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 none 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 presented 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