Free Essays brought to you by

Mistakes of Mankind Exposed in Quinn's Ishmael


        Most humans are confused. Some know what the problem is, but most

haven't even realized something is wrong. The novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

is an attempt to bring about awareness of the mistakes that people have

made and have continued to repeat through the course of human history. At

its core, the story has two main characters: a teacher and a student. The

teacher represents a solution to the destructive road that mankind has been

traveling down and the student represents us: eager to mend our ways but

apprehensive about the changes that will occur. The lesson of this book is

that each one of us can make changes that will directly enhance our

personal lives, and begin the great task of changing how all humans view

and live out their lives.


        The wise and almost omnipotent teacher that had the task of

changing the course of human history is, as one might imagine, a very

special person. He had been watching us for a long time and was ready to

share his knowledge of the human race and its inherent flaws. This "savior"

just happened to be a gorilla named Ishmael. It was for that reason that a

very special student was required to learn his lessons. "Teacher seeks

pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person"(4).

This rather awkward request appeared in the personals section of the

newspaper. Because the bulk of the novel is narrated through the first-

person perspective of the man who answers this ad and becomes the

enlightened student, the reader never learns his name. However, he/she is

exposed to many important aspects of the student and his motivations. One

learns that decades ago he had actually been looking for such a teacher

during the children's revolt of the sixties and seventies but finally

concluded that no ne existed and that the new era was never going to begin.

This realization had embittered him to the point that seeing such a blatant

ad (in the newspaper of all places!) after he had given up hope outraged

him. His motivation for answering the ad was actually a simple desire to

find out what crook was behind the outrageous request so that he could put

it out of mind.


        The meeting place for these two, as specified by the newspaper ad,

was an empty apartment. "The place reeked of the circus-no not the circus,

the menagerie; unmistakable but not unpleasant"(7). The right wall

contained a plate-glass window. "Because it was backed by darkness, the

glass in this window was black-opaque, reflective. I made no attempt to see

beyond it as I approached; I was a spectacle under observation. On arrival,

I continued to gaze into my own eyes for a moment, then rolled the focus

forward beyond the glass-and found myself looking into another pair of eyes"

(8). This description conveys the gripping mood that is present throughout

the novel. As the reader progresses through the story, the setting drifts

back and forth from Ishmael's personal history to the present. Ishmael has

been put in a wide variety of situations. He had been captured from the

wild, held captive in a zoo, been a side show at the carnival, and finally,

shown love and given a home. These past experiences are pre sented to the

reader as a way of explaining Ishmael's vast knowledge and as a way of

showing that he has personally experienced both the compassionate and cruel

sides of humans.


        Ishmael uses a sort of telepathy to communicate his teachings. He

forces his student to examine himself on a deep level and attempt to

explain why humans go on destroying the Earth day by day while they keep

themselves busy with other, insignificant issues. Through a series of

exercises, Ishmael gets his student to realize that everyone in today's

modern society has accepted and is behaving as if: "The world was made for

man, and man was made to rule it"(74). The point is even made that

basically all mainstream religions support the fact that creation ended

with humans and that there is no need for humans to make room for the

greater things that evolution could make possible. The idea that we might

not be the end of the evolutionary chain would be hard for many people to

accept, but imagine for a moment if the dinosaurs had thought it their

place to conquer the world and run it into the ground as humans are

currently doing. We would never have been given the chance to live. Might

we be doing the sa me to future inhabitants of our great world? Our

universe?* These tough questions force the type of revolutionary thinking

that Ishmael is meant to provide.


        Another milestone in the book is when Ishmael and his student

formulate the law of life: a law that dictates how ALL creatures must live

in order for the society of life to exist forever. He compares the modern

society that humans have built with the aircraft built by the early

aviation pioneers. Just as the inventor of the fist airplane had no idea

that his plane stood no chance of actually achieving flight until it hit

the ground, we cannot see that our modern civilization will inevitably

bring the potentially infinite cycle of life to a grinding halt until it

happens. "Trial and error isn't a bad way to learn how to build an aircraft,

but it can be a disastrous way to learn how to build a civilization"(112).


        This book has the potential to change the way people think about a

lot of things. It is impossible to deny that if humans continue to devour

the Earth's natural resources as we have been, we will kill off all living

things: including ourselves. Once this has been accepted, one must do

everything in one's power to spread this knowledge and help others correct

their destructive ways in order to live in accordance with nature and its

laws. The student in Ishmael was given this great task. He was alone in his

enlightenment and had a seemingly impossible task ahead of himself.

Hopefully each one of us who comes to accept this knowledge can help take

some of that load and do our part to ensure the existence of life on this

(not our) great planet. This doesn't mean that we have to go back to the

Stone Age; we just have to step aside and make room for life to keep



        I think that in a lot of ways, the character of Ishmael

represents a little voice that we all have in the back of our heads. Most

people, if asked, would agree that something is not right with how humans

are living, although many wouldn't be able to pin down exactly what is

wrong and how it should be fixed. It is always easier to ignore the little

nagging voice and decide we are too busy with other things than it is to

actually take responsibility for our actions and start making difficult,

but necessary, changes in our daily lives.


        Ishmael is a very powerful book that I would recommend to almost

everyone. In fact, I actually did make my mom and my girlfriend read it

because I thought it was so good. At times the plot line moves slowly and

tends to be redundant but the underlying theme is one of great importance

and is worth the slow process of getting there. As childish as it may sound,

each one of us can and must make changes in our own small lives in order to

make a difference.


Partner sites: Free Essays and Term Papers