. Throughout the novel, he has indicated the value of a Leaver lifestyle by noting how much more at peace they are. They suffer less anxiety and depression than Takers do, and they are able to afford a life of significant leisure. Their wisdom allows them peace. In recognizing this, the narrator begins to realize the cost of the Taker lifestyle.

More specifically, the narrator's big realization is that aggressive agriculture allows humans the pretense of freedom from the gods, a freedom that should bring peace since we might avoid death or destruction at the hands of natural calamity. However, this freedom ironically traps us in many other ways. The perceived necessity of stockpiling food means we must always pursue money or capital in order to procure that food. Further, those who do not benefit from the arrangement - the homeless, for instance - are tortured by the pressure to compete in a system that they might be wiser to oppose. In other words, the Takers operate in a means totally opposed to wisdom. In trying to make ourselves superior to the gods, able to survive apart from their whims, we live a life of unceasing turmoil and struggle. We make life harder for ourselves, rather than finding peace in our relationship to the universe.