An Interpretive Sociological Analysis of the Book Ishmael

Ishmael Novel by Daniel Quinn

In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in the ideas of Daniel Quinn from his philosophical novel Ishmael. This essay will focus on a review of the book Ishmael in terms of conflict theory, structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism in the description of the Takers and Leavers, the term of Mother Culture, its operations functions, and symbolism. The stratification in relation to class, race, gender, and the sociology of religion are described in the essay. This paper gives a brief overview of various types of societies and post-industrial societies with quotations. Who knows better than a gorilla how to live in captivity – that is the main reason why Ishmael wants to help people to free themselves from the limitations of their own cells.

Ishmael Itself and His Theory and Studies

Ishmael is a philosophical novel with the elements of mythological thinking and Socratic ideas. The author describes two different kinds of cultures and calls them the Leavers and the Takers. In the book, Daniel Quinn presents philosophical ideas such as the beginning of life, the problem of the world, and evolution. Quinn offers non-standard ideas in the form of a myth with catastrophic consequences, which controverts widely accepted theories.

Quinn starts his novel with a newspaper headings “Teacher Seeks a Pupil to Save the World.” First of all, it is an absurd idea, non-standard and even comic. However, a student wishes to visit and looks at all the people who come to save the world. He describes them as two hundred noodleheads, gawkies, ninnyhammers, assorted oafs, and thickwits ready to turn over all their worldlies for the rare privilege of sitting at the feet of the guru (Quinn, Ishmael).

When a student meets a teacher for the first time, he is scared. Comparison of this creature with a sarsen of Stoneheng is the first sign of symbolism used by the author. This symbolic interactionism of gorilla is implemented to create special images for a reader and to pay reader’s attention to the teacher’s words rather than to his individual description. He cannot imagine that the master is a full-grown gorilla that communicates telepathically. The gorilla lives in the zoo until the very moment when Walter Sokolow, a rich businessman, migrates to the United States of America. He buys Goliath and learns about gorilla`s abilities to communicate with people through his mind. Walter is the first person who changes Goliath’s name to Ishmael. From this moment on, a master calls himself as Ishmael, and the author names his character Ishmael after Goliath represents himself as strong and intelligent with a great value of individual identity. Ishmael begins his full life only when he extricates from the zoo and physical captivity.

Ishmael believes that only a man is the climax of the whole cosmic creation drama of the Universe. Quinn shows that nothing in this world is accidental, and thus a person should only concentrate on his or her wishes and imagine them in the mind (Quinn, My Ishmael). He compares it as following: “when I’d had the silly notion that the thing I most wanted to do in the world was to find a teacher. That’s right. I imagined I wanted a teacher—needed a teacher.”

The Takers and the Leavers in Terms of Conflict Theory

The definitions of “the Takers” and “the Leavers” are used to describe people of modern culture and people of all other cultures (Noble). Take it or leave it – is the main slogan that pushes Ishmael to create these heavy connotations.

The Leavers are represented by the Alawa people from the Northen territory of Australia, the Navajo (a semi-autonomous Native American-governed territory), the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Bushem of Africa. The Takers are modern people who live in a civilized world. This book attempts to show that the Takers could destroy the world. Moreover, the Leavers are the only people who can create and move towards correct goals. The Leavers are characterized as the hunters and gatherers who decide to rule the world and take nature under control. In turn, the Takers do not know how to play by rules. However, it is critical for them to know especially the laws of living and the laws of competitions where people contend with each other for a full extent of their capabilities.

Nowadays, many people understand that something is going wrong, but they do not consider it in details. This concept is not new and it has recently been challenged by Demmers and O`Neil (Demmers and O`Neil). The first part of the book the best describes the mythology of the Takers, which is author`s and people’s own culture. There is no place for myth in the modern civilization; there is only place for logic and science.

Readers can notice the term “enact,” which is used to denote the striving to make something true and realistic. A “culture” means people who can enact the story. Captivity is a place where the gorilla has been raised. Thus, for him, it means the area of expertise, and he pushes his student to investigate this issue thoroughly. On the one hand, he remembers a different sort of life with a large amount of food everywhere. On the other hand, he remembers a life where everyone tried to prevent him from living in harmony, having made his life boring and unpleasant. The gorilla says, “I had no concept of myself as a captive; it didn’t occur to me that anyone was preventing me from having an interesting and pleasant life.” Therefore, a modern person has also the impression of being a captive due to enormous pressure of a high-speed world on all levels.

Mother Culture and Its Meaning

The book is full of allusions to the Bible. Mother Culture means a voice inside a student`s mind, which helps and explains many notions. It does not mean that a person would be given a detailed instruction of how things are accomplished the best. Information is presented partially like a mosaic, where a person assembles it from films, cartoons, books, and other similar sources. The sociology of religion comprises the following issues in the text: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Fall of Adam, and Genesis . For instance, the Tree of Knowledge represents the choice and responsibilities which a person could or could not bear. When this issue is transferred to the modern world, it could be compared with farmer’s work, when he or she decides which plant should be cultivated.

Fall of Adam is compared with the Semitic belief, presented in a mythical form, which deals with natural ecology, global warming, and mental illnesses. The main feature of the book is truly astonishing courage of thought that at the same time, has nothing to do with “the overthrow of ideals” and nihilism. It is a brave and honest dialogue between the protagonist and his teacher (despite the unusual way, the depth of these dialogues are not inferior to the ancient Greek philosophers’ conversations). The subjects of the questions are regardless of gender, age, and material wealth, and are about the feelings and ideas that life does not belong to people. Such perception brings people into a bondage system. Furthermore, the questions are about first promises of the prophets, kings, and then scientists about the “bright future” which will never come. The issues are about civilized existence, especially about people`s living like locusts, when they destroy everything available, including the resources, and fight with each other for oil (and in the future, possibly, for water or air). People hope that their children would live better than them, being observed as illusion. However, people have forgotten how to live in peace with their natural environment and themselves. The author gives neither the explanation of the phenomenon of universal civilization nor a detailed “recipe to save the world.”

Society and Sociological Problems

The sociological problem arises when a student and a teacher proceed to the notion of evolution and its problem. On the one hand, a man must be a person who rules the world; on the other hand, he always fails due to lack of knowledge. Ishmael supposes that the knowledge is unobtainable. Moreover, this theory belongs to the Takers. However, the Leavers support the idea of “Man belongs to the world”, especially it can be observed in agrarian societies, which help nature to grow and cultivate. Nowadays, people tend to think about the theory where the world belongs to people. This results in the appearance of hunter-gatherers that struggle to kill animals and force them to survive. After all, Ishmael discovers for his students who the Takers are and explains their immutable laws. One of the sociological concepts lies in the issue concerning life and biological community, being studied as a subject. Both of them learn that the Takers could survive even better in modern society; however, they must obey rules and have the corresponding strategies to survive. He interprets the theory of evolution and notices that only a man is the main subject of the conditions of evolution. Thus, the creation of the world was finished when the first man appeared. Therefore, a man is observed as an end product of creation, as a creature for whom God made the whole world, the Universe, and the entire Galaxy. However, it is not a new fact for society; almost every person knows that a man must be the most important creature for God (Toadvine).


Quinn gives an important system of thought, which has nothing to do with sectarianism or dogmatism, yet allows readers to build their own versions and find a way to rebuild their lives so that the destroyer of the world turns to its guardian (Quinn, My Ishmael). He criticizes not the people themselves, but the destructive human morality, which affects all forms of life on the planet. Exploring the origins of the civilization, Ishmael finds many examples of organic symbiosis of a man and nature. Nevertheless, Ishmael calls not for the return to the past but to the conscious rethinking of the modern world view. This book influences people`s mind, changing them like a very dramatic and exciting challenge, the challenge that the people`s future depends on. Ishmael is sure that Cain should not have killed Able in order to save the world.