Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Parts Twelve and Thirteen


Part Twelve

The narrator offers to buy Ishmael from the gorilla's new owner, a short black man by the name of Art Owens. After bargaining, Owens offers to sell Ishmael for $2,200, and the narrator leaves to consider how he could raise that cash.

That night, the narrator bribes Ishmael's keeper to let him in after hours. Though Ishmael is tired and wants to wait until the next day to talk, the narrator reminds him that the next day is Saturday, and that the large crowds will prohibit much discussion. Ishmael agrees to continue.

After reiterating that the Takers are those who know good and evil and the Leavers are those who live in the hands of the gods, Ishmael asks the narrator what happens to Leavers that does not happen to Takers. After some thought, the narrator figures out that those who live in the hands of the gods continue to evolve, while the Takers do not. Man became man by living in the hands of the gods, evolving from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens sapiens, but have effectively removed themselves from natural selection, the evolutionary process, and creation itself.

From these discoveries, the narrator is able to articulate the competing premises of the respective stories. For the Takers, “the world belongs to man,” while for the Leavers, “man belongs to the world” (240). In other words, everything initially belonged to the world, and man evolved because he allowed the world to affect him. For those who accept the Leaver premise, "creation goes on forever" (240).

Ishmael then reminds the narrator of the fallacious Taker belief that they are the second chapter of mankind. As an alternative, Ishmael suggests that the Leaver story has its own second chapter. He points out that while the Leaver civilizations of Europe and Asia were conquered by the Takers there, many civilizations in North America, like many Native American groups, had started civilizations that could have been equally sophisticated as Taker civilizations had they been allowed to continue.

The narrator notes that Taker mythology would not allow this possibility, since it preaches that every civilization is ultimately a Taker civilization. Takers believe that there is no other way to become sophisticated outside of taking the world in one's own hands.

The narrator then asks Ishmael what it means to "belong to the world" at this point in history (245). Ishmael points out that being civilized does not require one to destroy the world, or make one incapable of living harmlessly. The only necessity of belonging to the world is that one follows the peacekeeping law by giving other species the chance to grow and prosper. Man ought to see civilization as a chance to be leaders in the community of life, not its only criminals and destroyers.

The narrator asks Ishmael what he is supposed to do now, how can he begin to save the world in earnest. Ishmael tells him: "Cain must stop murdering Abel" (248). In other words, though the Leavers provide the best alternative example to the Taker lifestyle, they are currently an endangered species. The Takers must endeavor to cherish, rather than destroy, them. Secondly, man must relinquish the idea that he knows who should live and die on the planet. In short, the narrator must spread these lessons onwards, teach as many people as possible in hopes that those students will pass the message along in turn. He must provide for others the counter-example of the Leavers, to ultimately give civilization a positive alternative that would justify the abandonment of the current Taker way of life.

Ishmael then changes the subject, and tells the narrator that one of his former students was an ex-convict. From that student, Ishmael learned that prison life is much like life on the outside. There are distinctions between rich and poor, and strong and weak, in prison. Ishmael makes the prison a metaphor for the world of the Takers, which has entrapped everyone inside of it. A well-run prison creates industry and social structure in order to keep its inmates busy and distracted, to limit the chance that prisoners will unite behind their lack of freedom and revolt. Similarly, Taker culture keeps us distracted with an industry that the narrator describes as the industry of “consuming the world” (252).

The difference between the literal and metaphoric prison, Ishmael offers, is that literal prisoners have no illusions about the fairness of their social system, while the Takers do not realize that the distribution of wealth and power has nothing to do with justice. In the larger, cultural prison, the white male inmates have wielded the power for thousands of years. Squabbles over equality within this cultural prison do not allow for survival; instead, our only chance for true equality and survival lies in destroying the prison. The narrator notes that the Taker obsession with wealth and power makes such a recognition nearly impossible.

Ishmael is exhausted. He admits that he has nothing more to teach the narrator, but would be pleased to count him as a friend. The narrator is devastated, but tells Ishmael that he will be back tomorrow.

Part Thirteen

Resolved to save Ishmael from the carnival, the narrator drives home to collect money to pay Art Owens. However, his car breaks down on the drive, which requires him to put it into a dealership for repairs.

He cannot afford both the repairs to his car and the price of Ishmael, so he rents a van to collect Ishmael. However, when he returns to the carnival site, he finds nothing but Ishmael’s blankets, books, and the poster from his office. The carnival has moved on, and the caretaker informs him that Ishmael died of pneumonia that morning. Unable to fathom what has happened, he takes Ishmael’s belongings and leaves.

After returning home, he calls Mr. Partridge with the news of Ishmael's passing. The butler seems affected, but suggests that Ishmael might never have allowed them to save him anyway.

In memoriam, the narrator brings Ishmael's poster to a framing shop, where he discovers that it has writing on both sides. The first is the side he first saw in the office, which reads:


The other side reads:



Arguably one of Quinn's most controversial metaphors, the Taker prison is a big theme. In effect, Ishmael argues that the ideas of injustice and inequality are distractions from the important issue. These constructs of fairness are meaningless, and keep us from enacting important change. These ideas of a 'spectacle' that distracts the common people from recognizing a truth are hardly new, but Quinn's contemporary analysis suggests that significant world problems - like racism, gender inequality, or national conflicts - ought to be ignored.

Of course, Quinn is not suggesting that all of humanity revert to the Stone Age. He simply calls for the reevaluation of the liberties that humans have taken over the course of the Taker reign. What Quinn does not identify in his analysis is a ruling power that manipulates us into distraction. Where usual theories of the 'spectacle' suggest that mankind is distracted so those in power can protect that power, Quinn suggests that the world's ruling power is the gods. The manipulator is Mother Culture, whom we have ourselves created and empowered until we not longer have control.

In making his points, it is relevant that Ishmael lives minimally. Even in his death, Ishmael's possessions can be carried under a single arm. The point is less that we ought to live with nothing and more that we must understand why we pursue what we pursue. Our unceasing collection of objects and status comes at a cost, not only to others, whom Taker culture squashes so production can continue, but also to ourselves, who end up imprisoned as described above. What matters is the natural laws of evolution and peacekeeping, and yet Taker culture has again stamped out an evolutionary adaptation by allowing this magnificently talented gorilla to die at the hands of simple pneumonia.

Ishmael's death has symbolic significance as well. In effect, the narrator is now the teacher, carrying the burden of spreading the gorilla's message. The larger point is that we all must bear responsibility for spreading the message if we want change to occur. There are no prophets who can shift humanity's perspective on a dime. It takes commitment and work from all of us.

It is telling that the narrator's first idea of saving Ishmael involves purchasing the gorilla. Despite all the lessons he has learned, he immediately thinks in terms of possessions, reflecting how difficult it is to break from under Mother Culture's dictums. And yet, if Ishmael's message is to spread, then the narrator must continue endeavoring to break out from this prison.

If man were to act as though he still “belonged to the world,” rather than acting as though the world belonged to him, many of the problems that Quinn addresses throughout the book would not exist. For example, society would not take irreplaceable resources from the Earth without fear of repercussions. Evolution would continue to occur, and new ways of surviving natural calamity would develop. In short, life would not be in peril, as it arguably is now.

At the very end of the novel, the narrator sees that Ishmael’s sign was two-sided, and the backside answers the question of the front's true meaning. What these questions say in conjunction is that life is dependent on life. The initial question merely suggests the import of environmentalism, but the two together tell us that we are all dependent on each other. Literally, it asks what this man (the narrator) will do without Ishmael, but figuratively, it asks what happens if we continue to see different types of life as superior or inferior to each other, rather than accepting that evolution relies on respect for all species.

Taken this way, one of the novel's strangest qualities makes sense. Ishmael has to be a gorilla for several reasons. Certainly, his perspective as an outsider allows him to see the nature of imprisonment more clearly than the narrator can. However, it also emphasizes the ultimate lesson: man must learn from the world, rather than forcing the world to learn from him. The lessons on how to live come from the community of life, not from our social constructs. We must listen to the gorillas if we are to survive, and hope in turn that the gorillas will listen to us.

Ultimately, the novel's structure provides a hint of optimism. The narrator is unnamed in the novel, but is identified as a writer. By extension, the work itself is proof that he has heard Ishmael's call, and is spreading the gorilla's message through his personal talents. He wrote this book to tell us about the lesson. And yet by leaving his own name out of the story, he is reminding us that we too are learning Ishmael's lesson, and hence have the responsibility to spread it in our own way. Only if we all follow the narrator's path in trying to open the eyes of others to the pernicious voice of Mother Culture do we have any hope for saving the world.