Ishmael By Daniel Quinn Summary and Analysis Part 9: Sections 1-8

Summary

The narrator arrives at Ishmael's office to find him lounging on some cushions rather than semi-hidden behind the plane of glass that usually divides them. Ishmael begins the conversation by reviewing the timeline of human history. They arrive at the conclusion that the Taker culture took off with the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution and that it has been spreading ever since.

Ishmael explains that one of the basic stories the Takers tell about themselves and their formation remains mysterious to them because it's actually a story the Leavers told to explain the growth of the Takers. Ishmael tells a version of the story. He explains that the gods were arguing one day about how to run things on Earth — one god wanted to favor the locusts, while the other gods wanted to favor the grasses and so forth. The gods argue whether or not their job is to take action or to abstain from action. Eventually, they decide to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and in doing so gain the knowledge of who should live and who should die and then are able to perform their godly duties wisely.

Ishmael adds that when humans formed on Earth, the gods were worried again as they knew humans would be tempted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and if they did so, they would think they had gained the knowledge of the gods. However, because humans are not actually gods, it would be false knowledge that would give them a false sense of authority over the Earth. So the gods decided to forbid humans from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because such a power would result in humankind's eventual extinction.

The narrator is stunned and looks through Ishmael's bookshelves, consulting several different Bibles; none of them provide an explanation as to why eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden. So, Ishmael explains, the story has always remained mysterious to Takers as it doesn't make sense why it should be forbidden. However, when the story is analyzed from a Leaver perspective, it makes perfect sense. As Ishmael points out, if Takers had written it, it would have been an 'ascent' rather than a 'fall,' since they feel they have a right to act like gods on Earth. Thus, one of the fundamental problems with Takers is their stubborn adherence to the idea that their way of life is right and that it is their duty to impose it on everyone else.

Analysis

Through the use of storytelling and allusion, Quinn begins to explain Leaver culture and add further details to the comparison and contrast between Taker and Leaver cultures. Once again, storytelling proves to be an essential teaching strategy for Ishmael. In these sections, the basic story he tells explains the roles of gods and humans and the problems that occur when humans take on the role of the gods. Thus, the story's allegorical nature allows the narrator to understand more deeply the problems with Taker culture.

Recall that earlier, stories helped the narrator understand the rules of life and the importance of following those rules. This story builds on that knowledge by showing the narrator that Taker culture believes it has the right to disobey those rules because it has obtained the knowledge of the gods, which is the ability to determine what should live and what should die.

The second tool Quinn uses is an allusion to the biblical account of the fall of Adam and Eve. Quinn uses this allusion to connect the novel's central question (why things are the way they are) to one of the most influential texts in the world. To accomplish this, the main way Ishmael uses the allusion is to help the narrator see the Bible story in a different light. First, Ishmael helps the narrator see that no version of the Bible's telling of the story provides a reason for why the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is forbidden. Ishmael makes it clear why this is so: it's forbidden because the knowledge of the gods does not belong to any life-form on Earth; no creature has the right to decide what should live and what should die. Second, Ishmael reveals the roots of this story as one the Leavers told to explain the Takers. He does this by explicating why it's called The Fall rather than The Ascent: if Takers had originated this story, they would have said such knowledge was theirs and that obtaining it marked the rise, rather than the decline, of humankind.

Thus, through the use of story and allusion, Quinn begins to more deeply contrast Taker and Leaver culture. One of the key differences between the two is their cultural attitudes to the rest of life on the planet. For instance, Takers believe their cultural role is to expand and spread their way of life to others — as it's the "right" thing to do. Leavers believe everything has a right to live the way it prefers to — no single way is right for everyone, and everyone has a right to select their way as long as it doesn't infringe on others' right to life and food.

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