Ishmael By Daniel Quinn Summary and Analysis Part 1: Sections 5-8

Summary

Ishmael becomes the young Rachel's mentor, and they form a strong bond as he's able to communicate with her telepathically as well. With his guidance and instruction, she excels in school. When her father dies, Rachel becomes Ishmael's guardian, much to the chagrin of her mother, who has always resented Ishmael's relationship with her husband and daughter. Rachel tries her best to provide Ishmael with a satisfactory life, but he's restless, wanting to share his knowledge and have influence over human behavior. He's able to find a way to live in the city and become a teacher, his key subject being the issue of captivity.

The narrator digests this information and shares his own past experience. He tells Ishmael he wrote a philosophy paper in which the Nazis had won World War II and taken over the world and wiped out all races besides the Aryan race, and in doing so, erased all history of a world in which other races even existed. In the narrator's paper, two Aryan students are talking and one of them says he feels like he's been lied to, but he's not sure what the lie is, nor can he know since all prior knowledge has been wiped out. The narrator says he feels this way, too. Ishmael sympathizes and says that, while it may not matter if one individual discovers the lie, it could change the world if the entire human population discovered the truth. He says no more and the narrator goes home for the evening.

The next day the narrator returns, both scared and excited, his passion for saving the world reignited.

Analysis

Through the form of the novel, the theme of captivity, and the use of foreshadowing, Quinn provides the groundwork to answer the novel's central question: why are things the way they are? First, as the narrator and Ishmael's relationship develops, it takes on the archetypal form of a teacher-student relationship. Quinn's use of this archetype alludes to other texts that use it, such as Plato's Socratic dialogues. Similar to Socrates, Ishmael uses rhetorical strategies, such as asking guiding questions and storytelling, to engage his pupil and help him discover various truths.

Ishmael's key subject is captivity. The theme of captivity is initially revealed through Ishmael's life story. Recall that, prior to his life as a teacher, Ishmael lived in a zoo, a traveling circus, and an airy gazebo. All three experiences shaped his thinking and helped him gain not only a stronger sense of self, but also a clearer understanding of the world around him. For example, at the zoo, he discovered that his "wild" life prior to the zoo was much more interesting and happy than his life in the zoo, causing him to wonder why such a change in circumstance occurred. Building on this discovery, while he was in the traveling circus, his relationship to humans changed. Whereas at the zoo, humans only talked to each other, at the circus they directly addressed him, causing him to see himself as an individual. Ishmael uses his experiences in captivity to comment on the human condition, suggesting that humans are captive to a "civilizational system" and are unable to see the "bars of the cage."

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